Journalists who have been in the profession for a while know that sometimes the best stories are the ones that write themselves.
Whether it is a “hard news” story like a fire or a shooting or an action by the city council, or a feature story like the one I penned last week about 13-year-old Jack McGraw's first touchdown, in my view, the tale always is best when it tells itself. It is the story that gels in your mind before you even sit down at a computer to write it, and when you do begin, there are few if any pauses to agonize over this or that word.
I am not talking about formula writing — that’s when a reporter uses a predetermined story structure to tell the tale. The words may vary from story to story, but the structure does not and becomes predictable. I once edited for a features writer well-known for formula writing, particularly with personality profiles. I soon realized that in each of his stories, without fail, that in the sixth paragraph, the subject would pause to sip his/her coffee or take a drag from a cigarette while shifting in his/her chair, whether said chair was in the individual’s home, office or at the local coffee shop.
Unless the subject is compelling, however, formula writing tends toward the bland and predictable. Still, it can be a great tool for kicking out a story in a short time, particularly when you’re talking about breaking news. The basic information — the who, what, when, where and how — needs to get out to readers quickly so that they know, for example, that Route 25 traffic is worse than usual because of a gas main break. It’s simple information that cuts to the chase — conveyed clearly, concisely and quickly.
Elements sometimes come into play, however, that can take a straightforward news story to a higher level: A detail or fact the writer observes while gathering the information, the compelling remarks of a witness or key player(s) in the event. A writer’s own interests or passions also can provide a depth of knowledge beforehand that gives the author a perspective and context which others lack and add to the impact of the written word. It also can simplify the story-writing process.
Still, there are times when little of that matters. The story simply unfolds in the writer’s mind.
That is what happened last Tuesday night when I sat down to write the piece about Jack McGraw after I covered the St. Charles Community Unit School District 303 Board of Education meeting. The words just flowed.
Prior to the meeting, I had received an email about it and had seen the video of Jack McGraw scoring his first touchdown, and I was trying to find time and contact information to pursue the story. But it was the week of Scarecrow Fest, and there was so much going on; I am only one person, after all, so I put the story on hold until I had time to do it justice.
I had no idea until after I arrived at Tuesday’s meeting that Jack and his Haines Middle School teammates and coaches would be the subject of the first portion of that meeting.
The story about Jack and his coaches and his teammates, as well as the coaches and teammates of Rotolo Middle School, unfolded before me during that meeting. It was readily apparently how heartwarming this display of mutual respect and admiration was to everyone involved. It was apparent to me that Dr. Donald Schlomann, the superintendent of schools, felt this as deeply as anyone in the room — if his smile didn’t say it, the words he spoke did.
Between the end of the meeting, the story already was coming together in my mind’s eye. When I sat down to write, the words flowed from my fingertips as I typed. I stopped only when I was done to check my digital recorder to ensure I had the precise wording in each quote.
In terms of writing, I doubt this story will win any awards or receive any professional recognition. It did draw the attention of the national media, but it was Jack and his teammates who made the story, not the words I pinned together. It was the heartfelt admiration and respect that were conveyed that night, not my writing, that communicated the uplifting nature of this tale.
I liked this story a lot, and like many of the best pieces I have written over the years, there was very little effort on my part in putting it together. As I’ve told reporters from time to time over the years, the very best stories frequently write themselves. I was merely the conduit through which the story flowed onto St. Charles Patch.
I am content with that, and blessed ever more so because of it.