Improve Your Writing – Tell A Story

Old stories, well told
I had a non-profit pitch a story for the Amateur Traveler recently and in the process of getting that story ready for publication, I think there is a valuable lesson. What the author had missed was the chance to make the story personable and therefore more memorable. The first version of the story about volunteer travel destinations started like this:

From its humble beginnings in the 1960’s, volunteer travel has grown into a hugely popular phenomenon, offering an immensely rewarding and highly varied world of opportunity.
Today’s volunteer traveller is spoilt for choice; since this particular strand of tourism began in the 60’s, the possibilities have grown enormously from their initial focus on conservation into a broad and seemingly endless list of projects.
Whether you are embarking on a voluntary project in order to gain valuable experience in a particular field for your future career, or simply for the love of helping out, there really is something for anyone and everyone.

Your Own Experience

There is nothing wrong with those paragraphs per se, but neither do they leap from the page and shout “read on”!  So I wrote back to the author with this advice:

I like the article but the first set or paragraphs buries the lede. I think the article would be a lot punchier without as much of this. You might think about starting with your own experience.

The author returned a second try at the opening paragraph:

My unforgettable experiences in the remote rainforests of Peru saw me taking part in a wide range of exciting activities, from midnight river-trips in search of caiman, to feeding the jaguar at the rehabilitation centre. However, this type of project is only one of many different areas of conservation you can get involved in.

Show Me Don’t Tell Me

The problem that I had with the new paragraph is that it told me he had had interesting experiences or at least it told me about them but it still didn’t engage or involve me.  I replied:

That’s better, but you still missed a chance to actually tell your story. You mentioned a “midnight river-trips in search of caiman”. That’s both sounds like your best content and the best advertisement… but you didn’t tell the story. What I am looking for is compelling first person narrative in the first and maybe last paragraph. Picture how much better this article would be if you started with something like:
We panned the murky waters with the beams of our flashlights. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I wondered what might be watching us form the jungle as I was looking for the twin reflections of the eyes of a caiman. A relative of the alligator, the caiman hunts by ambush. I am sitting in a boat, in the dark in the middle of the night, on the Amazon. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”, I asked myself.

And received a third version and the final opening of the story:

Slowly edging our way along the river bank, the light from our torch scanned for the unmistakable orange glint reflected in the eyes of this night-time killer. A close relative of the alligator, the caiman is a highly evolved predator, always ready to pounce. As we made our silent approach, my heart was pounding; this was my chance to finally catch this incredible creature. My hand shook as I reached down to the murky water, tales of lost fingers echoing in my head. And then nothing; it had seen me coming. As we moved on, I sighed with relief disguised as disappointment.
Caiman hunting really was the tip of the iceberg during my time in the remote Peruvian rainforest. By the end of those three months, I had witnessed many of the animals I had grown up watching on documentaries with amazement. From feeding the jaguar at the rehabilitation centre, to early morning outings in search of the mysterious giant otters, my experience was unforgettable. A voluntary wildlife conservation project really can involve a vast variety of different issues. Not only could you be going to some of the most exciting, remote and beautiful places on earth, but you could also encounter the incredibly diverse and important species that these locations have to offer. Taking part in a wildlife conservation project is a worthwhile and memorable experience, wherever you choose to go.

Tell A Story

The final article “Wildlife Conservation Projects around the World” may not yet be ready for a Lowell Thomas award, but compare it to the first draft. I receive a lot of articles like the first version lest you think I am picking on the author and even more articles that are not worth putting more time into. The writing and editing on my blog have been influenced by a class I took at the Book Passage Writing conference last year from Spud Hilton. Some of the advice he gave includes:

  1. Have a point to the article. Too many articles I get say “I went here and I did that”. They are a journal entry, not an article.
  2. Don’t bury the lede. Your opening sentence is very important. I recall the sample opening sentence he gave us from a travel story: “Don’t worry the turbaned man grinned, the snake around your daughter’s neck is not poisonous.” That’s a sentence that makes you want to read more.
  3. Get to your point quickly and then get rid of the paragraphs that don’t support your point. Perhaps you can save all that other information for another article with an appropriate point.
  4. How would a good storyteller capture the attention of the audience? They might not start chronologically. When I tell of my trip to New Zealand last year I start with the experience of “blackwater rafting”, spelunking with a wetsuit and an inner tube. I don’t start, “I got off the plane and headed into customs”.

Author: chris2x

One man's view of life in Silicon Valley from Chris Christensen - a podcaster, blogger, programmer, entrepreneur


  1. I appreciate this article Chris. I have a popular family travel blog with a nice following but I am wanting to spread my wings and bring in new readers by also getting published in magazines.
    I have an article that I am pitching. It is about visiting a dude ranch as a child with my parents and falling in love with cowboys and Colorado and then returning back with my three boys thirty something years later.
    Would you be interested in reading it?

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