Uncovering the real power behind real-life stories

Many journalists look down on women’s weeklies and their real-life stories. Most don’t aspire to being the writer behind gems such as ‘My husband was a boob slasher”. But real-life stories are a hugely popular – and lucrative – market and crop up in some form or other in most publications, from glossies to tabloids.

For example, Take a Break is the biggest-selling women’s weekly in the UK. More than a million readers means a lot of power. If you do a real-life health story, for example, underneath the gruesome details about an illness and the relationships that are involved, you are still getting across vital information about symptoms, NHS services and how to help.

In terms of topics, there are plenty to choose from: Infidelity, sex and divorce all have plenty of scope for juicy details. Holidays gone wrong, murder or crime, survival, nasty neighbours, pets and animals, basically anything that’s weird will do the trick.

Local newspapers are a good place to start looking for stories, and if you have a topic but need to back it up, you can always contact charities for case studies. Blogs and internet chat rooms are a great place to find people, I’ve found that parenting websites are a gold-mine. But you need to be sensitive: Often people are there looking for help or guidance, so don’t just barge in.

Have a mental check-list to work out if your story is sellable. Is it unusual, heart-warming, tragic, weird, spooky or does it fit in with an ongoing campaign? Essentially, it needs to excite readers, and have a beginning, middle and end. If there’s no resolution, it’s not going to work.

Members of the public are often very nervous when a journalist calls or visits, so make sure you have set aside enough time to make your interviewee feel comfortable. I’m a fan of small talk. Before you start, explain exactly what you will ask them and speak to them in their language, especially when you’re on the phone.

Ask open questions to start off with. Detail is essential – smells, wallpaper, weather. Lead up to difficult questions gently. Once you’ve made your interviewee comfortable, you’ll find they become more articulate.

Often you will be speaking to someone about a painful or traumatic experience, so make sure that you get all the details you need in the interview – you don’t want to have to call up to clarify the colour of the sheets on the bed of their dying child.

Writing up the story will depend on the publication, but for a women’s weekly, tell it like a story with all the detail and colour you can get. Short sentences and simple words are most effective, staying true to the voice of your subject.

And finally, a word of caution. Reading back a story to your case study is a sensitive topic. I think it solves more problems than it creates but some may feel differently. Always check what the policy is on the magazine or paper you’re working for if you’re unsure.

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