In my journalism classes at Fresno State, we commit ourselves to improving our writing by working at it on a daily basis. As we tap out sentences on our keyboards, we think about how the words that we use sound to others. That’s important because we are not writing for ourselves. In newswriting, our goal is to tell what happened, and give it meaning and context. If you are not offering value to your readers, then you might as well write a personal journal.
I have known many great writers during my career in journalism, and they always worked on perfecting that “final draft.” They are seldom satisfied with the latest version, and would tinker with it until their editors demanded the story so it could get published. Good writing is hard work. Being satisfied with your first version is just being lazy.
If someone tells you their first draft is always their final draft, you can bet that the content can be substantially improved if the writer only took the time to use those first words as a starting point and not make them the final version. I’m amazed to read Facebook posts that are loaded with typos, grammatical errors and sentences that never seem to end. If they would only take that first version and smooth it out, it would help their family and friends understand the meaning they are trying to convey. Maybe they don’t realize that you can edit your posts on Facebook.
In recent months, I have been posting writing tips on Twitter that I have developed in my journalism classes. They are based on my four decades as a writer and editor. I have decided to put them in this blog so that I can find them in one place. With classes ready to begin for the fall semester at Fresno State, this list will be handy for my writing lectures.
Here are 10 writing tips taken directly from my Twitter posts:
Today’s writing tip: Sometimes we get overwhelmed by our task, and can’t get started. I’m more productive when I stick to a pattern. Write in the same place, clear distractions, check email if you must. But then just start writing. If you know your material, the words will come. I don’t believe in “writer’s block.”
Today’s writing tip comes from David Mas Masumoto, who says smart questions lead to good writing: “The questions you ask determine the story you get,” Mas told my journalism students one semester. I’ve used that tip in every advanced reporting class since then.
Today’s writing tip: Great writers write every day, just as great hitters take batting practice before each game. The Yankees’ Aaron Judge is one of baseball’s best hitters, but he still works on his hitting to get better. Write at least 250 words a day on any subject. You’ll get better with “batting practice.”
Today’s writing tip: Trust your ear to see if your sentences are smoothly written and transitions between paragraphs are effortless. You can do this by reading your stories aloud. Your ear will pick up awkward phrasing that you might not spot when reading the text on your screen. You can also do this by reading aloud into a mirror. Seeing the words come straight out of your mouth can be humbling, but effective in improving your writing.
Today’s writing tip: As you edit your final draft, become the reader. What would you want to know if you just saw this story? You’re not writing for your sources, or your editor. You’re writing to increase your reader’s understanding of an issue, and giving it context, detail and value.
Today’s writing tip: Avoid jargon. Your words are powerful in their simplicity in describing events. If you want to use terms like the “read out” from the meeting, “weaponizing” this or that or “at the end of the day,” then become a politician. Words really don’t matter to them. But for a writer, words have value. Don’t waste them.
Today’s writing tip: Having a command of your facts gives you great confidence as a writer. That means fully understanding the subject you’re covering. If there are gaps in your reporting, they will show up in your writing.
Today’s writing tip: How you end a story is as important as how you start it. Think about an airline flight that was smooth all the way until it ended with a bumpy landing that jostled you around your seat. The landing is what you remember.Good writers don’t jostle their readers with clumsy endings.
Today’s writing tip: Great writers are great observers. The next time you drive to the grocery stare, take some time to see your neighborhood in a way that you previously didn’t. What kind of roofs are on the houses on your street? How is the landscaping different from house to house. How long do you spend at a stoplight? Do you look at things or do you observe them?
Today’s writing tip: Throughout the reporting and writing process, focus on your story’s purpose. Don’t take this step for granted. Every few paragraphs, ask yourself what is the story’s point. This will keep you on track, and avoid those awkward conversations with your editor.
This gives you a sampling of ways I think that your writing can be improved. I’d like to hear from you about how you work on improving your writing. Please add your tips to the comments section in this blog.