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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Think about voice with every story

By Tom Hallman Jr.

After three hours of writing and re-writing a section of a long narrative, I printed a copy and took it to another room to read. Within 15 paragraphs I was bored with my own work. The facts were there. So, too, the details. Missing, though, was my voice, which is what makes a story come alive.

I returned to the computer, going through my work once more to see how I could infuse life into the piece.

Using your voice can take a news item that could be a brief — just a few paragraphs — and turn it into a real “story.”

For example, in August I was asked to check out a report about an Amtrak train hitting some cattle in a remote section of Oregon. I called the rancher, learned about his operation and made the calls to the sheriff’s office and to Amtrak.

I could have written something like this: An Amtrak train on its way north struck and killed 24 cattle Saturday. No injuries were reported on board, and the train continued on its way after a delay of less than 30 minutes.

Who cares?

Here’s what I wrote:

The crime scene was horrific — 24 dead — and the sheriff's commander called out last Saturday to lead the investigation said that during his 18 years in the business he's never seen such carnage.

Now city folks — people who like their beef neatly wrapped and packaged or served on a sizzling plate at an upscale restaurant — may consider the victims to be "just cows."

But that's like coming upon a crash and calling a Ferrari "just a car."


Those are three paragraphs full of voice. That’s the reason it ended up on Page 1. The online version has — as I type these words — garnered 80 comments, the second highest count of the day.

The new mantra in the business is aggregating — gathering of stories together in one place to attract readers to the website. But as a writer it’s also your responsibility to aggregate. You take this and that and filter and find meaning for the reader.

Until I wrote this story about the Amtrak collision, I knew nothing about cattle, not even the difference between a cow, a steer and a bull. But in talking to the rancher, him serving as my teacher, I realized these were valuable animals. I had to find a way to get that across to readers — many like me — who know little about the cattle industry.

My voice — a blend of suspense (playing off the 24 dead), humor (the city folks line) and meaning (likening the cattle to a Ferrari) — sets the tone for the story that follows.

So where do you start?

Voice begins with confidence. You’ve done the reporting, now think like a storyteller. Does the issue present an opportunity to tell a story, not just turn out a standard news report? Then go for it. Writing from a template is fine when you’re handling the most routine stories.

Allow yourself to fail. While writing and polishing, have fun, play with words. Get excited. This isn’t the time to write the story the way it’s been done over and over. You can always tone things down, but it’s harder to put voice in during the later stages of writing.

Use your editor: I wrote the first three paragraphs of the story and showed it to my editor, telling him I wanted to have fun. He chuckled, told me it looked good and to keep going. That gave me the confidence to move forward.

It also allowed my editor to know what to expect, and to pitch the story during the news meeting so there were no surprises when I turned in the story. It’s difficult for editors to get hit with a voice-filled story at 5 p.m. when they have no idea it’s coming.

A second editor was actually the line editor. But because she knew what to expect, she read my story with an eye to keeping my voice intact. She did, becoming a story editor, not only a line editor. She also reeled me in a bit, telling me to cut out a couple of phrases that were clichés. I agreed with her.

Look for future opportunities: When I work with young reporters, I find too many of them think only of narrative, writing and storytelling when they get the opportunity to work on a project, or they have a couple of weeks to spend on a story.

That’s foolish. I reported and wrote the cattle story in a few hours.

If you start to think about voice with every story — and remember that not every story deserves that full treatment — you will see opportunities that other writers miss. You will also become more comfortable using voice so when you do get the big story, you’ll have a better sense of what you are doing and why.

On another matter: I attempted this in the past but dropped the ball. I’d like to find a young reporter who wants to attempt a first narrative. We’d work together — covering reporting, structuring and editing — and then I’d write a couple of columns about the experience and what other reporters can learn from it.

If you are interested, contact me at tbhbook@aol.com.

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