‘Sweating the small stuff’: paying attention to detail, evoking emotion and achieving an article that captivates an audience

Sarah Beth Costello
March 1, 2009

Richard Carlson wrote a book several years ago titled: “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”

While this advice is helpful to some, it is illogical for journalists. The details, quotes, ledes, conclusions and content (the small stuff) makes a story more than words on a page. The “small stuff” can bring an article to life, give it a personal touch and captivate an audience.

Organizing details, creating outlines, choosing pertinent quotes and story substance is not easy and requires work and practice. The goal of a journalist should be to attract and pull in an audience. Rather than bore readers with a plethora of statistics and detailed information, tell a story and make your article personal.

10tips_compelling TELL THE STORY

Consider the following ledes from two separate articles concerning the toy company, Magnetix:

“Federal regulators recalled about 1 million cribs Friday because the drop rail on some of the nation’s best-selling models can detach from the crib’s frame, creating a dangerous gap that has led to the deaths of at least three children.”


“Sharon Grigsby pleaded with the operator at the federal safety hot line…”

Both articles won Pulitzer Prizes in 2008 yet the reporters chose to tackle the issues with Magnetix using different approaches. The first lede is from the article, “Deaths Spur Huge Crib Recalls,” by Chicago Tribune staff reporter, Maurice Possley. Possley’s lede immediately presents some of the most relevant information in the first sentence. Rather than involving the audience and telling a story, Possley chose to stick to the facts, sources, problems and the data.

The second article, “Not Until a Boy Died,” is immediately presented as a human-interest piece. The first sentence is full of emotion, trauma and struggle. The staff reporter, Patricia Callahan, tells a story, but also presents facts, quotes and information about an important issue.


Brant Houston devoted an entire chapter of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” to writing a “compelling” article. Houston discusses the importance of leads and immediately involving your readers in what they are reading. Callahan succeeded at telling a story while also presenting a well-written and well-researched investigative piece.

Possley’s article was also well written (which is not only evident in his work, but also in the prizes he received). Possley, however, did not engage readers as Callahan did. An anecdotal or descriptive lede might have been more successful.

Writing a good article can be stressful. Houston explained that some reporters are better at reporting, while some are better at writing. It is important to be good at both in order to excel as a reporter.

When writing an investigative article, always “keep the outrage in sight.” It is not rare to discover that you have strayed far from the topic at hand. But do not lose track of the main aspect or point of your article. For instance, if you are writing about a local drug dealer that has been charged with first-degree murder, don’t concentrate your article on his drug-dealing operation. Your focus should be on the key players.

Another important point to remember is that people should always be in the “foreground.” Readers are most interested about the human aspect of a story. You may have stumbled upon a good story that  does not appear directly involve people, but there is usually always an angle. It might require some digging, but a good investigative journalist is willing to get his hands dirty.

When writing your article, remember that your readers are real human beings that do not want to be lectured. Readers do not enjoy being fed sentences, upon sentences of detailed information and jargon.

There is a common misconception that simplification is dummying down. This is not the case. Simplifying information not only makes an article more readable, it can also make it more enjoyable.

Always be courteous as a writer. It is important to remember that your readers are just as busy or busier than you are. The readers have jobs, families and responsibilities and often do not have a lot of time to devote to newspaper reading. Remember to focus on the “small stuff.” Include details and important information. But at the same time, keep it simple, only include the necessary information and avoid fluff.


Concluding an article can be a stressful chore. Sometimes the conclusion leads to another paragraph, which leads to another and before you know it, you’ve written 300 more words that should be condensed to 35.

Houston explains that the conclusion should provoke thought and emotion in your readers. Some reporters choose to conclude with a wrap-up quote. Some prefer an element of surprise (which can backfire).

Don’t settle for the cute or cliché. Remember to keep it simple and conclude your article in a way to make the ending more than a jumble of words in a half-hearted attempt at an end to a good story.

1 comment
  1. andersj said:

    You do such great work on these assignments that I hate pointing out errors. OK, so unfortunately you left a letter out of one word in your infobox. Look at point number 9. I LOVE the design of the box, and you selected great tips. Isn’t this a fantastic way to help you remember all of the key points in your reading for the week? I think it is much better to ask my students to do this than it is to require them to memorize things for a test after which they forget it all.

    I love how you bring in the “small stuff” angle. Nicely done. And your lead is so true, too. Storytelling requires specific details, and when you are in the act of reporting a story, no detail is too small.

    Smart people take the time to do a thorough job on this weekly assignment because you get back out of it exactly the amount of yourself that you put into it. The more you invest yourself in it, the better the result. You’re smart.

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