Telling the stories of others by Lucy Rycroft

One of my current pieces of freelance work involves writing up the story of someone I've never met. The feature is about the difficulties of adults with neuro-diversity (predominantly autism) finding employment, and this particular piece is taken from a mother's perspective.

Writing her story has reminded me of the very first piece of paid freelance writing I did, which was to write up the stories of four couples who'd fostered Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASCs).

And I've recently published a week's 'Home Education' feature on my blog, telling the stories of five very different mums, and their journey towards home education.

I would imagine that most of us writers, at one stage or another, have written our own story, whether a whole life's memoirs, or short anecdotes from personal experience.

The telling of others' stories, however, is a peculiar privilege. I liken it to being given a precious vase to hold, a vase which is so fragile that the slightest knock could shatter it into a thousand pieces.

Being trusted to keep a friend's confidence is a big responsibility - but being trusted to accurately communicate a friend's story to others, so that they can source encouragement and inspiration from what that friend has been through - well, this is a daunting task.

In order for someone's story to be deemed interesting enough to share, there will probably be some challenge which has been (or is being) overcome. So this needs to be handled carefully and sensitively, eliciting as much information as possible from the subject, in order for the story to be communicated accurately, but not pushing the wrong buttons, or asking too much.

For the mother whose story I'm currently writing, her journey of trying for years to find suitable work or study options for her son who has ADD has been frustrating and isolating. It's such an important journey to share, as others will be going through the same thing, and will be encouraged in knowing they're not alone.

But it's also important to build a good relationship with her, to treat her story with care and to express my gratitude that she's entrusted it to me. I want her to have total confidence that this random stranger from the other side of the world (she's in Australia) will tell her story accurately and compassionately.

What have I learnt so far? I'm sure I'll continue learning as I continue to find myself telling the stories of others, but here's where I'm up to currently:

* If you get to ask the questions, think carefully. What do you want to know? What do you think others would want to know? Have you covered the past, present and future? How can you balance realism with hope? Where is the advice to others?

* Always offer the proviso that the person does not need to answer questions which are too sensitive or personal. This means you can ask everything you want to know, safe in the knowledge that they will simply ignore the questions they don't wish to answer.

* Offer to change names if that helps someone to be really honest about their story. This was an important consideration in the stories of the UASC foster families.

* Be prepared to do some serious cutting. I have never known anyone give me a brief summary when asked to talk about themselves! You will probably get two or three times as many words as you can publish - but you'll want to keep it all in if it's good! So two additional points on cutting down a huge word count:
  1. Keep the flow of the narrative such as it will make sense to the reader, but look for the extraneous details which can be cut, e.g. lists, extra adjectives or additional examples.
  2. Retaining a succinct but coherent narrative flow will allow space for some of the more emotive details, or phrases which describe a situation so well that you want to keep them verbatim. It's important to allow these phrases to sparkle within the story, as they remind the reader that this is a real person going through real challenges. They bring out the human interest, keeping the story from becoming a mere report of what happened. Don't leave it simply as a black-and-white description - leave in the 'colour' which makes the story personal and interesting.
* If in doubt - check with the person whose story you're telling. Check as much as you need to - they'll want you to get it right. And it goes without saying - but I'll say it anyway - that they will need to see and approve your final draft before it gets sent to your editor/publisher or posted on your blog.

It's probably no coincidence that, while I've been considering and writing this blog post, I've also been interviewed by another writer, for a story of my own which is due to be featured in her forthcoming book - so I've now been on both sides of the process!

She and I discussed the importance of sharing stories, agreeing that they build faith, inspire positivity, reduce cynicism. With the confusion of our current world, maybe we all need to be telling stories of hope a little more?

Lucy Rycroft writes Christian parenting blog DesertmumFormerly a teacher and PGCE lecturer, she now divides her time between freelance writing and raising her kids. Her first two books, one for children and one for adults, will be released this Autumn. Lucy lives in York with her husband and their four children.


  1. Thanks, Lucy. This was both well written and helpful. I'm going to be writing some longer pieces to appear on the Wycliffe Bible Translators blog. So what you've written will come in handy. Look forward to discovering more about your story too, when that piece comes out. Blessings, Martin


Post a Comment