David Atkinson is an established freelance journalist with bylines including the Telegraph, Guardian and Daily Mail. He is also a lecturer in media at the University of Chester. Follow him @atkinsondavid
I do not have many skills in life. Do not ask me to fix your car, or put up a shelf. But there is one thing I do know: how to tell a story.
I started out as a feature writer, working first in magazines then newspapers and now, primarily, online but, while the platform has evolved, one thing has never changed: people love to read about people.
Keep that idea in mind as you structure your draft, whether a feature, client copy or a press release, and you will build empathy with your readers. Fail to grasp that, however, and the reader will simply scroll on.
For me, I have three key elements in mind when I write:
• human interest
• expert views
• case studies
Try these examples
But I deliberately chose a place I had visited on childhood holidays. I used my own experience as a child, contrasting this with the experience of my two teenage daughters who were forced to swap a holiday in Croatia for a weekend in North Wales, to make it a more human story. Other readers would, doubtless, have found themselves in the same situation and could relate.
Try this feature, also for Telegraph Travel. The article takes a more news-driven approach to discuss the effect on Liverpool tourism providers as the city moved into tier-three restrictions. This feature benefitted from a range of expert comments, representing different viewpoints across the city. That is why I included a quote not just from the director of Visit Liverpool but, also, quotes from a tour guide whose income had disappeared and a B&B owner who had taken the decision to close temporarily. These, I believe, brought not just expertise but also a sense of the human experience to this story.
Finally, this recent feature for the i newspaper is a more straight-forward travel feature, a journey through the orchards of Herefordshire, following the county’s new Cider Circuits. It is a more descriptive piece with an element of practical information for readers to follow in my footsteps.
But what about the vicarious reader? Not everyone reading the travel section of a national newspaper will rush out and book the trip. So how to engage them? Simple: I used a case study. My interview with Albert Johnson, an example of the next-generation cider-maker trying to transform the image of cider into a premium, craft drink, was a deliberate move to bring readers into the story and hold their attention.
These are just some of the example we will look at during my masterclass. We will explore the importance of identifying and approaching experts, and handling interviews to get the best out of them. We will also discuss the importance of direct speech, using an expert voice for impact, rather than just bland, empty quotes, as we move towards drafting an outline to pitch to an editor or run by a client for approval.
Journalism is complex but the secret to good storytelling remains simple: engage your reader.
Get the skill
To help you learn these storytelling techniques, I am running a new course, starting on 11 January 2021, to share my insider tips from 20-odd years of freelance writing. How to tell stories and engage readers is a four-week course, running flexibly online, to help you better engage your audience.
This course is suitable for all professional writers — from the early stages of your writing career to established writers looking to refine their skillset in an increasingly competitive freelance market.
Join me in January and I will show you how.