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Lessons Learned: Finding Your Way Toward A Story Format And Focus

Finding Your Way Toward A Story Format And Focus

“Catching a fly ball is a pleasure. But knowing what to do with it after you catch it is a business.” – Tommy Henrich


This past June, I pitched a narrative-style story to Westword newspaper in Denver for their annual summer guide. Colorado had added a new park in 2020, Fishers Peak State Park, and I had just completed visiting all 42 state parks by checking that one out. I knew few people had been there or even knew it existed, so I wanted to do a feature on this up-and-coming destination.

Just a week after I sent my pitch and it was accepted, the southern part of Colorado was hit with days of torrential rain, and Fishers Peak was so waterlogged that the concrete pads in the brand-new parking lot became unmoored and actually floated away. The park later announced that it would be closed for weeks, if not months, to address the issues and ensure that it was safe to explore.

I reached out to my editor to let her know, and she asked what other stories I might be interested in writing about the state parks, which could include some background and an update on Fishers Peak. I thought about it for a few hours. I knew Westword (like so many other publications these days, particularly those with a strong online presence) loves a good list, and since I’d been to all of the parks and could make some authoritative evaluations of which was best for certain activities, I came back with a reworked pitch: I’d offer a top 10 list of popular activities—things like biking, birding, fishing, swimming, and hiking—and would write a paragraph on why each of 10 parks was ideal for that activity.

The editor agreed, and I began working on it. First, I tracked down the public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which runs the state parks, to ask for a reopening date on Fishers Peak and to discuss how parks have been our saving grace during the pandemic.  

In our conversation, I found out that while more time outdoors may have been good for people, it was turning out to be not so good for the parks themselves. Newbies who had not spent much time outside previously didn’t seem to understand things like not using the trailhead as a toilet and not throwing candy wrappers all over the trails. That led me to pitch a sidebar, in which I would outline some of the top tips for being a good steward of the land. The story wound up running on the cover for the guide, and because there wasn’t enough room for the sidebar in the print version, it ran alongside the main story on the website.

Novice writers get unnecessarily tied up in knots over the type of format that is “best” for their story—format refers to the way you structure your story, be it a list, a narrative, a personality profile (where you focus on a person and how they relate to the destination, such as a chef or a shopkeeper), a Q&A with a local, or a “package” that could include the main story and one or more sidebars—and they spend way too much time agonizing over the story focus as well. The bottom line is that the format should be in line with the publication’s usual offerings, and the focus should be on something that is as interesting to readers as it is to you as a traveler. Meeting those two criteria will offer you the best chance of meeting the publication’s needs and selling your story.

Here are two questions from writers this past year that touch on those issues, along with my thoughts on best practices as you go to write your story.

  1. I just took a wonderful trip to Cancun and participated in a lot of activities, from eating in great restaurants to snorkeling and sightseeing. My question is, how do I decide what to include?
  2. I live in Canberra, Australia, and had a quick trip to Melbourne last week, so decided to write about that. Apart from procrastinating, the thing I found most difficult is what NOT to include. Do you have any tips on that?

These two questions address the opposite sides of the same coin. I think it’s usually easier to write a story for a specific publication first, rather than writing a story without one in mind. Pick a publication that speaks to you or that you’d really love to see your byline in, and then write a story that fits that publication. Evaluate the archives to see if they prefer lists or narratives, long or short, articles with a lot of sidebars or none, or other formats that appear regularly. Once you see the style of story that publication offers, choose a focus that appeals to you.

Make that focus narrow enough to keep the story on track from beginning to end—instead of “A Visit to Paris,” look back on your trip and identify the things that really made the trip sing. Was it going to the art museums, finding family-friendly bistros, or antiques shopping? Any of those would work.

The reason the state parks focus of 10 things to do and where to do them worked so well is that I like to do all those activities, and I pursue them regularly. In addition, in Colorado, I am not alone in that regard, and so I knew that it would fit well for Westword’s readership. Those are all things to consider as you choose a format and a focus.

When you have chosen a focus, make a list of things connected to that focus that you feel are critical to helping a reader understand the experience. The list can then help you craft a rudimentary outline to follow as you work your way through the story.

When you have your first draft done, go back through you story to check for extraneous information. We all tend to go off on tangents, which can weaken you story and make it hard to follow, and so it’s a good idea to eliminate details that aren’t tied to your overall theme.

Then, once you have the story written, you can alter it in whatever ways are necessary to meet the guidelines and formats of other publications. For instance, you ‘ll be able to do things like make it longer or shorter, add a sidebar, or turn a narrative into a list (or vice versa).

Take a look at my story to see how each item in the list sticks almost entirely with the activity, with the occasional additional detail added as a counterpoint. So, for instance, “Biking: State Forest State Park” offers insight into what a biker will see as they ride around the park, and “Golfing: Lathrop State Park” enumerates the reasons why golfing here is so much fun, but at the end mentions that the lakes also offer something to do (but note that it’s only a mention).

Lists are often the best format when you’re first starting out as a freelance travel writer for this very reason: You can create lists that inherently force you to adhere to their focal points, which will help keep your story on track.

Media trip: My last foreign trip before the pandemic was via a cruise, and sadly it has felt as though cruises will be the last to return fully in the travel realm as we open back up. But some of the cruise lines are moving forward, albeit with requirements that all passengers be fully vaccinated and other rules. If cruising appeals to you, Celebrity Cruises offers a range of media comp options, and so your best bet is to start with their online form for consideration.

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