Writing Descriptive Stories as a Hard News Junkie

These are stories that can’t be told nearly as effectively in a hard news setting. It turns out it’s okay to take a little more time with things.

It’s not that I can’t write, but I’m not an archetypical magazine writer.

I’m the type of guy that finds some weird sense of fun going to car crashes and crime scenes, not the one who writes graphic-heavy descriptive pieces or profiles like “Keeping up with the Boneses” and “Parallel Lives.”

I like having clear deadlines and word counts before I go into a story. It’s not really my style to just start reporting and see where that takes me, and I definitely don’t plan for a story to be relevant a year from its publication. So how did I manage to work on Echo Magazine?

One of the most important things for me was to read more magazines. Before working on Echo, I was not a regular magazine reader. I was content with my New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune subscriptions.

Early on in this issue’s production, I picked up the current issues of National Geographic and Time. Both had some very timely stories that could easily be used as a reference in the future.

The National Geographic cover story that month was a huge feature on surveillance and “the new Big Brother.” It was clearly reported over the course of months and it still managed to tap into everyone’s constant concerns about digital surveillance.

This piece served as an example for me as to how to make something timely yet with staying power. And most importantly, it was a smooth and engaging read.

It took more effort than I’d like to admit, but eventually, I ended up with my stories.

“Keeping up with the Boneses” evolved from being a semi-investigative article about cemetery overcrowding to something way more fun to report, cooler to look at and smoother to read. It isn’t bogged down by a bevy of expert source and quotes but rather is driven by concepts and solid content. It’s definitely my favorite of the three stories I wrote because it allowed me to use my imagination to construct a vision of what cemeteries could—or maybe even will—look like when I die.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy writing my other stories. “Digital DNA” was especially enlightening because the interviews covered so much more than what made it in the final article.

The coolest tidbit that I couldn’t fit in “Digital DNA” was the concept of “genetic memory,” which is a theory that says behaviors, preferences and more can be inherited. Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore told me she has seen adoptees reunited with their birth family who have the same color cars, hobbies or even passwords as their biological siblings.

Then it hit me: These are stories that can’t be told nearly as effectively in a hard news setting. It turns out it’s okay to take a little more time with things.