Do You Have to Be Creative to Tell a Story? (Answer: No)


Here’s a trick from one of the best feature writers in the newspaper business on how to be creative.

Don’t sweat it.

“The people who rely on divine inspiration to carry them from interview to interview, from sentence to sentence, usually turn in gibberish or are found sitting, stumped … long after the planners go home.”

That’s from William Blundell, one of the best feature writers for Wall Street Journal. He wrote a guide to feature writing in the 1980s that is as valuable in today’s fractured media world as during Reagan’s presidency, based on the Journal’s fabulous news features.

So, creativity? Don’t force it.

Instead, think through the information you need and make sure you have it and are prepared, and understand the basics of what makes a story interesting.

Here’s an example from the Minneapolis Police Department.

Like police forces across the country, civil rights activists questioned the number of arrests of minorities by the department. The result is this story about a study conducted by the police about problems faced by minorities and poorer residents.

What’s good about the story? The police department answered questions.

Why: Many criminal violations are for not having licenses or insurance after being pulled over for a traffic violation.

Impact: Poorer residents enter a downward spiral caused by fines, penalties and punishments escalate rapidly. Police resources are spent on minor violations.

What’s going to happen: The police chief solicited ideas, such as offering driving programs as an alternative to tickets and fines.

Let’s circle back to Blundell’s feature writing book with another excellent example of how you can do that, based on how the arc of a news story develops. (In a nutshell, the arc is: Something happens, somebody is affected, they react).

Here it is, based on the 1980s energy boom:

First stage: The energy boom has brought prosperity and growth to small towns throughout the west.

Second stage: The impact. Money good. Overburdened roads, drinking water systems and sewage treatment, crime, crowded schools, bad.

Third stage: Countermoves (solutions). This time, towns and stages were charging companies money up front or using creative financing to build for the boom. Some companies were giving grants because they realized it was easier to get and keep workers if living conditions are better.

“The inescapable conclusion: This boom would cause far less damage than those before it, an important thing for the reader to know,” Blundell wrote.

Blundell’s advice to reporters is valuable to government communicators, too. In the heat of frenzied media coverage, problems aren’t the only newsworthy topic out there. Somewhere in the underbrush, there’s a story about solutions or people working on solutions. There’s no need to wait for an enterprising reporter to dredge that story up — we can help them find it.

Blundell’s guide to feature writing, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, has stood the test of time, in my opinion. It’s still available.

Craig Lincoln is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Olivia Jefferson

Great post Craig! I think it’s so easy to get bogged down in the creative process and focus on negative aspects of stories. Your feature writing structure tips really trim information to its most important base elements and manage to find a positive spin.

Kristin Markham

Really interesting post! Too often stories are forced and lack any substance. Focus on the point of the story and why readers should be interested in the topic.