Documentary Writing for Beginners – By June Perkins

It’s powerful How to write documentary styleto write about something you have been through with a community, like bushfire, cyclone, flood, or tsunami; but how can you write a documentary it in a way that is accessible to people who haven’t experienced the event, while staying sensitive to those who have?

I faced this question when asked to be a guest blogger for Aftermath, a project by ABC Open, that focused on natural disasters and the process of how people recover from them.  Here are my suggestions for those tackling documentaries for the first time.

My tips for documentary writing

  1. bloghopimage1Think about WHY you are documenting and WHO your audience is
  2. Be interviewed yourself  about a trauma you have been through. This will prompt EMPATHY for the person you interview.
  3. Start with people you know well and are COMFORTABLE interviewing, then ask to interview their friends
  4. See what format your interviewee prefers (spoken, audio, video ) and take lots of PHOTOGRAPHS of turning point moments
  5. In the process of collecting your stories, be SENSITIVE to how people are feeling; you can always stop and come back to it at a later time if it’s too much for someone. Do not be in a rush!  Make sure you let them know how and when their story will be shared with others
  6. Be BOLD and branch out to others in the community at recovery events and those recommended by family, friends. (We had concerts, health classes, art and writing workshops, music workshops all held to support the recovery process.)
  7. FOLLOW UP interesting stories circulating in the community around you (I heard one about a lady painting her lost roof with butterflies and another attaching an anchor to her house).
  8. Document public recovery events with photographs and SHARE them with participants in those events (look for special moments happening around you.)
  9. Identify turning points in the recovery process (such as the return of natural habitats, people smiling more, insurance claims in). It’s important to focus on RECOVERY, not just the events of the natural disaster itself.
  10. Write for COMMUNITY, not just yourself, to widen the scope of what you cover and help yourself focus on the turning points and moments of joy.  This way you will learn so much.

Prince WilliamYasi CycloneSome unexpected outcomes of the blogging for community guest spot with ABC Open were an exhibition of my documentary photographs, the gaining of video documentary skills, publication of my blogs in other community books and the creation of my own community story book of the recovery process.

The photographs with this blog include one taken when Prince William flew in by helicopter to visit Tully.  A shopkeeper gave him a cassowary she had made.  Another is of a friend who was out clearing up with his chainsaw almost straight after the cyclone.

Guest post by June Perkins

How to write a documentaryThe ebook of After Yasi, is now available  and will be launched online on February 2nd  2015

You can find sample pages of the ebook here:

Please note:

Best comments for each blog will be given special prizes, either a free copy of the ebook or a choice of a signed print of one of the photographs from the book.

**The After Yasi Blog Tour includes upcoming visits to:

January 29th Michele DeCosta

Jan 30 (Friday) Jedda Bradley

January 31 Saturday Carol Campbell

Jan 31  (Saturday) Gail Kavanagh  (review)

Feb 1 Owen Allen  Place Stories

Feb 2  (Monday)  Ali Stegert

Feb 3 (Tuesday) ABC Open (to be confirmed)

Feb 3   Melinda Irvine (interview)

Feb 4 (Wed) wrap up and thankyou blog from June

You can also catch earlier visits to

Jan 27 (Tuesday) Karen Tyrrell

Jan 28 (Wednesday) Dimity Powell – interview


  1. Hi June,
    Congrats on the launch of ‘After Yasi’ and your Blog Tour.
    Congrats too on your tips for documentary making.

    Karen Tyrrell 🙂
    Karen Tyrrell recently posted…After Yasi Book Launch and Blog TourMy Profile

  2. Insightful advice on an otherwise unconsidered aspect of writing. Thanks June and Charmaine!

  3. Such a useful article, June and Charmaine. June talks about these issues with such compassion and serenity. A few major media outlets and a handful of rogue journos could learn a thing or two from her, I reckon! I love the documentary video featuring her son. Stay tuned to the blog hop to see it. 😉

  4. What supportive hosts you have all been on my first virtual book tour. The questions from interviewers and the sensitivity of reviewers has greatly encouraged me to continue finding a voice in documentary form as well as writing, and keep giving a voice to others. There are so many things that can be supported in documentary and blogging. Ha I had a giggle at your comment Ali. I remember doing work experience at a local paper. I was able to meet Barry Jones who is always interesting, but didn’t get to ask him any questions and those naughty mentoring people at that nameless paper sent me off to buy them things like coffee and cigarettes (which at the time I was underage to to do) and had me working on the recipe page only. Now the wheel turns. (first version of comment had a typo on interviewer sigh, just fixed it)
    June Perkins recently posted…Writer’s Dream 9 – Reviews After YasiMy Profile