(Originally posted July 6, 2010)
A former newspaper publisher with a background as a reporter and editor has a common complaint about a recent story on an emotional meeting he attended: The reporter’s account of the meeting was dry as dirt. He doesn’t link to the story or identify the newspaper, so we can’t tell exactly how much the story failed to capture the meeting, but what he describes is absolutely commonplace, and not just in stories about meetings. Just last week, while thumbing through a stack of various MG papers, I saw a story about a public hearing on a topic that was stirring local residents’ emotions. At least, that was implied. The story did not show that. There was nothing to provide a reader the sense of what it was like to be in that room. Not only that, all the highest quotes in the story came from elected officials. Members of the public, the majority of those who spoke at the hearing, were relegated to the bottom of the story.
One of the important things any story should do is answer the question “What was it like?” (or, if the story is about a person, “What is he/she like?”), and one of the cardinal rules about stories that involve regular people to get the regular people high up and the talking heads (politicians, or anyone likely to talk at length without saying anything, or anything that isn’t predictable) down low, or out entirely. As writing coaches often say, how would you tell the story in person to your mother, or a friend? If you think about your story like that, you’re less likely to fall into a formulaic, official-sounding presentation.