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When nothing you write seems good enough

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Smash Williams, May 28, 2008.

  1. Smash Williams

    Smash Williams Well-Known Member

    I have the best type of problem - a story that is so compelling nothing I write seems to be good enough to tell it.

    In a nutshell, an area high school athlete fell off his roof in early March, hit his head and lost the last three years of memories. He's slowly recovered a good portion of those memories, returned to school and will graduate on Saturday, was cleared to return to sports and will sign a soccer scholarship at a semi-local DII school on Sunday.

    I sat down with him and his mom for two-and-a-half hours today and got fantastic, candid interviews about the kid's personal history, the accident and the recovery. It's a hell of a story even if he didn't get the scholarship and both gave great quotes that will give the story humor and a heart.

    But everything I write, especially for the top of the story, feels cliche and forced. I've written five separate ledes and deleted each one. I'm marginally happy with my sixth, but it still doesn't thrill me. I think the fact that both the kid and his mom were so open and candid is making it harder at this point - it's an incredible story and I want to do it justice. I'm nearly positive I've reached the dreaded point of thinking too much when I should just write what happened, but I can't snap out of it.

    To be fair, I still have two more interviews (the kid's high school soccer coach for more color and a local neurologist for expertise on amnesia), but they won't play into the meat of the story. The real saving grace is it's not due for a few days, so I have several nights to lose sleep over it.

    Have any of you had stories like this? What do you do when you feel the story is phenomenal but your ability to succinctly put it into words is not?
  2. KYSportsWriter

    KYSportsWriter Well-Known Member

    had two features that were tough to write last spring. one was about a kid who lost his dad to cancer before the season and the other was about a kid whose mom escaped a violent relationship. i struggled with both, but i just started writing and got them finished. my advice is to just let everything flow.
  3. apeman33

    apeman33 Well-Known Member

    Exactly. Sometimes, you try to be so fine it drives you nuts. I've had it happen to me on features and gamers. Usually, I end up saying "Hell with it" and just delve straight into the story, eschewing what you were/I was hoping for, the awesome lead, and just saying "Here's what we've got." Besides, maybe you can come back after you've done the rest and then write your lead. It's worked out that way for me a couple of times.

    If you do your own headlines, try to make that the compelling part. The reader will already be drawn in and want to see what happened. Then cover the basics with your lead.
  4. chigurdaddy

    chigurdaddy Guest

    Hats off to you for recognizing great story and endeavoring to do it justice. My best advice is when you have a feel-good story like that, you're afforded the luxury of a detached tone. Take advantage of it. It keeps the narrative real, and allows you to get out of the way and keep it real. Let the story tell itself. It'll make people cry.
    I think these stories are challenging because as sportswriters we're in the business of BSing so many stories that really aren't remarkable at all (where we have to sex it up to make it interesting), we're just not used to getting out of the way when a story that's actually remarkable comes along. Good luck, and hope you post it on this thread.
  5. Smash Williams

    Smash Williams Well-Known Member

    I'll probably post it on Writer's Workshop sometime tomorrow. I still hate parts of it, but I'm at least getting some of it on paper now. Perhaps I'll find it more acceptable once I sleep on it.

    This sucker is going to be long. Good, but long.
  6. When you get stuck like this, there's an easy formula to kickstart the process:


    Action, Backstory, Conflict, Climax, Denouement, Ending

    This so lends itself to chronological treatment, it almost seems too easy, I'm sure. I think we make it hard on ourselves sometimes.

    Don't worry about a clever or deep lede. Give people some action without much context - whether it's the accident itself or something in the aftermath with him struggling.

    Find Eli Saslow's story from Washington Post magazine last year about a high school football player who went through something similar for an example on how to structure this type of piece.
  7. TrooperBari

    TrooperBari Active Member

    Bookmarked. Thanks, Waylon.
  8. shockey

    shockey Active Member

    i feel for you. it happened to me once in 28 years. i was too close to a story and the subject, had unique access, tremendous quotes, too many voices (it seemed). story almost broke me.

    when the stuffs that good, take a bunch of deep breaths. walk around the block a few times. then do your darndest to just tell the story straight. you don't have to write it like gary smith. just tell the story.

    easier said than done, i know. another example of how NO STORY WRITES ITSELF!!

    looking back, that story that almost broke me ultimately turned out fine. yeah, certainly not the best-written piece i've ever done, but the story was more than compelling enough to carry the day.

    from the feedback i received, it clearly was as compelling as i thought. the writing was irrelevant. the details and anecdotes were what people remember, not the prose.
  9. silentbob

    silentbob Member

    1) Figure out how you want the story to end. What's your closing scene? What's the final quote? How do you want the reader to feel at that point?

    2) Now you have a destination. Your next task is getting to it. Where does the story start? The accident? A breakthrough in his memory?

    3) Outline. Make it as detailed as you need. Identify plotpoints that keep the reader moving toward the destiatnation ... keep doing this until you get to your ending. Now you have a road map.

    4) Do any of those main points need developed? Should you make a couple more calls? Do you have the details needed to support those major points?

    5) Write.

    6) Don't edit. Don't worry about length.

    7) Once you're finished, get away. If you have time, put the story to rest for a day or longer. If not, go work out, drink a beer. Play with the kids.

    8) Read the story.

    9) Identify the holes, wordiness.

    10) Rewrite and polish.
  10. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Just breathe.
  11. dixiehack

    dixiehack Well-Known Member

    Is your editor and desk on board? You want to make sure this gets the proper placement, design, photos, even graphics if needed.
  12. Smash Williams

    Smash Williams Well-Known Member

    You know a story is in your head when you get up three hours early just to work on it.

    dixie - My editor is on board as much he ever is. It's going to be sports centerpiece on Monday. Photo knows to look for file of this kid. Most design at our paper is pretty straightforward, even for big stories.

    Thanks everyone for the advice, especially Waylon for the formula and the reference back to the Post story. I read it when it came out and had forgotten all about it. It's 1,300 words right with markers in place of the quotes and a section and a half left to write. But it's a story that I think becomes better with length and additional detail and anecdotes.

    My editor is going to shoot me when I file this, but I like the story so much I don't really care.
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