Your story may have a piece missing.

Most writers are good at finding stories. They get across what a person does and how they do it. But often these stories lack a special spark.

Writers often check off who, what, when, and where questions, but neglect why and how. Asking why shines a brighter light on people you’re writing about. Why is _____ important to you? How did you find _____?

Why Ask Why?

People often say when they got into a trade, but not why. Most jobs, even fun ones, get tedious if you do the same thing over and over again. Some people might burn out or get bored. Why does your subject keep doing it every day?

If you discover why someone is passionate about what they do—especially if they have been doing it for decades, in some cases—that shines a lot of light on the people you’re writing about, and pulls readers in.

How to Ask How

Asking how unveils a new level in a story.

  • How has technology changed what you do?
  • How did you discover this talent?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • How does it feel to _______?

How questions are wide open, and often give you clues leading to better questions. For example, imagine asking a woodworker how technology has changed the craft. If advancements help, follow up with, “It sounds like electric tools are making one part of the job easier. Is there something you enjoy more about it now? Which do you like better?”

Examples

Hard Copy to Hard Drive
By Dianna Troyer
United Electric Co-op Inc., Idaho

A local author, Gary Schorzman, wears gloves to protect aging newspapers as he conducts research. He’s spearheading a fundraising effort to digitize a library’s newspaper archives. Why and how?

Gary first thought of the idea … while spending years at the museum doing research for his books and the local newspaper about local towns in celebration of the county’s centennial.

“I had to write the information out by hand at the museum, then come home and write on my computer,” Gary says. “It was very labor intensive, but definitely a labor of love.”

Gary realized how priceless the disintegrating newspapers were to others who were delving into the past, including genealogists, students and history buffs.

“We had to figure out a way to preserve this information for future generations,” he says.

The Healing Machine
By Anne Herman
Tanner Electric Cooperative, Washington

A community designs a pavilion to house a theater, a veterans’ memorial, and a carousel. Ernie Jenner, a woodcarver, teaches students how to carve animals for the project. Why and how?

“Carousels bring people together,” Ernie says. “For the time you’re riding, it’s impossible to be angry at anyone. You’re just there to have fun together.”

Ernie also believes carousels stimulate creativity.

“They open up a venue in our brain, a place we subconsciously long to be, but don’t know how to access,” he says. “Riding a carousel can take us there.”

The same might be true for a whole community. As for the animals, how does Ernie know when the carving is done?

“When it licks my hand,” he says. “And if I go too far, it bites me.”

Be Comfy, But Careful

Great interviews are built on personal connections and trust. The more comfortable you are with the person you are interviewing, the better. Find something you both have in common.

But be careful not to write the relationship into your story. Often when you are asking why someone pursues a hobby, you may find you share similar passions. When that happens, watch out. Do not include personal experiences into a story. If a single, “I” or “we” gets into a paragraph, it may have to be rewritten to make it fit with the rest of the story.

Get comfortable with your subject. It shows in your writing and helps you uncover the why and how of the story.