Pulitzer Prize winner Lane DeGregory offers tips on narrative storytelling

SPJ Louisiana is publishing articles written by University of Louisiana at Lafayette chapter members who attended the SPJ Region 12 conference in New Orleans.


Lane DeGregory, the Pulitzer-prize winning feature writer for the Tampa Bay Times, said she considers herself more a narrative storyteller than a journalist.

DeGregory grew up in Washington and said was inspired by two young reporters who were trying to “bring down the president of the United States,” in the Watergate scandal, referring to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. Although she knew she wanted to be a journalist all of her life, she didn’t end up making a name for herself as an investigative reporter like she aspired to as a child. Instead, she considers herself a narrative storyteller.

She said the best advice she ever received was from an editor at the Newport News Virginian-Pilot. He encouraged her to tell a story unlike a normal reporter. This involved ditching the inverted pyramid.

“He would take your notes and at first I thought he was going to critique my note taking and my interviewing techniques,” she explained. “His idea was, if you’re going to be a reporter, you can go back through your notes and give all the people the information and direct quotes and stats and facts that you need. If you’re going to be a storyteller, that’s in here (mind), and that’s in here (heart). It is not in your notebook.”

DeGregory said a feature story should be written as though the writer were telling a story to a roommate, a significant other or a friend after the event occurred— rather than a “regurgitation of the event.”

“Your story is what you tell people about the experience afterwards,” she said. “Because that’s what you are: You’re the filter between the people you’re grabbing the information from, and the audience that you’re sharing it to. It’s your job to make it not only important, but to make it interesting.”

After her presentation on digital storytelling, Lane DeGregory, noted feature writer for the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Florida, was besieged by young writers at the reception following the conference. Photo by ROBERT BUCKMAN

DeGregory shared advice she said she has learned throughout the years that she uses when writing what she called a “nonfiction narrative.”

The first thing she said she learned while out on the job was to ask more questions. She said she lives by a mantra of asking the “third question.”

As an example, she used brands of cigarettes. She said what type of cigarette someone is smoking tells you something about who that person is. The more detail put into a feature story, the more powerful that story is, she insisted.

Along with the detail, DeGregory said if a writer wants to show the full effect of a story, he or she  must “go along for the ride.”

“Being there the moment that it happens, not recreating it, not calling over the phone to get a reaction quote — being there to observe the moment as it happens is the most exciting way to be a narrative reporter.”

The writer gains a better sense of the mood of the story, she added.

Other narratives can be made from news stories, DeGregory suggested. When a journalist is assigned something that might seem a little boring, like covering a school board meeting, look for someone who is a “stakeholder” in the issue or question the story should revolve around.

This helps to find a main character for the story.

However, rather than finding the person directly involved in the story, she added, sometimes it is better to find someone who isn’t necessarily the center of attention for the story, but simply has a stake in the outcome.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking for those people who really do care, even when you don’t, because that’s the only way you’re going to make your readers care,” she said. “The less you care, the less your readers are going to be engaged.”

Along with finding a character, a scene should be set, she explained, saying even if it’s just a short description about the place, there should be something that helps to paint a picture for the readers about the scene. Describing the scene should involve using as many sensory details as possible — not just sight and sound.

“Any kind of good journalist is going to make you see and hear something. But if you can make them taste something, if you can make them smell something, or even like the tactile feel of something, it really puts them there with you and in your story.”

Sometimes it is hard for news writers to be creative, she acknowledged, and suggested the best way to expand on creativity when writing is to read, because “the best writers are readers.”

Read more from DeGregory in her recent multimedia piece, The Long Fall of Phoebe Johnchuck.


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