Every story has a soul.
No, really, it does.
We don't know when it's not there, but when we go 'Hmm...well-written story', there's a 90% chance that the writer has touched this soul (else, he/she is such a great writer, that he/she can cover up the lack of soul with sparkling wit and crafty narrative... but that's rare, for a reporter)
Most of the time, I look for a person - that one person who can remind me of what this is all about - who must the story speak for, and why.
Usually, the 'soul' gets a one-line mention in a story of a thousand words. Sometimes, that one line is chopped off, at the desk.
Sometimes, I don't bother to include this one person in the story at all - names are not always relevant.
Sometimes, it is not in a face or name, but in retrospect, in regret, or a second-hand tale.
It is not easy to find the soul, though. Not in a day.
Nor does it guarantee that you'll have produced a brilliant report, the very Pulitzer-winner, when you're done. For all the soul I may put into it, I've written many shoddy stories, and been hauled up for them. It is quite possible that I get carried away by the soul of my piece, and forget to pay attention to craft, flow and space-constraints.
All the same, I look for it...
While I worked for a daily tabloid, I must have seen this story-soul once, for every twenty reports I filed. Maybe less frequently.
While I worked for a glam-mag, I never saw it at all. Not once, in one-and-a-half years.
When I freelanced, I stopped searching. It was too dangerous to go about looking for reasons to write, when you got paid by the word.
But now, I cannot write until I have seen it. This soul is like the margin that I set my mind against, before I crank up the word-machine.
On the yatra, it took me four days to find it.
I talked to dozens of people, but I was unhappy (and nervous, because I knew a boulder-sized writer's block was rolling its way into my system); I just couldn't find my 'why' and 'what for'...
Then, I met Kali-bai.
The moment she took up the mic on a makeshift stage in Banswara, and she began saying that the women of her village do not have enough land to shit on, much less till...
I found it.
[And guess what? Got hauled up for filing a shoddy report!! Ah well...]