How writers can do better
As many of you know by now, I’ll be retiring at the end of this year…perhaps sooner. I’ve been consulting since June, 1989. Thirty years is a long time and I’m already shifting my full attention to Julia, family, grandkids and guitar.
Over for the next few months, I’m offering some of my best columns from the past few years.
This one focuses on advice to writers.
I have often stated—both on my blog and during presentations—that I am not a friend of writers.
I am a friend of readers.
Years ago, during a workshop I gave for a client, a reporter blurted out: “But we’re in the business of writing.”
“No, we are not,” I said, slowly and carefully mouthing each word to make my position clear. “We are in the business of bringing meaning to readers’ lives.”
Now, that wasn’t my statement. It’s actually the single most important sentence in “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser. I recommend Zinsser’s book time and again—and many of those who have taken my advice and read it have thanked me for it.
We are in the business of bringing meaning to readers’ lives. But just how do we do that?
Here are some points I’d share with those who write for newspapers:
DO A STORY LINE. Write the gist of your story in one line (or less) across the screen of your computer. That one line will help you stay on topic as you write. If you can’t put it into one sentence, then you’re going to struggle.
BE BRIEF. You may think your story has to be long for it to be complete. Nope. It has to be as brief as possible. Why? Because readers will see that your article goes on…and on…and on…and they will stop reading (if they ever start). They will decide they don’t have time to read your entire piece. If you can’t be brief…
BREAK IT UP. Find ways to cut your story into pieces that make it easier to follow, easier to read. If, for example, you have a story about five people running for office, it’s much better to run a package of five separate stories—one on each of the candidates—than one long piece on all of them.
BE CLEAR: Throw the jargon in the junk bin. Just what is a “feasibility study,” really? And what does “ubiquitous” mean? If it’s something your 12-year-old daughter doesn’t understand, odds are your reader won’t, either.
PUT THE BIG STUFF FIRST. Readers want to know what your story is all about—without having to wade through several paragraphs to read it. So put the important points first. Save the less important material and the background paragraphs for later in the story.
USE QUOTES. I recall hearing time and again the maxim: “Quotes write the story for you.” That’s true. Also, quotes bring a humanity and credibility to the story.
USE INFOBOXES. A newsroom quip that goes w-a-a-a-y back suggests: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That’s exactly what an infobox can do for you. Use the infobox to list the cold, hard facts wherever possible, saving the text for narrative, quotes and overview.
USE BY-THE-NUMBERS BOXES. Like infoboxes, by-the-numbers boxes can help you clear the story of details that get in the way of the narrative. And they often serve as a great hook to get readers into your story.
WRITE FOR YOUR READER. Remember who your boss is. Your boss is not your editor. Your boss is not your publisher. Your boss is not your source. Your boss is…your reader.
I could spend hours talking with reporters and writers. I respect who they are and I respect how hard they work. But I really want to share with them that they need to pay less attention to how they write—and more attention to how readers read.
ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the Director of Henninger Consulting. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 803-325-5252.