A bust of Roman dictator Julius Caesar and a picture of actor Russell Crowe from the 2000 film "Gladiator"

A bust of Julius Caesar (Pixabay) and actor Russell Crowe in the 2000 film "Gladiator" (Britannica)

By Laine Cibulskis

As a young tween, life’s turbulence often led me to pick up my pen and write poetry. I was prolific. I filled journals upon journals and clogged my phone notes with words. I started performing, and got very comfortable telling my story lyrically.

Then I landed in journalism school at the University of Missouri, where I learned to tell other people’s stories, without the fluff and flair of creative writing. My main role as a beginning journalist is to provide information to the public, and let them decide for themselves what that information means to them. So my focus for now is on reporting and writing articles — pieces grounded and shaped by information. Along the way, I’m learning how to use more creative storytelling techniques in those pieces, but only when necessary and relevant.

Here are some of the main lessons I’ve picked up so far, from professors, editors and my own experience.

Know the difference between articles and stories

Articles help serve one of journalism’s main roles in democracy: that of the informer. Articles transfer knowledge to readers, and point the reader to what’s happening in the news.

As a reporter for the Columbia Missourian and KBIA this semester, I started building up my article writing muscles. On my general assignment shift, I try to answer these four essential questions my professor, Liz Brixey, emphasizes in our reporting and writing class:

  • What is my story about?
    • Keep your focus here. Fewer words are often better. Boiling it down to a central theme or idea can help narrow your focus.
  • Who do I need to talk with to answer what my story is about?
    • Make a list. Do some furious Google searches. What do you want to know and how might these people be able to provide an answer?
  • Do I need data to help explain this story? Research? Sources other than humans?
  • What else can help tell this story?
    • Always keep visuals in mind. Is there an opportunity for a photo or video piece to help bring the reader to a place? Is there an infographic that can help explain the situation? How about audio?

These questions can help keep articles clear and informative, and help writers keep focused on answering a central question. They also make journalistic writing easier over time: I’m better at tackling tough situations like suicides and executions, researching complicated topics like COVID statistics and environmental policy, and reaching out to people to help get information to the public.

That foundation remains crucial when you start venturing into the world of stories.

Stories give readers information and an experience. A story doesn’t just transfer knowledge: It serves to transform the reader by expanding their understanding of a situation or bringing them closer into someone else’s world.

Think about the difference between a documentary film on Roman history versus a movie like “Gladiator.” The documentary provides straightforward information: dates, names, places. Movies, like stories, give us characters, plot and conflict. Even if your journalistic story doesn’t involve watching Russell Crowe fighting in the colosseum, strong reporting can still bring any reader deep into a moment.

Your biggest ally is your notes

Note taking, at this point in my life and career, soothes me. Whether I’m in class, in a meeting or in the field, writing down information is both a necessary tool and an emotional comfort. Sometimes, the best thing a reporter can be is quiet, and notetaking helps with that. My professor says that even the strongest of memories are fainter than the lightest of ink. Give yourself the space to absorb the situation and melt into your notebook.

What to notice and write down?

  • The atmosphere at an event
  • What people are wearing
  • People’s mannerisms
  • The sound of the room
  • The sound of someone’s voice
  • The color of the walls

You probably get the gist: Make anything that you usually observe subconsciously conscious. Describing the scene with senses can help bring your reader there.

And as a radio journalist, I always have a recorder on me, which means I’m always listening for noise that can help bring a listener to where I am. What are the protestors shouting? Are there birds singing? How about the champagne popping at the election night watch party?

Help your sources help you

I’m learning that the power of journalistic writing isn’t necessarily about crafting the most beautifully constructed sentence; it’s about solid reporting and clear writing that can educate your reader, but that also has the ability to transport them to any place in the world, and help them understand the significance of that world.

That can feel overwhelming, especially on deadline. But I’m also learning that you have to do this on your own: Small questions to sources during an interview can help contextualize their experience beyond the basic facts. Examples:

  • What was the weather like that day?
  • Did you notice anything different about the people you interact with?
  • What did you eat for breakfast? What were you wearing?

One of my toughest assignments last semester was an audio profile of Richard, an elderly man, who found that art classes at the local arts alliance helped him build a community that supported him while his wife was in hospice care.

I was initially uncomfortable approaching sensitive emotional topics with Richard, but having two interviews really helped me narrow my story. I brainstormed with my instructor and she helped me find appropriate ways to ask questions that were at the heart of Richard’s experience.

  • Tell me about your wife.
  • How did you meet?
  • Where is your wife in the home?
  • Does she see your art when you come home?

Asking deeper questions helped me capture a story beyond a man sitting at a table painting a still life. I got a feel for the bond he and his wife shared, how her hair sparkled when they met, how she supervises Richard’s cooking skills from the living room, how she lights up when Richard shows her his art work, some of which now hangs on their walls.

I used sound to bring listeners right into the art classes, with the chatter of the community, the scratch of charcoal and Richard’s commentary while he sketches.

Less is more

With strong emotions like grief, love and outrage, less is more. Let your audience feel it for themselves. If you bring your reader into the room, you won’t have to spell out the situation to them. One saying that might be useful: “The hotter the story, the cooler the type.”

Sometimes stories might lead individuals to action, especially when there’s frustration or even outrage expressed. This is why your article basics are so essential: Making your story bulletproof means your audience has the right information they need if they decide act.

Never forget the foundations

Don’t think telling a story lets you forget the who, what, when, where, why and how. But you can report them in more expansive and creative ways than just-the-facts:

  • Who are my characters beyond their name and title?
  • What was the scene like? What action(s) happened?
  • Where do I want to bring my reader to let them experience the story?
  • When are these events happening? How will I help my audience move through time?
  • What’s the causal path that led to this moment? What motivated this?
  • How did this happen? What led to this situation? Are there unfamiliar or technical things I need to explain?

And never forget your nut graf, or your “so what?” What’s the relevance of this story to your audience? Why would it matter to them?

Here’s one example from earlier in the semester: Instead of telling my readers that a protest happened on campus in the afternoon, I told them that students stood out in freezing temperatures while their university was closed to protest administration. Though weather leads are usually clichés, in this case, it was a detail relevant to the story and a testament to the protestors’ dedication. I’d still consider the piece an article, but thinking like a storyteller helped add a touch of experience rather than just the cold, hard facts.

Another example of favorite storytelling is “His name was Emmett Till” by Wright Thompson. It includes minute details that would have passed by if you wern’t paying enough attention or taking enough notes, whether that’s during an interview or in a post-interview brain dump.

Like many stories from The Atlantic, the piece reads more like a novel than a news story. When Thompson visits Jeff Andrews on his property to visit the barn where Emmett Till was tortured, we know what Andrews is wearing, we hear the gravel crunching, we see the barn. The story uses time references to pull the reader to 1955 and back to the present. Readers might feel like they’re in Drew, Mississippi, where the barn is, or in Money, where 14-year-old Till was accused of making improper advances on a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, who was there, said that Till whistled at the woman. From the story:

Now the building is falling in on itself, overgrown with vines, ivy, and trees. In the owners’ desire for the store not to become a monument to a killing, it’s become something else: a monument to the desire, and ultimate failure, of white Mississippi to erase the stain of Till’s death.

The biggest takeaways

Ultimately, whether you’re reporting for an article or story, remember that people have many dimensions whose lives aren’t limited by the news situation they’re in. It’s our job as jouranlists to explain those dimensions in a way that’s relevant to the story and to the audience, whether you’re providing straightforward information or giving your reader a vicarious experience.

And although poetry isn’t my main gig anymore, I know that a keen eye and good questions can help you tell any story, whether that’s your own or a story of loss, love, and everything and anyone in-between.

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Laine Cibulskis is a student at the University of Missouri studying journalism and economics. She reports for KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate.

Further Reading