Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed . ~ 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, August 5, 2010

10 Commandments for writing people stories

Everyone has a story.

But not everyone can write his own story. That’s where you, the writer, come in. Following are 10 ways to craft your people stories like a pro.

1. Thou shalt do thy homework. Obtain background information on your subject and have a basic understanding of his area of expertise. Before interviewing a local man who helped develop NASA’s Landsat satellite, I learned all I could about it. This saved time and freed me to ask more personal questions, providing fresh material.

2. Thou shalt prepare thy questions beforehand. This gives purpose and direction to the interview, and saves time. But don’t limit yourself to the list, and do skip irrelevant questions.

3. Thou shalt dig deep. Get behind the eyeballs and into the heart of your subject. Ask “why” questions. An article, like a good soup, is only as good as the ingredients. You won’t use all the information, but getting more than you need will give you choice material.

4. Thou shalt listen carefully and follow your nose. When the subject says something intriguing, explore it. Don’t be afraid to go down a path that opens up. You never know when it’ll lead to a gold mine.

5. Thou shalt get a healthy dose of anecdotes. Stories show, don’t tell, and are more fun to read than exposition.

6. Thou shalt get an abundance of quotes. When writing the article, use quotes for the subject’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, and attitudes, not factual information. It’s OK to tweak the grammar—people don’t want to sound stupid—but don’t mess with the meaning. Never use “When asked, [subject] said . . .” Weave the information into the article seamlessly. And just use “said” for the attribution, not “stated,” “commented,” “replied,” or anything other than “said.”

7. Thou shalt start strong and end strong. What is the most intriguing thing about the subject? Which quote, story, or fact will hook the reader’s interest? Which will serve as a good takeaway?

8. Thou shalt keep thyself out of the article. No using first person pronouns unless in a quote, no referring to your reactions to the subject or what the subject said, no expressing your own opinions (editorializing). This isn’t about you. Let the subject speak. The message will come through loud and clear.

9. Thou shalt let the reader see and hear the subject. What was he wearing? What does she look like? How did he say that? What mannerisms did you observe?

10. Thou shalt provide accurate information. Check other sources and don’t be afraid to call the subject back to verify accuracy or meaning. No one likes to be misquoted or misrepresented. It’s your byline, and you want your name to be associated with honesty and integrity.

Well-written stories about people overcoming obstacles, beating the odds, and achieving their hearts’ desires are always in demand because they inspire, encourage, and give us hope that we, too, can do the same.

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