December 11, 2002

By John Hatcher

“The best tip I ever heard was “Go to law school.” I think this had as much
to do with this person’s assessment of my talent as it did with the state of
the newspaper business.”

— John Burr, The Florida Times-Union

The Center for Community Journalism asked the nation’s top newsroom trainers to provide us with their favorite pieces of writing advice. And they responded with what we believe are the Greatest Writing Tips the World has Ever Seen. This list of writing tips was composed with the help of the NewsCoach, a listserv hosted by The Poynter Institute, which connected us to a group of journalists dedicated to the improvement of our profession.

Below, you’ll find their tips along with techniques you can use to test these ideas. Use them in your own newsroom. Share them with your friends. Try one of these exercises each week for a month and we guarantee you’ll write with greater muscle by the time you’re done.

Writing checklist
Recommended by: Avi Bass, Northern Illinois University
Good Writing has:
· accurate information
· interesting phrasing
· appropriate word choices
· clear transitions
· no misplaced modifiers
· parallel construction
· proper sequence of tenses
· correct grammar
· correct spelling and punctuation
Assignment: Go through an article and decide what kind of grade it should receive on each of the above categories on a scale of 1 to 10.

The great lede test
Recommended by: Kathy Norton, Poughkeepsie Journal
Read the lede for an article. Now ask, does this sentence make you want to read the next sentence and the rest of the story?
Assignment: Go through a series of articles, reading only the lede. After you read the lede, vote as a group on whether you are enticed to read the rest of the story. Talk about what it does (or doesn’t do) that draws you into the story.

Finding the focus
Recommended by: Chip Scanlan, Poynter Institute
Every story is about something. The best stories have a focus and a point. Try asking these questions:
What’s the news? What’s the story? What information surprised me the most? What will surprise my reader or viewer? What one thing does my reader need to know?
Assignment: Read one story as a group and then see if you can answer the questions above regarding that article. When you’re done, see if asking these questions helped you decide if you’d change the way the story you read was put together.

Active language
Recommended by: Denny Wilkins, St. Bonaventure University
Everyone tells you to write using an “active voice.” Anyone ever tell you how to do that? Here’s one suggestion.
Assignment: Try going through a story and highlighting every “are,” “is,” “were,” and “was.” Now find a way to rewrite the sentence using a stronger verb.

Edit your own copy
Recommended by: Denny Wilkins, St. Bonaventure University
Assignment: It’s almost impossible to edit your own copy. But try this out. Print out a copy of your article and read it backwards. This should help you see your copy through fresh eyes. Find any errors or awkward phrases?

Circling problem areas
Recommended by: Denny Wilkins, St. Bonaventure University
Assignment: Go through an article and circle every period using a bright highlighter. Now look at the pattern of periods – looking for areas where you see longer sentences. See if this helps you identify sentences that may be too long. Typically, longer sentences are where you find grammatical errors, needless prepositions and other impediments to good writing. See if the story has a good balance of long and short sentences.

Show me the details
Recommended by: Rene Kaluza, Day city editor/training editor, St. Cloud Times
Show, don’t tell. (However, you have to have reported the details well to be able to do that.)
Assignment: Go through an article and find examples where a writer could have benefited from using details to show the reader something rather than just telling them about it. Also, find examples where the writer succeeded in showing you something.

Finding the nutgraf
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, Assistant News Editor, IDG News Service
Highlight the nutgraf or put it in bold or whatever and go back to it as you
write to make certain that the story supports it.
Assignment: Highlight the nutgraf (the sentence that provides an overview for what the story is about) and then go through and find places where the article gets away from the main focus outlined in this nutgraf.

Quote alert
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, Assistant News Editor, IDG News Service
Go on quote alert. Make sure every quote you use is worth using. Otherwise
Assignment: Go through an article and highlight the quotes. Decide if it’s an effective quote. Does it add to the story? Why? Should it be shorter? Should it be longer? Should it be paraphrased?

Omit needless words
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, Assistant News Editor, IDG News Service
Be on guard for words you don’t need. Watch for phrases like “in order to” and others that add words without saying more.
Assignment: Go through an article and highlight all the words that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the story.

What’s the story worth?
Recommended by: Antoni M. Piqué, Director, Mediaccion Consultores / Universidad de Navarra, Spain
Would you pay 50 cents (or 0,90 euros, or the price of your paper) tomorrow for THIS piece you are writing?
Assignment: Go through an issue of a newspaper and find one story that makes the paper worth the price you paid for it. What makes the story worth the money? If you can’t find any, find the stories that have the potential to become 50-cent stories, and decide on what the writer could have done to make the piece stronger.

Are your lips moving?
Recommended by: Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Read your story out loud. You will hear awkward phrases and know if a
sentence is too long or difficult to read.
Assignment: Read a story out loud and see if, in doing so, you find places where the flow doesn’t work or where you’d make changes of any sort based on what you hear.

Search and destroy
Recommended by: Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Search and destroy. That is, after your first draft do a computer search on weak words (there, it, etc.) or weak verbs or (in my case) adverbs (do a search on LY) or any other phrases or words you tend to use as a crutch, and then change them to something stronger.
Assignment: Go through an article and highlight the weak words identified above and decide whether a new word or no word works better.

Making a positive out of a negative
Recommended by: Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Convert negatives to positives? Figure out a way to say what is, instead of what isn’t. Saying what is usually shorter, clearer and more direct. (Obviously, there are times when for various writerly reasons you want to break this rule.)
Look for “not” and “wasn’t” (or “isn’t”) or “no” and see if it makes sense to rewrite.
“The movie wasn’t engaging and most people didn’t stay for the end.”
Change to: “The movie was dull and people left early.”
The City Council vote was not unanimous.”
Change to: “The council’s vote was divided.”
Assignment: Go through an article and find “negatives,” sentences that talk about things that aren’t. See if they can be reworded to be positive statements.

Toddler with a butcher knife
Recommended by: Lex Alexander, assistant features editor/CAR team leader, Greensboro News & Record
Trust yourself with adjectives the way you would trust a toddler with a butcher knife. Adjectives often imply subjective value judgments that your reporting might or might not support (and that readers will interpret as bias in either case).
Example: Find objective terms for what you’re trying to convey. Don’t call the city council member “ineffective.” Say he has set a record for missed meetings, was on the winning side of only two disputed votes in the past year and hasn’t gotten a single motion or resolution enacted since taking office.
Don’t say Reporter X is lazy. Say that Reporter X has failed to consult the internal archives for his stories, resulting in the following published errors of fact ….
You get the idea.
It’s longer, but it’s fairer and more accurate.
Assignment: Go through an article and highlight all the adjectives and decide what purpose the adjectives serve. Are they implying something? Are they necessary? Are they a substitute for details?

Who’s the story about?
Recommended by: Carolyn Bower, Tampa Tribune
Never assume that the official view is the peg of the story. When I teach about writing, one of the points I urge reporters to consider is whose story is this.
One example: City commissioner John Higgins will apologize to the woman he ejected from a public meeting to settle her long and costly lawsuit against him, the city attorney’s office said.
(This is a classic case of the reporter forgetting he/she gathers information and then determines the direction of the story.)
Rewritten: After two years of fighting city hall, Rita Moore, 72, is getting what she wanted: A formal apology from ex-Mayor John Higgins.
Not perfect, but much, much better.
Assignment: Go through an article written about some kind of government-related event, and decide if the point of view of the article should be changed (Is it written through the eyes of the public officials, when it could be stronger through the eyes of the taxpayers, residents of the community, etc.)

Recommended by: Lynn Kalber, The Palm Beach Post
My best tip is: Read good writers. Actually, the basic is “Just READ!” – it’s surprising how many reporters don’t.
Assignment: Go through your papers and find nuggets of great writing. Share with your group what makes these nuggets great – strong detail, great quote, clean writing, concise language, etc. Find one of your favorite things.

Tell that story in one word
Recommended by: Michelle Hiskey, reporter, Atlanta Journal Constitution
Attach a ONE WORD theme to your story – i.e. greed, monopoly, trust, hunger, etc. — to keep you focused.
Assignment: Go through an article and see if you can apply one word to it – a theme as identified above. Then look back over the article and see if there are places in the story that deviate from this theme and therefore don’t belong. Does giving a theme or one word to the story make you want to make changes or adjust the story in some way?

Details, details
Recommended by: John Hatcher, Center for Community Journalism
Assignment: It’s been said that great writing is rich with detail and lean on fluff. Go through an article and find the details that show a journalist was paying attention, not just to what people were saying, but to where they were saying it, how they were saying it, and what was going on around them as it was being said. If you can’t find an example of this, find an example of a story that would have been helped with these same details.

The great jargon hunt
Recommended by: unknown
Assignment: Go through an article and highlight all jargon words. These are the words used by public officials, police officers and sports writers that may not make any sense to the average readers. Look at those words and see if you can find a way to translate them for the reader.

Steve’s favorites
Recommended by: Steve Buttry, Writing Coach/National Correspondent, Omaha World-Herald
Write as you report. Don’t wait until you’ve gathered all your information to start telling the story.
Don’t insist on writing the lede first. Sometimes the process of writing the story will bring out the best lede.
Write without notes. Notes can be a distraction. The story should be in your head and your heart. Go back to the notes for fact-checking.

Before you write
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, Assistant News Editor, IDG News Service
Organize notes and information, developing a system that works for you.
Different color inks, stars, whatever. Use story wheels or write down key points of the story before you write so that you don’t forget any of the elements you want to include.

Walk away
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, Assistant News Editor, IDG News Service
Provided you aren’t on right-this-second deadline, leave the office if you get stuck. Likewise, get up and move around when you’re working on long stories or stories with difficult topics (get away from the murder and mayhem you are writing about). Take a walk outside. Go to your favorite store and immerse yourself in the tactile pleasures of shopping for 15 or 20 minutes, relax and let your mind go where it wants with the story.

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Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill…
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