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Home > Publications > Quill > Take a risk with everyday assignments


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Take a risk with everyday assignments

by Tom Hallman Jr.

The message appeared on my computer screen one afternoon: Looking for a volunteer.

This type of request can often make reporters get up from their desks and become scarce. My editor was looking for someone to cover the city’s yearly children’s parade.

On the surface, that’s not exactly fertile territory for feature writing, definitely not the type of story that’s going to win awards. Yet I was intrigued by the personal challenge of covering something we’ve always covered, and trying to do it in a way that would make me grow as a writer. So I swiveled in my chair and told my editor that I’d tackle the assignment.

Taking a risk is something that I recommend. Great writing comes from a willingness to take a risk. Some of the best opportunities to take a chance are on stories that are routine, or otherwise ignored by reporters on the hunt for the so-called “big” story.

Every story gives a writer a chance to try new techniques at each stage of the process: thinking, reporting, structuring and writing. It’s a good habit to start.

A few years ago, I won the Scripps Howard Ernie Pyle feature-writing award. Two of the stories in the package were from weekend assignments, both stories that could have been kissed off. The writing didn’t make the stories winners; it was the thinking behind the story.

Risk taking starts not with the writing, or reporting, but with the thinking: What’s this story about?

If you aren’t actively looking for the story’s meaning, you won’t find it in your reporting, and certainly not when you sit in front of the computer and start to write. By then, it’s too late.

Start asking yourself that question early on in the story-telling process. It’s a question few reporters consider. We latch onto the news or the event, and then build a story around that. That’s why so many of us fall into a rut with our writing. Risk taking means stepping back and interviewing yourself, looking for the heart of the story.

As I drove to the neighborhood where the kids assembled, I asked myself, “What is this story about? “What is this parade really about, and what does it mean?” I wandered around the neighborhood, watched kids and parents and talked to people. I wasn’t looking for quotes, but the answer to my question. Soon I had my answer. That became the opening of the story and guided my reporting and structuring.

For a moment Wednesday, it seemed as if the world stopped. Most of the time, life is little more than a blur. And then something comes along that makes everyone slow down, pause and declare that this is how it should be all the time.

It never lasts.

Maybe that’s what makes it precious.

That moment Wednesday was a parade, just a corny small-town gathering called the Junior Rose Parade that starts along Northeast Sandy Boulevard and winds through the Hollywood District. It’s been going on 70 years and features thousands of kids. They get out of school. They decorate bikes with flowers, make floats out of wagons and wear costumes. Middle-school bands provide the music. Spectators — often men and women who take a long lunch hour to be with their children — line the streets.

But Wednesday, in that little section of Portland, time stopped.

The rest of the world — sad to say — carried on as usual.

BLOOMFIELD, Conn. (AP) — Police say a 15-year-old girl who disappeared nearly a year ago has been found alive in a hidden room in a man’s home.

That AP lead isn’t a mistake. I used that as a section break, and had two more such breaks throughout the story.

When I got back to my desk, I searched the wires and pulled “bad” news that was breaking during the time I was out at the parade site. After the first break, I used this as a transition to get back to the story and let readers know where I was taking them. I wanted to contrast two worlds.

They found the girl about the time people began gathering for the parade, which organizers say attracts about 10,000 people and is the largest and oldest children’s parade in the country.

Even so, it’s a low-key event. The kids gather on side streets where neighbors sit on front porches and watch. They practice routines one final time, working on keeping the cheers tight. They compare costumes or just fool around, the boys trying to show off for the girls, who look but don’t let on that they’re all that impressed...

Was it worth the risk?

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Quill
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