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Timelines & Workflows for Narrative Projects

To develop a workflow and estimate a timeline for your project, think through the requirements for each stage of your project.

Published onMar 06, 2020
Timelines & Workflows for Narrative Projects

To develop a workflow and estimate a timeline for your project, think through the requirements for each stage of your project.


Figure out the workflow first. There may be parts of your project that can proceed at the same time, and that will save you time overall. You can design the workflow by walking through each stage of the project, thinking about what inputs you need to do that stage and what outputs you want to get from it.

A workflow for a story map might look like this:

  1. Gather source material (text content & images for your project)

  2. Decide on the geographic area you need to show and where the story starts

  3. Choose a story map tool like StoryMapJS or ArcGIS Story Maps and choose a template or style to use in that tool

  4. If needed, view tutorials or guides about building a map in that tool

  5. Make a storyboard that outlines your narrative and shows what locations, text, and images you will use at each point

  6. Find or create any material you need to fill gaps in your story

  7. Start building your story map

  8. Edit the map

  9. Share the map through the tool’s website or by embedding it on your own site

  10. Archive the materials and documentation you created in steps 1-9

Most of these steps occur in order, though you might go back and forth among them several times, especially steps 3, 4, and 5. You also might realize you’re missing something when you build or edit your project and then need to go back to stage 6. However, having this workflow will help you know where to start and make sure you don’t just jump in at stage 7 and then realize, after you’ve put in a lot of time, that you would have been better off using a different tool. The workflow for creating a guided timeline would be very similar.

For a video project, the workflow might look a little different, but it will still have similar phases in which you gather materials, draft an outline, choose tools, create a more specific storyboard with the available tools and resources in mind, build the project, edit it, and share it. With projects like video or audio presentations, where you may spend a lot of time creating new content through filming or recording, it is especially important to do the storyboard or outline early. If you don’t, you can waste a lot of time filming something you don’t use, or you might interview someone and then later wish you had asked some additional questions.

When you have a sample workflow, start listing the tools or resources you will need for each step, and the expertise or additional labor you might need. The original workflow draft helped you explain what you will do in each step; this amended workflow tells you how to accomplish it, which is necessary to figure out your timeline.

Estimating Timelines

Workflows for narrative projects are difficult to estimate, because there are so many factors at play, from the narrative format to the length of the project. A story map might take an hour or two, especially if you’re very familiar with the content and already have all the media you need; a documentary video might take years.

The things that affect the timeline most are:

  • How clear you are about your vision for the project. If you know exactly what you want to do, and you have a good sense of the narrative arc and the final format, you will not need to spend as long exploring the options and trying out approaches.

  • How much content you have already gathered when you begin, and how close this content is to the form you will use it in for the narrative. If you need to find photos, secure rights, edit maps, or create data visualizations, you will need more time.

  • The complexity of the tools you use and how familiar you are with them when you start. If you’re using an unfamiliar tool, you will need time to watch/read tutorials and experiment, but you’ll also spend longer just figuring out what you can do with the tool. Looking at other projects made in a given tool (try looking for a gallery on the tool’s website) can give you a sense of the tool’s possibilities and parameters. If there are available templates, using those instead of trying to do something custom will save you a lot of time.

  • How many different tools or platforms you’re using. More tools require you to learn more skills, but even if you already use several of them, you can run into problems when you try to combine the output from one tool with another. For example, you may find that you need to use particular file formats, or that a certain program crashes if you use large media files, or that lining up your audio with video can be very time-consuming.

  • How continuously you can work on the project. Breaks and gaps require you to review your work more, so working on your project regularly will save you time on the project overall.

  • How many people are involved. More people can speed up the project, because they can specialize in particular skills that you don’t have, and because you can sometimes have multiple aspects of the project being developed at once. However, you will also spend longer explaining ideas, discussing options, and (especially if you are working with collaborators instead of hiring help) disagreeing about approaches and interpretations. You can minimize this issue by taking time at the beginning to set out each person’s roles, deciding who will make final decisions, and setting clear expectations about documentation and communication so that all team members know what’s going on.

  • How long the final project is expected to be. Longer projects take longer at every phase: longer to gather material, longer to write and edit content, longer to build a storyboard and create each phase, longer to construct, and longer to edit. They also tend to be longer because of greater complexity: you are more likely to use a variety of tools and media types, so you might need to learn to make maps and animations and edit audio, all for the same project.

These considerations are especially important to keep in mind if you are on a strict deadline, like if you are developing an assignment for students to complete during a semester. Short projects, with clear goals and minimal choices about tools and artistic vision, will generally be the fastest to create. Limiting the kinds of media involved will also lead to shorter projects: a video created with a sequence of still images and a recorded voiceover audio track will be much faster to make than a video of the same length that incorporates multiple film clips, animated diagrams, sound effects, or other features. These features, of course, are often desirable to tell a better story, but they always add time to learn, execute, and edit.

None of this tells you how long a project will take! There are just too many variables involved. You can, however, estimate some phases by doing test runs of some elements (say, making one map if you’re using multiple ones, or building a 30 second video that uses placeholder content). These test runs can also be a good way to learn to use special equipment or applications without getting distracted by the stylistic or content choices you will be making for your main project.

Continue Reading: Teams & Expertise for Narrative Projects

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