It taught me priceless lessons on writing better
If you ever visited my home country of Portugal, you know the Portuguese are crazy for one particular dish: codfish. We say we can cook it in 1001 different ways. But I don’t know much about that, I’m a vegetarian.
Yet, somehow, I spent most of my journalistic career writing about topics related to fish. I worked for “Academia do Bacalhau” (Codfish Academy), a philanthropic association of people who gather monthly to raise money to those in need, by organizing dinner parties. You guessed what is on the menu every single month: codfish.
Even if they try to change the recipes (and they are still far from covering all 1001), these dinner parties are pretty much the same month in, month out. It is incredibly hard to cover these events with a fresh perspective.
Before that, I worked at a media company for 4 years, covering everything and anything happening in the Portuguese community in Paris. Let me give a heads up: not a whole lot happens. And, out of what happens, a lot of it consists of people eating codfish. But, worse, many times I had to write about companies that would pay my boss just to get some kind of article published about them. Even if they didn’t do anything interesting or new, at all.
I remember the first article I ever wrote at that media company. They gave me a 3-minute video interview with the manager of a Portuguese nightclub in Paris and told me to write about the Portuguese nightlife in the French capital. I had moved from Portugal to France two days before. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that these places existed, let alone be able to write a whole article based on a tiny interview.
I must be honest: that article sucked.
The next few ones did too. But, as time went by, it became easier and easier for me to put together an article about any topic, regardless of how much or how little information I had.
As with anything, it takes practice. And these years writing about “nothing”, taught me a lot. Let me share it with you.
Everything is interesting somehow
Imagine this: your boss gives you an assignment to write about a company that creates soap dispensers for toilets. You know, something like this, except that it looks even less glamorous.
You drive to the factory, thinking: “Heck, how can I make this interesting? What can possibly be of relevance about soap dispensers?”. You foresee a boring, dry, idiotic story coming out of you, no matter how hard you try.
But then, you arrive at the factory and meet the owner, Fernando. He’s a nice, chubby guy, with a fluffy mustache, and a funny laugh. He takes you around the factory while telling you about his family business with a contagious passion. He explains that it all started with his grandfather when he came home after the war and decided to make his life meaningful. He had spent months on the battlefield, fighting the enemy and the dirtiness. Once back home, he was ecstatic with the simple possibility of washing his hands anytime he wanted. He decided to contribute the way he could, and that is how the company was born.
Just like that, your boring soap article has now turned into a tale of hope, a source of inspiration, and a genuinely interesting story.
There is no secret here. You didn’t get lucky because this specific soap dispenser factory happened to have an interesting story. Everything has something interesting about it, everyone has some story worth telling. And your job is to find it out!
Establish a connection to your interviewee, have a genuine interest, ask all the questions that come to your mind, even if they feel somewhat detached to the topic. You never know where your story lies, so you need to dig around.
But I promise you, 99% of the time, you will find something worth writing about.
It’s your job to turn the boring into interesting
Now let’s imagine that the soap dispenser company had a much duller founding story. It was created by some antipathetic guy chasing money who had come up with something as boring as himself.
You ask all the questions that come to your mind but… nothing. There is not one single piece of information that you can use to make the story more appealing.
We have a problem, right?
Well, it is harder to turn this story into something your readers will be interested in, that’s a fact. But it is still possible. Enter what I call “poetic article writing”.
You tried everything, but the content is dead. Luckily, you have something left, something that depends entirely on you, something you can master: words.
You can combine them in beautiful ways, create sentences that sound more like poetry, and still make the reader feel something in the end.
Let’s see an example:
“The company has grown in the past decade, from 100 to 500 employees”
And turn it into…
“The company is a keystone in the local economy, having provided work opportunities to 500 people, up from 100 just a decade ago, contributing to the welfare of the families in the region”
It’s different, right? It gives you a different feeling after reading it. And yet, you are basically saying the same thing.
Regardless of the topic, it is always your job to make your words sound good. After tall, isn’t that the definition of a writer?
It is so much nicer and easier to write about what we love, I know. Give me some travel-related topics to write on, and you will see me going on and on and on, tirelessly. Soap dispensers? Not so much.
But we don’t always get to write about what we love. There are bills to pay and work to be done. So, we need to adapt. And just because something doesn’t ring our bell, it doesn’t turn that subject into a boring, uninteresting one.
Writing, like living, requires an open mind, an inquisitive attitude, and undeferred enthusiasm. Only then, can our lives be epic. Only then can our writing be great.