As a young reporter in Alaska, I was assigned a story on the local cadre of Young Marines.
Early on a Saturday morning, I headed to the local fire training center, where teenage boys were rappelling down a three-story tower.
I watched from the bottom, taking notes on the activity, talking to the leaders, and gathering quotes from some of the young men. I had enough for the story I was assigned.
But then, they asked if I wanted to try it out — if I wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the tower, let someone harness me up, then step backwards into thin air.
Yes. Yes, I did.
Not only was the experience awesome, but the story was so much better, because I could describe the steepness of the steps, the final climb by ladder, the structure of the harness, the coarseness of the rope, the adrenaline rush of the controlled fall.
Now, I haven’t always chosen to participate in my stories. In Wyoming, when I was writing a piece about life on the local Native American reservation, I was invited to partake in peyote ceremony. I was curious, but that particular experience wasn’t within the scope of my story — and I had to drive back to town an hour or so later — so I opted out.
Your level of participation is, of course, a choice. But the more you can get involved — the more you can see firsthand, whether by participating yourself or just shadowing your subject through their activities — the richer and more authentic your writing will be.