September 16, 1997 / Copywriting / Coverage / Fall 1997

Different View

Written by Donna Skates

First-person stories offer refreshing coverage alternative

It was during our third deadline last year that it became painfully clear to me that if I had to read another boring yearbook story, I was going to – kill myself? No, that would have been too drastic. I was going to take a break and go to the lounge for a snack or two? No, the same boring stories would be on my desk when I returned.

I thought, “What is wrong here?” And the answer became crystal clear. Even though we tried to find new angles for the same old stories, and even though we tried to fill them with interesting quotes and top them off with “knock-your-socks-off” leads, they still sounded the same. We had tried having students who were not on staff write their own stories and sometimes that worked, but then it was just a story about the one person, and more often than not, the people we asked to write their personal stories were not, quite frankly, very good writers.

So what were we going to do?

That is when we tried some first-person stories. I handed all of the stories back and told the writers to start over, to tell me a story, any story, just not the typical yearbook story.

In response to this challenge, Katie Wight took what I would describe as a “heavy yawn” story about new students and turned it into “New Stew”:

Our school is like a giant pot of soup. Vegetables, meats, and noodles join together to form an exquisite blend of learning and laughter. As an experienced and mature sophomore, I am able to saunter around the school with such total confidence and ingenuity that no one would believe that I once was a confused and lost freshman.

She then talked to several students and came up with an interesting story that was fun to read.

Erica Braverman, who loves music (but you could not tell that from reading her original story on music), took a so-so article and told it from her point of view:

My baby book says that my favorite song was something by Barry Manilow or John Denver. In elementary school, my taste in music was not set by what was requested at the skating party. Instead, I broke the rules by listening to Jane’s Addiction or obscure English bands. In high school, things changed. My older sister exposed me to the music that I now like – Lois Maffeo, Everything But The Girl, Pavement and Unrest. As I wandered among my more than 1,800 fellow students, I found that what I liked, some loathed; what I loathed, some liked.

Then she, like Katie, talked to students and compared their likes and dislikes with hers. Again, I read the story with interest.

Heather Long and Carrie Bader tried something different. They also used first person, but they decided to add an interesting twist by becoming other people:

Inspired by a recent psychology assignment, Heather and I decided to do some real-life role playing. When Heather (alias Dr. Freud) and I (alias Dr. Ruth) gave two students five dollars each, we were amused, surprised and even touched by our results. Dr. Freud noticed that, even armed with two five-dollar bills, the two freshmen seemed a bit hesitant to throw the first ball at King Louie Bowling Alley. “Vas eet somezing from yor childhoot?” I asked.

They continued their story this way, and students liked it. I liked it.

My advice? Instead of writing every story in the typical manner – say, for example, the day at Kansas State when several thousand students came to improve their craft by attending classes on newspaper and yearbook – try an alternate approach:

I’d been awake since 2 a.m. because I knew there was no way I was actually going to wake up at 4 a.m. when the alarm rang. What was I thinking of anyway when I agreed to go on this trip? Sure, Jim Jordan and H.L. Hall are going to be there, and sure, they are good, but good enough for me to get on a bus at 5 a.m. with 50 other tired, cranky high school students? And then, when I did wake up, I was so slow getting dressed that I knew I was going to be late. Next, I found myself speeding on the way to Shawnee Mission North because I definitely did not want to miss the bus. My adviser would kill me again. So I pushed it up to 45 in a 35 zone, and yep, you guessed, I got pulled over.

Yes, the lead is a bit long. Yes, sometimes when you try something new, it seems a bit forced the first couple of times. And, yes, the design might need to be adjusted so the copy will fit. But, I think the occasional first-person story is a refreshing alternative to traditional yearbook copy. And because it is, I will not have to resort to something drastic.

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Donna Skates