When most people think about reporting, they think about journalists at the newspaper—pen always cocked and notebook at the ready. Those are the real pros. But reporting is also one of my favorite creative writing tips. Today, equipped with our smart phones, anyone can take a few quick notes or snap a picture of anything at any time, whether they remembered their pen or not. And doing so is a great way to capture details and other bits that bring writing to life.
Reporting is going out and observing the real world, interviewing real people, and researching real places. And regardless of what you’re writing—a business or self-help book, your memoir, the next Great American novel—reporting can make your writing more personal and realistic. Reporting is almost always essential for getting all sides of the story when you’re writing a memoir or other type of narrative nonfiction. And if you’re writing an instructional nonfiction book and need case studies or real-life examples, reporting is an excellent way to get them.
As a writer, knowing how to be a good reporter has been essential. Although all writers can use reporting, not all writers are trained journalists. But learning how to get the information you need from interviews and work in the field isn’t hard. And you’ve probably got all the tools you need in your purse or pocket already.
The following reporting and creative writing tips will get you started.
1. Ask All the Questions
One of the most important lessons I learned in journalism school was: always get the name of the dog. Not only because the dog’s name is important (and it is, believe me); but because it’s a reminder to ask about everything, even the dog.
2. Take Good Notes
This may seem obvious, but this writing tip is so important that it needs to be mentioned. You can record sound, but you should also write down everything you can. If you’re interviewing and you miss something, ask the person to repeat what they said. And if you’re in the field (meaning not interviewing over the phone), take a few notes about the person you’re interviewing. What are they doing while they talk? What are they doing when they’re not talking? What are they wearing?
Don’t forget to note your surroundings—the weather, the landscape, the office décor—wherever you are, write about what that place looks like in your notes. Keep in mind that if you don’t get it the first time, you might have to go back.
3. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
One of my teachers in graduate school (a very experienced reporter) once told me that whenever I hesitate and feel like running away from an interview, I need to do the opposite. She said an unwillingness to step outside your comfort zone will show in your work. Every time I ask someone for an interview, her words echo in my mind.
No one likes picking up the phone or, worse yet, approaching people in person for an interview. It’s uncomfortable for even experienced reporters because it requires stepping out of your comfort zone. But oftentimes, that’s what it takes to get the best information and ultimately the best story. And once you overcome your own hesitation, you might find that people are happy to help. Either that or they tell you to hit the road, and that’s fine too. Rejection is part of being a writer.
4. Go In Without Assumptions
Reporting is about understanding—understanding another person’s perspective, situation, and experiences. And if you go into an interview with assumptions about the person you’re talking to, the subject, or anything else about the situation, you automatically close yourself off to the depth of understanding you would have otherwise. You may even offend your interview subject, which will probably close that person off to you. So keep an open mind, seek to understand, and leave your assumptions at home.
5. Let Curiosity Lead
Talk to everyone, go everywhere, use every opportunity that comes your way to find out more. Reporting means finding out as much as you can about a topic, whether or not you use all the material you get. So sit and talk, explore, and see what else you can find. Many times you will find the best material in the most unexpected places.
6. Take a Picture
You don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s Instagram-worthy, but snapping a quick photo of things you want to remember and describe later is easy and helpful. Again, you’ve probably got everything you need already in your pocket.
Using These Creative Writing Tips in Your Work
Reporting is a creative writing tip that every writer can get to know and try. When you use these six tips for reporting, you can add depth, reality, and personality to your research, stories, and writing projects. Your writing will come to life, and your readers will love it.
What reporting and creative writing tips can you share? If you have one, please share it in the comments.