Writing Human Interest Stories: A Guide

By Matt Abbott | 20th Oct 2016

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Journalists, by their very nature, are interested in people. And in one way or another we’re all fascinated by the lives of others, whether as net-curtain-twitchers, people-watchers, soap opera-addicts, writers or readers of news.

We love to catch a glimpse of how the other half live. It’s how we build our identities and relate to one another. The power, impact, and importance of the human interest story therefore, which has as its central paradigm the human experience, is a vital ingredient in the success of any publication.

But what is a human interest story? Why are they important and what value do they represent for independent community news publishers?

What is a Human Interest Story?

At the heart of any human interest story is people. It is people sharing their unique stories in an emotional and interesting way. Whether it be overcoming adversity, raising awareness, opening up about a condition or experience to help educate others; tales of exceptional human achievement, acts of bravery, unsung heroes, victims, funny stories – the focus is always on the person and their experience.

To this end, the person should always be the central protagonist. She should take centre stage in the telling of her own story, and so the way the story is written is very different from a traditional news story. More on how to write a human interest story below.

The benefit of telling a story like this is so the reader can relate to it in an emotional way. A good human interest story will spark anger, empathy, compassion, sympathy, motivation, laughter, fear and love. Not in equal measure, but if a journalist can tick all these boxes in some way, the story is bound to be a success and likely be shared and highly engaged with. The fundamental objective is to move someone with a story.

Why is the Human Interest story important?

An earthquake in Honshu province in Japan, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale is almost unimaginable to fathom for most consumers of news. Yes, we shake our head in shock that so many people could be wiped out of existence, but we very quickly get on with our lives; we move swiftly onto the next news cycle.

However, when a young survivor is pulled from the crumbled wreckage of a school three days after the final tremours have been felt, our ability to relate to the situation grows. It could be our daughter. Our niece. One of our students.

This personal, and very intimate angle, allows readers to engage with the content, to feel something. If the story is sad, you want your reader to feel sad. If it is happy, you want them to feel happy. A good human interest story breaks down barriers, allows people to form connections with the story through emotions.

It can alert people to a cause or charity or fundraiser they wouldn’t ordinarily know about; a condition they never knew existed; an opportunity that could have passed them by, a person, place or idea best avoided. A good human interest story should be thought provoking, should incite debate, should pull at the heartstrings.

Where is the value?

But why would you go to the extra effort of producing a 1500 word soft feature on your local butcher who hosts a weekly get together of adult fans of My Little Pony? Simply put, this kind of content is hugely shareable and very easy to engage with, directing much-wanted traffic back to your website.

As Damian Radcliffe, professor of journalism at Oregon University says: stories like this can ‘help generate more cross-sector partnerships, with hyperlocal stories being published – with attribution and cross-linking – by larger media players’.

In short, the national press has a keen eye and a large purse for stories like this, and knowing how to get your story in front of the right pair of keen eyes can be invaluable.

Writing a Human Interest story

When it comes to writing human interest stories, there is much more scope for creativity. Some journalists who work on news exclusively have difficulty delaying an intro, dropping the lead to the third, fourth, or in some cases, the fifth or six pars.

But for human interest stories, much more is required of the language and style to tempt the reader to stay with the piece. A bit of a carrot and stick approach isn’t without its merits here.

So the use of emotive language is essential. In most examples of human interest stories, facts and data sit pillion to the emotional aspects. That’s not to say the piece shouldn’t be well-researched, legally sound, and factually correct. Only that this information is secondary to the overall feel of the piece you are writing.

The piece will still require a compelling lead, one that doesn’t give away the story to the reader so they can leave without reading the rest. Instead, write an intro that draws the reader in emotionally.

Experiment with language. Use puns, alliteration, assonance. Be creative. Write what Steinbeck called ‘hooptedoodle’: filler copy that sets the scene, describes the weather or what someone is wearing, depicts their facial expressions when they talk. Don’t be afraid to write copy that sings a little.

At the same time, however, a human interest story should be quote heavy. Let the case study tell her own story. Let her describe what happened in her own voice, in her own words.

The key is to remain balanced. Avoid lurid sensationalism, unless that’s the style of your publication, and stick to the human angle.

However, if the story tends to be extremely sensitive, strive for neutrality. Nobody benefits from an ill-placed epithet or a poorly-judged idiom.

At it’s best, a human interest story can inspire, rouse, motivate and educate, spark discourse and create value.

Let us know if you have anything to add to this resource. We’re alway happy to consider updates to content. 

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