Writing tips and techniques

As a New Jersey state trooper stands at attention nearby, Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Blindsided: How Christie used passive verbs to turn himself into a victim

My brother frequently drives from New Jersey to New York across the George Washington Bridge to visit our 94-year-old mom. Her name is Shirley Clark, and she likes Chris Christie. She prefers her politicians to be straight talkers. She would agree with George Orwell that the best political rhetoric is “demotic,” a fancy word for the “voice of the people.”

If I could bring Orwell back from his early grave, I would have loved to have sat next to him during the New Jersey governor’s press conference apologizing for dirty political tricks, or at his subsequent State of the State of New Jersey speech. Based on what Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” I think he would have given the governor a mixed grade. Read more


Tips for Storytellers: Your personal brand

If someone “googles” you, what will they find? A well-crafted, professional profile? The finest samples of your work or structured settlement cash now? A summary of your ideas about the future of journalism? Over time, you leave quite a digital trail. Here are bits of advice for refining your personal brand—part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers. Next Friday: Tips for data visualization.

Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Creating Your Personal Brand
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Creating Your Personal Brand

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Creating Your Personal Brand

Related: How to make photos better | How to polish your writing | How to make the most of your tweets | How to get your video right  | Tips for an online portfolio Read more

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How to turn hard facts into easy reading

I was recently hired by a department of the federal government to conduct a workshop on how to write reports that were short and clear. The director of the department who hired me pointed out the problem in her own official title. It was 29 words long.

I am “vice-president and senior scholar” at the Poynter Institute. I am embarrassed that my title is too long — and it’s only five words. What could I possibly do with 24 more?

“Bureaucracies,” I moaned, “is where language goes to die.”

The sixty policy wonks in the room collectively rolled up their sleeves. They understood the problem. They knew that they worked in a language club where jargon and thick information were king and queen. But they were stuck. Read more


Details ‘are what make people connect’ with stories, says student who wrote about Waffle House closing

Jessica Contrera’s “The End of the Waffle House” begins on the morning when a big change comes to a small square of Bloomington, Ind.

“Tap, tap, tap. Bud Powell’s aluminum cane led the way as he circled the floor of Bloomington’s Waffle House. His Waffle House. That Wednesday in September, the owner didn’t know what to do with himself. The smell of frying oil, the same greasy perfume that had greeted customers for 46 years, wafted into his nose as he wandered past the vinyl booths. He sat down, then stood up again.”

Contrera had never been to the old restaurant surrounded by new student apartments before, but when the senior from Akron, Ohio, started her semester at Indiana University, she saw the sign reading “We will close Sept. Read more

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Tips for Storytellers: How to polish your writing

Lucky me. My office is two doors down from one of the world’s best writing coaches. I go to Roy Peter Clark often when writer’s block hits me. Here, you’ll find a few particularly helpful tips. Part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers, think of this as bite-sized inspiration. Next Friday: How to make your photos better.

Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: How to polish your writing

Related: How to make the most of your tweets | How to shoot great video Read more

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Have you lost that writing feeling? Is it gone, gone, gone…?

The dialogue with a stranger on a plane often goes something like this:

Stranger:  “What do you do for a living?”
Me:  “I’m a teacher.”
Stranger:  “What do you teach?”
Me: “I teach writing.”

The response from the stranger is almost predictable. Odd looks. Nervous laughter. Usually followed by an admission that he doesn’t like to write, or that she tried to write in school once but it didn’t work out, or that he has to write as part of his job — but hates it.

Even professional writers will confess their loss of passion for their craft.

So do we hate writing? Or does writing hate us?

This feeling has many different names: writing anxiety, writing apprehension, writers’ block, paralyzing procrastination, aversive conditioning.  Read more

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Why stories need a focus … or do they?

If there is one writing lesson that Poynter has taught for more than three decades now, it’s that good stories need a sharp focus.

I once heard my friend Chip Scanlan say that all parts of the writing process amount to these three words: focus, focus, focus.

We focus the:

  • Story idea
  • Reporting
  • Structure
  • Ending
  • Language
  • Revision

And, yes, we probably even focus the focus.

I have compared focus to the way that the eyedoctor tests you for new lenses. The image is supposed to get sharper and sharper with each slight correction.

But there’s always a big but, isn’t there?

How do we account for great works of art that defy all attempts to declare a focus? Does Hamlet have a focus? Or Moby Dick? Read more


Are we heading for a post-apostrophe society?

Time | Slate | The New Republic

The apostrophe — the punctuation mark, not the parenthetical form of speech directed at one person — will never die as long as copy editors and auto-correct programs value it, Katy Steinmetz argues. (Happy National Punctuation Day, Katy!) Losing the punctuation mark forever would require a “revolution in thought and relaxation among gatekeepers of the written word,” she writes.

Copyeditors are still changing donut to doughnut, after all. “Language is constantly changing, but predicting what will happen next is notoriously challenging,” [Oxford University's U.S. dictionary honcho Katherine] Martin says. “It is difficult to believe that copyeditors are going to stop distinguishing between its and it’s in the near future.”

But at this point in publishing history, throwing one’s lot in with gatekeepers seems as sound as larding your pension with media-company stocks. Read more


How to write longform stories

You knew it was only a matter of time until the author of “How to Write Short” would turn his attention to “How to Write Long.”

It turns out that long and short writing are not necessarily in conflict. Think for a moment about your favorite magazines. Compared to newspapers, the long stories in magazines are longer, and the shorter pieces are shorter. It’s the combination of short and long that make a publication versatile for readers.

Although I’ve met some writers who tell me “I want to write shorter,” that is the exception.  Most writers I know — including me — want to go longer. The daily beat reporter wants to do a Sunday feature. The Sunday feature writer wants to do a series. Read more

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Take chances, Pulitzer-winning reporter urges young journalists


Lane DeGregory, a reporter for Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, wrote an email to a journalism student who asked her: “Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were as inexperienced as us?

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, it’s okay to not know — it can even be endearing,” DeGregory, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for this series, writes about boning up for interviews. In another section, she suggests taking risks: Read more

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