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Rick Bragg’s Recipe for a Rich Story

Posted: November 15, 2012 at 2:25 P.M.
by Jessica Colburn

Rick Bragg’s office at The University of Alabama has a wall full of books on the far side of the room. I’m welcomed in and told to “make myself at home”. . . so, I do what any book worm would do and check out his collection.

“It’s good to have books around you; they’re like magic,” said Bragg, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and UA professor.

That statement sparked a brief conversation about one of his books authored by Houdini that I spotted.

“Like a lot of writers, I’m fascinated with things I’ve never really studied,” Bragg said. “Houdini — he knew how badly people wanted something more.”

Bragg then referenced Galileo and how he used storytelling to disseminate his discoveries and theories to the public.

“Galileo wrote in Italian; the church wrote in Latin,” Bragg said. “People got Galileo because he wrote in their language — that’s what writers do.”

So, how do you write in your target audience’s “language”? Bragg offered some advice on the art of storytelling.

Don’t preach — paint a picture
“It’s a very simple process to me,” Bragg said. “What’s worth talking about, what’s worth telling? It has to be written well, or it’s just preaching.”

Bragg suggested the best way to approach a story is to “paint a picture.”

“Content is the foundation of it, but the delivery is the key to getting your message out,” Bragg said.

Bragg then connected his point in the best way possible — with a story.

“When I was a kid and we would get a bad cold, my grandmother would pour a very small glass of corn whiskey for us,” Bragg said. “If there was a lemon, she would add a squeeze. And then, she would take a chunk of cheap peppermint candy and throw it on the iron stove.”

“Then, she would drop it in the toe of a sock and crush it some more, then add it to the whiskey to make it go down,” Bragg said. “It was the peppermint that made it go down. I think that’s the same with good writing — it gives the message a chance to ‘go down.’”

Put a human face on your story
Storytelling doesn’t involve simply telling a story — it helps you feel the story. And, according to Bragg, one of the most important parts is giving your story a heart.

“Most of the successful advertising and public relations campaigns have had a human face on them,” Bragg said. “Those are the ones we remember.”

When covering tragedy, Bragg always focuses on showing what was lost, not what happened during the event.

“The old cliché, ‘put a human face on it,’ works with any form of writing,” Bragg said. “You don’t have to know a place to write about it with feeling or heart — you just have to have a heart.”

Be wary of noise
“Storytelling used to be vitally important when it was the only type of communication,” Bragg said.

Bragg recalled stories from his family members — bedtime stories from his mother, stories of adventure and risk from his uncle, family stories from his grandmother — and how, today, the art of the story seems to be dying.

“I’m sorry, but watching a cat fall off a table isn’t storytelling to me,” Bragg said. “Neither is watching a singing Chihuahua.”

“We’re coming up on Christmas; millions will read The Night Before Christmas or watch A Christmas Story,” Bragg said. “Somehow, that’s more human than showing a YouTube video to their children on their smartphones.”

Bragg realizes that the art of developing and telling stories may be considered old fashioned, but he knows it still works, today.

Just do it
“It really ain’t rocket science; it’s really not,” Bragg said.

Bragg encourages writers to first focus on establishing clarity in their writing.

“You don’t want people to wade through your story to find your message,” Bragg said.

Bragg then advised to focus on writing richly, using color, imagery and detail.

“Make your writing taste good,” Bragg said.

He further explained this point through an analogy of comparing rice cakes to biscuits and gravy — you want your story to taste like the preferred choice (biscuits and gravy, of course!).

“It can be simple, clear and rich all at once,” Bragg said. “If you can accomplish all at once, you win. I don’t think it’s more complicated than that.”


  1. Post comment

    i read rick bragg’s “all over but …” from a booksale just last year, and i got hooked finding more about the man who embodies the reality of life’s unfairness and came out shining.

    am still reading his life works.

  2. Post comment

    Rick Bragg is such an inspirational writer. He spoke to one of my classes last semester, and I remember how full of energy the room was when he left. My favorite piece of advice for journalists and public relations professionals from Bragg is to “put a human face on your story.” The ethos appeal is almost always effective and can gain trust and credibility.

  3. Post comment

    Rick, I have loved your books, and love to read them all

    some of them twice. I think there is one with Fannie Flagg, I

    have to run that down, and buy it.

  4. Post comment

    I enjoyed this post very much. I’m a big fan of Rick Bragg’s. Your piece captures his warm, easy ways. His advice on writing never fails to inspire me. The way he uses color, imagery and detail captivates me . I earnestly strive to follow Rick’s advice to improve my writing to capture these qualities. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Post comment

    Hey Rick,

    Enjoyed this article and enjoyed meeting you at Book Smith for your signing. Have you had a chance at reading any of mine yet (Thank God for Boll Weevils)?

  6. Post comment

    Anything Southern always appeals to my instincts. I discovered Rick Bragg last May when he wrote an article in Southern Living magazine about his dear mother . Then, I read his article on the last page of the S.L. I began to clip and save them. I share them with an aunt in the nursing home. He does make a story taste good and go down easy.
    My first visit to his home state of Alabama came in May of this last May. I fell in love with its small towns and mountains, so reminisicent of the mountains here in Ky and TN.

  7. Post comment

    The good thing about Rick Bragg–or, at least, one of the good things–is that he can both write and describe the craft of writing to others. Young writers who want to do well should master this craft; then it becomes their art.

  8. Post comment

    Rick Bragg has such a richness in his writing. Would live to have him sit across the table from me at a Barker Family get together. I’m sure he could glean a good bit of new material from this bunch!


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