Tell Me Something I Didn't Know...

Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Photo credit:

W   hat makes a good story? It’s not what everyone already knows.

Choose one: ‘Chitwan’, ‘Shoeshine Boy’, or ‘Golfi ng with Gurkhas’.

‘Chitwan’ is fun, but what’s new? It’s over-written. Your challenge is to do it differently. Take your readers beyond common knowledge. Everyone knows about riding elephants, photograph-ing rhinos, boating the river, and (if lucky) spotting a tiger. Your goal is to uncover a strikingly new ap-proach. How about a day-in-the-life of an elephant trainer? Or, your writer’s eye view of a baby pachyderm? Or, for birders, discovering the hollow-tree nest of every ornithologist’s dream, that prehistoric throw-back, the Great Indian Hornbill. In short, see Chitwan through a new lens, then bring it home and turn it into enthusiastically good prose.

Great Indian Hornbill (Photo credit:

A ‘Shoeshine Boy’ story has promise. It’s closer to home, so go to New Road or Thamel, fi nd one, make friends (get your shoes shined), and come back with the story: Who is he? Name? Age? How clever? How long has it been shining shoes on the street? Where does he hang out? Clients? Earnings? Family? (Is he the sole bread-winner? Some are!) How did he start? And, how does this whole streetside shoeshine business work? (Does someone else claim the kid’s profits?) A day-in-the-life approach has promise here, too.

‘Golfi ng with Gurkhas’ is a catchy title. Do readers know that there are ex-Gurkha soldiers kitted out on Saturday afternoons doing rounds on the valley’s golf courses? (Are there?) Or, does ‘Gurkha’ simply mean ‘any Nepali’ gentleman (like generic ‘Sherpa’ = ‘any porter’)? Who golfs? What’s the cost? Best time to go? ...You don’t have to join the club to get a good story, but it helps if you know a colorful Gurkha golfer to putt around with.

No matter your story topic, nor whether you’re a novice or a master wordsmith, consider the advice that a seasoned travel magazine editor once gave a young writer coming back from France: “These articles have to be unique. Everyone knows you can have dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Tell me something I didn’t know.”

Perhaps giving order to your working style will also help. Consider these six steps from the prize-winning writer Don Murray: Explore Focus Rehearse Draft Develop Clarify. Here’s my take on each:

1) Explore: Consider your topic from all angles; examine the possibilities. Follow Rudyard Ki-pling’s sage advice: “I keep six honest serving men. (They taught me all I know); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.” Ask them all. Take detailed notes. Determine the outer boundaries. Discover it.

2) Focus: Intensify your exploration to narrow those boundaries. Select a distinc-tive storyline and choose your ‘angle’ or ‘slant’. Focus on something that every-body doesn’t already know. Remember your audience, then plot the best approach. Compose it.

3) Rehearse: Write an outline, or whatever gives you direction. Identify a natural beginning and ending. Tell the story to a friend; get feed-back. Is it new knowledge, unique, insightful, entertaining? Do you have enough informa-tion? If not, go back for more. Re-examine it.

4) Draft: Write it up, start to fi nish (don’t worry about errors, yet). Show-Don’t-Tell. Show-ing in fi ne prose the color and scent of a fl ower beats merely telling us that it looks good and sure smells nice. Write-with-Vigor, defi ned by William Strunk (in his classic primer, Elements of Style) as: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sen-tence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences...” There’s more, but you get the idea. Tighten it.

5) Develop: This is where your talent gets a workout. Revise, correct, cut words, get to the point, use the active voice, revise. And revise again, until it’s fl awless. In short, cut to the chase and move it along, ‘hook’ to ‘fi nale’. Improve it.

6) Clarify: Double check that everything is in order, that the story goes forward, that the writing is succinct, interesting and makes good sense. Leave nothing to chance. Polish it.

Writing may not come easy, but exploring a subject, fi nding the right angle, writing it well, then seeing it in print sure feels good. Enjoy it.

Write on!then submit it to us for consideration

D.M. Murray’s six steps are from Writing to Deadline (2000 ). The travel editor’s advice about the Eiffel Tower is in David Morgan’s ‘Unique Travel Articles: One Writer’s Story on the Travel Fast-Track’ (Ameri-can Writers & Artists Inc.,, March 5, 2010).

Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal. Email him at