10 Writing Tips From a Journalist
Trial by Fire
My first day as a journalist at The Recorder, a regional newspaper in Franklin County, was literally trial by fire. I walked in at 9 a.m. on a Monday and my boss turned me around and sent me to followup on a bad house fire that had happened the night before.
As an English major in undergrad with very little experience as a journalist, that first day was rocky. Looking back about a year later, I’ve improved greatly. Now, I wield the pen like a pro, take concise, accurate notes, and write quickly.
To that end, here are a few reporting tips I’ve learned in that year – applicable to any writing form, particularly travel writing.
The Lede Forms the Story
A Lede is the first attention-grabbing sentence in a news article. It should hint at the story’s synopsis in a catchy, engaging and enticing way. It’s the icing on the cake. In many ways, the lede is the most important part of the story, because everything else follows.
Say, for instance, there’s a new movie theater coming to town. One writer might put the lede this way: “Victory Cinemas announces new theater in town.” While that’s informative, it’s not catchy. A more enticing lede might be, “movie lovers rejoice: there’s a new place to watch movies in town.”
While the two are similar, the second is better because it’s more engaging. Keep this in mind when crafting your ledes, and also note it can apply to every sentence you’ll ever write. Sentence structure sets apart great writers from good writers.
Take Notes in Quotes
Early on, I wrote everything down when interviewing, paraphrasing information to write faster. My pen never stopped moving. After a while, though, I learned a better approach: only document important information, and when you do, write down exactly what the person says.
This is a tremendous time saver, and makes writing your story later a lot easier. Also, when you do write, use quality quotes that drive the story forward instead of paraphrasing. It’ll drastically speed up your writing process and cut down on your own liability because the information is directly cited.
Another important thing to remember when taking notes is to start off by asking the person to spell their name. Then, read it back and show them your notes. This might seem obvious and redundant; however, if you can get into this habit early on, it saves a lot of stress later. Also, always get a phone number.
The 20 Percent Reduction Rule
The head editor at my paper always tells me to write the story, then remove 20 percent of the words. It’s a good rule of thumb if you’re looking to be a journalist. And even if your style is flowery and superfluous, it’s still a good rule.
I’ve found that, usually, about that percentage of all of my writing is terrible. Adhering to this rule removes my attachment to the words and allows me to edit generously, becoming a much better self-critic.
When Stuck, Add a Scene
I don’t believe in so-called ‘writer’s block.’ There’s always a way around it.
While there are many strategies to overcoming this, such as ‘free writing,’ for me, that path most often comes in the form of scenes. Instead of over-thinking what I’m trying to say, I immerse myself into a memory and document exactly what I remember. After a few sentences, I usually find inspiration again.
Stand-ups Are Your Friend
A stand-up is an article written in advance of an event or experience, which has basic and historical information that sometimes can’t be obtained on the fly. Usually, I write these during town meetings or other governmental events; however, the rules apply to all forms of writing. Preparation is your friend.
Before heading out on an adventure, do some research and write down what you discover. Good stories are always a combination of robust information and eloquent emotional prose.
Take a Minute to Digest Locations
Whenever I’m on an assignment, I take about five minutes by myself, away from people, to document the space I’m in. I intentionally key in to my five senses, writing down what I feel, taste, hear, see, and smell. Whatever the story and wherever you are, those details will come in handy later when writing.
While Interviewing, Engage
The best interviews shouldn’t feel like interviews. They should be an intriguing conversation directed by a genuinely curious person. To that end, ask open ended questions, and don’t be afraid to interject your own opinion, even if you disagree. Often, I find this causes the interviewee to expand on their perspective, which is where the really good quotes are.
In contrast, an interview should absolutely not be stiff. With this in mind, it’s OK to write down questions beforehand, but don’t be afraid to set them aside and follow where the discussion leads.
A Good Journalist Always Carries a Camera
As a journalist, I have an irrational fear of not being prepared. I’m afraid that the day I don’t bring my camera is the day a Pulitzer-prize winning image will land in my lap. Thus, I’m always ready. I always have a camera around my neck.
In a more rational sense, this practice has made me into a perpetual photographer. I’ve learned to look for images wherever I am, even at the grocery store. As a result, I notice details.
Carrying a camera has made me a better storyteller, and I think it’s a great habit for all artists, writers and photographers.
Ask the Locals
When in doubt, find someone who looks like they know what they’re doing and do the same. The same applies to finding stories. If you’re looking for a good restaurant, don’t ask a tourist. If you don’t know what to write about when traveling, ask someone who lives there what’s the most interesting feature.
The answer might be entirely different than the guidebooks. If so, that’s your story.
The great American fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne once said “easy reading is damn hard writing.” That’s the truth. It’s a lot harder to say something of significance in ten words than 50. At first, the key to this is a lot of editing.
Over time, however, you’ll find that writing concisely and to-the-point comes naturally. Another writer whom I respect, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told me that “writing is thinking.”
That’s also true. Great writers are great thinkers. The two are connected. Thus, to become a concise writer is to become a concise thinker.