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When a feature story turns very serious

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by TyWebb, Apr 19, 2008.

  1. TyWebb

    TyWebb Well-Known Member

    I sit here completely intimidated by an assignment for the first time in my young career.

    It started out as a fairly simple feature. A local baseball coach's son was born four months premature. Once the season started, he was spending the morning with his son at the hospital, teaching, going to practice or a game, then back to the hosptial. Interesting story, I thought.

    Once the story got going, however, I found out that the son was due to go home for the first time the next week. Not wanting to miss that part, we hold the story. A photographer and I follow this family step for step the next week as they prepare and bring their son home. Interesting story turned emotional/enterprise piece that got moved to A1 in the next Sunday edition.

    Then, not 24 hours after the kid is brought home, he stops breathing. The parents perform CPR and take him back to the hospital. The outlook is beyond bleak. The doctors give him 48 hours and the parents are just trying to enjoy their last moments with the kid.

    I'm ready to scrap the story, but the coach still wants it written. After talking it over with the news editor and photog, we decide to wait it out, for either the kid to stabilize or ... sigh ... pass away.

    Basically, my story about a coach turned into a story about the life and death of a child and the crushed family. I can't help but think this is beyond my realm of expertise. I'm 25, close to 26, and I've never had an assignment like this. Just thinking about what I could possibly write to do this story justice brings tears to my eyes.

    Have any of you had to write something so heavy? How do you emotionally detach yourself? How do you convince yourself that you are good enough to do an amazing and tragic story justice?
  2. Take a deep breath. Forget everything and just write. Free write. Just tell the story. Don't worry about cliches. Don't worry about length. Just let it flow out of you.

    A story like that tells itself, you just have to let it. As long as you're honest about every word and not editing yourself, it will be easier than you ever imagined.

    Feel free to pm me if you need any thing more.
  3. 2muchcoffeeman

    2muchcoffeeman Active Member

    I don't think I could emotionally detach myself. And honestly, I'm not sure I would try. It's not a straight news story.

    Use the emotion you're feeling. Make the reader feel the same thing.
  4. During the first Gulf War, I had to call family members of those killed in action to write bio pieces. Toughest thing I ever did in the biz. This is what I gleaned:

    Remain objective, but don't become part of the story. Be the proverbial fly on the wall. You're getting great access, and they want you to do the story, but be unobtrusive.

    Write simply, and don't set out to write a tearjerker. The facts will carry this for you. I would suggest, for clarity's sake, a simple chronological pace, maybe accompanied by a timeline. His birth, jump ahead to his death or hopefully his recovery, then go back and fill in the interlude.

    Your paper has a lot riding on it too, so avail yourself of editing help and suggestions. Hope this helps, and good luck.
  5. rpmmutant

    rpmmutant Member

    As hard as it might be, start writing from scratch. Don't ditch everything you've written, but clean your slate. You have a great story with people who want you to tell it. Your job now is to tell the story, simply, truthfully, passionately and completely. Don't get fancy but tell the story.
  6. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member


    This could be a great, special and different kind of story -- no matter which way it turns out, and it could happen almost without you even trying.

    If you walk away from it, the world won't end. But you'll never forget, either, and you may kick yourself forever.

    These are the kinds of situations and stories that have the potential to mark turning points in careers. That's partly why you feel outside your comfort zone.

    But the coach sounds like he's willing and trusting you to do it, no matter what. This is invaluable -- special, even -- and doesn't happen very often. Don't question it, just consider it a privilege, and do it. You'll be happier with yourself for even trying, regardless of how the story turns out, than you will if you just leave it undone.

    I know you're probably not thinking necessarily of the story, but rather, the things that are more important in the big scheme of things.

    But consider these to be lives that you're being welcomed into (you are, after all), and think of this access as a gift, one the likes of which you possibly may never be allowed again under such circumstances.

    Because that's what they are, and if you treat them as such -- staying genuine, honest and up-front in your interviewing and writing -- you won't go wrong.

    Perhaps the coach knows and trusts that.

    You should take that as a compliment and do the same.
  7. Some Guy

    Some Guy Active Member

    I agree with what W_B said. Just get something down on paper.

    Hell, what you wrote in your post here is a good start. Sometimes, the drama just sells itself.
  8. Dale Cooper

    Dale Cooper Member

    To build off some of the other comments: by letting the story tell itself, you don't have to worry about how big the situation is, or if your experience has prepared you to fully comprehend it. To borrow from one of the worst sports cliches: The story is what it is. If you lay it all out and just write what happened, the story will be as powerful as it should be.
  9. spnited

    spnited Active Member


    You don't have to convince yourself you're good eough to do this story. You don't have to totally detach yourself.
    What you have to do, as write-brained said, is let the story tell itself and let your emotional attachment to it flow wherever it goes.
    Do not approach it as trying to write a great story or trying to do justice to this story. Look at it as writing a human story.
    You have great access to a parent who wants to tell HIS story. You have great background based on the "positive" story you thought you were going to write.
    If you simply tell the story, let the coach express his emotions, let him trust you and write it from what you feel -- without injecting yourself into the story -- you'll be fine.
    The fact that you have these concerns about doing it right tells me you will do it right.
  10. SoCalDude

    SoCalDude Active Member

    Let the coach tell the story. Lots of quotes, descriptions of his emotions while he is talking. Same with the wife if she is willing.
    I once found out that a coach I covered, his daughter died from anorexia nervosa. She had just turned 20. I had met her a few times.
    I passed word through the SID that I wanted to do the story, but only when the coach felt comfortable. I sat on it 4-5 months, then the SID called me and said, coach is ready. We did it in his office 2 hours before media day the next season. My boss wanted the story that night. I told him I couldn't write it that night, but would the next day. I needed overnight to let it all sink in and turn off my emotions.
  11. IGotQuestions

    IGotQuestions Member

    The WORST thing you can do is try to craft every sentence just so. Like the others have said, resist that and just write, then sit down with the best writer/editor you can find who's willing to help and be straight forward in their criticsim as you edit/rewrite/reorganize portions.
  12. I don't agree with this part at all, and neither would most writing coaches. It's not good writing. Kind of hacky, actually. You're the writer. The coach is not. Yes, use some quotes when they advance the piece. The shortest, punchiest ones. But write the story - not a Q-and-A. And if your writing is solid enough, you won't have to "describe his emotion." It will be extremely, extremely clear. Describing emotion, for the most part, is a tool for an insecure wordsmith. I think Toni Morrison was the one who said that if a character cries on the page, the reader won't.
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