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11/16/2016 The Greatest Writing Tips the World has Ever Seen Poynter

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The Greatest Writing Tips the World has Ever Seen


ByBillMitchellDecember11,2002

ByJohnHatcher

"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."
--JohnBurr,TheFloridaTimes-Union

TheCenterforCommunityJournalismaskedthenation'stopnewsroomtrainerstoprovideuswiththeirfavoritepiecesof
writingadvice.AndtheyrespondedwithwhatwebelievearetheGreatestWritingTipstheWorldhasEverSeen.Thislistof
writingtipswascomposedwiththehelpoftheNewsCoach,alistservhostedbyThePoynterInstitute,whichconnectedustoa
groupofjournalistsdedicatedtotheimprovementofourprofession.

Below,you'llndtheirtipsalongwithtechniquesyoucanusetotesttheseideas.Usetheminyourownnewsroom.Sharethem
withyourfriends.Tryoneoftheseexerciseseachweekforamonthandweguaranteeyou'llwritewithgreatermusclebythetime
you'redone.

Writingchecklist
Recommendedby:AviBass,NorthernIllinoisUniversity
GoodWritinghas:
accurateinformation
interestingphrasing
appropriatewordchoices
cleartransitions
nomisplacedmodiers
parallelconstruction
propersequenceoftenses
correctgrammar
correctspellingandpunctuation
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleanddecidewhatkindofgradeitshouldreceiveoneachoftheabovecategoriesonascaleof1
to10.

Thegreatledetest
Recommendedby:KathyNorton,PoughkeepsieJournal
Readtheledeforanarticle.Nowask,doesthissentencemakeyouwanttoreadthenextsentenceandtherestofthestory?
Assignment:Gothroughaseriesofarticles,readingonlythelede.Afteryoureadthelede,voteasagrouponwhetheryouare
enticedtoreadtherestofthestory.Talkaboutwhatitdoes(ordoesn'tdo)thatdrawsyouintothestory.

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Findingthefocus
Recommendedby:ChipScanlan,PoynterInstitute
Everystoryisaboutsomething.Thebeststorieshaveafocusandapoint.Tryaskingthesequestions:
What'sthenews?What'sthestory?Whatinformationsurprisedmethemost?Whatwillsurprisemyreaderorviewer?Whatone
thingdoesmyreaderneedtoknow?
Assignment:Readonestoryasagroupandthenseeifyoucananswerthequestionsaboveregardingthatarticle.Whenyou're
done,seeifaskingthesequestionshelpedyoudecideifyou'dchangethewaythestoryyoureadwasputtogether.

Activelanguage
Recommendedby:DennyWilkins,St.BonaventureUniversity
Everyonetellsyoutowriteusingan"activevoice."Anyoneevertellyouhowtodothat?Here'sonesuggestion.
Assignment:Trygoingthroughastoryandhighlightingevery"are,""is,""were,"and"was."Nowndawaytorewritethe
sentenceusingastrongerverb.

Edityourowncopy
Recommendedby:DennyWilkins,St.BonaventureUniversity
Assignment:It'salmostimpossibletoedityourowncopy.Buttrythisout.Printoutacopyofyourarticleandreadit
backwards.Thisshouldhelpyouseeyourcopythroughfresheyes.Findanyerrorsorawkwardphrases?

Circlingproblemareas
Recommendedby:DennyWilkins,St.BonaventureUniversity
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandcircleeveryperiodusingabrighthighlighter.Nowlookatthepatternofperiods-looking
forareaswhereyouseelongersentences.Seeifthishelpsyouidentifysentencesthatmaybetoolong.Typically,longersentences
arewhereyoundgrammaticalerrors,needlessprepositionsandotherimpedimentstogoodwriting.Seeifthestoryhasagood
balanceoflongandshortsentences.

Showmethedetails
Recommendedby:ReneKaluza,Daycityeditor/trainingeditor,St.CloudTimes
Show,don'ttell.(However,youhavetohavereportedthedetailswelltobeabletodothat.)
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandndexampleswhereawritercouldhavebenetedfromusingdetailstoshowthereader
somethingratherthanjusttellingthemaboutit.Also,ndexampleswherethewritersucceededinshowingyousomething.

Findingthenutgraf
Recommendedby:NancyWeil,AssistantNewsEditor,IDGNewsService
Highlightthenutgraforputitinboldorwhateverandgobacktoitasyou
writetomakecertainthatthestorysupportsit.
Assignment:Highlightthenutgraf(thesentencethatprovidesanoverviewforwhatthestoryisabout)andthengothroughand
ndplaceswherethearticlegetsawayfromthemainfocusoutlinedinthisnutgraf.

Quotealert
Recommendedby:NancyWeil,AssistantNewsEditor,IDGNewsService
Goonquotealert.Makesureeveryquoteyouuseisworthusing.Otherwise
paraphrase.
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandhighlightthequotes.Decideifit'saneectivequote.Doesitaddtothestory?Why?
Shoulditbeshorter?Shoulditbelonger?Shoulditbeparaphrased?

Omitneedlesswords
Recommendedby:NancyWeil,AssistantNewsEditor,IDGNewsService
Beonguardforwordsyoudon'tneed.Watchforphraseslike"inorderto"andothersthataddwordswithoutsayingmore.
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandhighlightallthewordsthatcanbeeliminatedwithoutchangingthemeaningofthestory.

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What'sthestoryworth?
Recommendedby:AntoniM.Piqu,Director,MediaccionConsultores/UniversidaddeNavarra,Spain
Wouldyoupay50cents(or0,90euros,orthepriceofyourpaper)tomorrowforTHISpieceyouarewriting?
Assignment:Gothroughanissueofanewspaperandndonestorythatmakesthepaperworththepriceyoupaidforit.What
makesthestoryworththemoney?Ifyoucan'tndany,ndthestoriesthathavethepotentialtobecome50-centstories,and
decideonwhatthewritercouldhavedonetomakethepiecestronger.

Areyourlipsmoving?
Recommendedby:LaurieHertzel,MinneapolisStarTribune
Readyourstoryoutloud.Youwillhearawkwardphrasesandknowifa
sentenceistoolongordiculttoread.
Assignment:Readastoryoutloudandseeif,indoingso,youndplaceswheretheowdoesn'tworkorwhereyou'dmake
changesofanysortbasedonwhatyouhear.

Searchanddestroy
Recommendedby:LaurieHertzel,MinneapolisStarTribune
Searchanddestroy.Thatis,afteryourrstdraftdoacomputersearchonweakwords(there,it,etc.)orweakverbsor(inmy
case)adverbs(doasearchonLY)oranyotherphrasesorwordsyoutendtouseasacrutch,andthenchangethemtosomething
stronger.
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandhighlighttheweakwordsidentiedaboveanddecidewhetheranewwordornoword
worksbetter.

Makingapositiveoutofanegative
Recommendedby:LaurieHertzel,MinneapolisStarTribune
Convertnegativestopositives?Figureoutawaytosaywhatis,insteadofwhatisn't.Sayingwhatisusuallyshorter,clearerand
moredirect.(Obviously,therearetimeswhenforvariouswriterlyreasonsyouwanttobreakthisrule.)
Lookfor"not"and"wasn't"(or"isn't")or"no"andseeifitmakessensetorewrite.
Examples:
"Themoviewasn'tengagingandmostpeopledidn'tstayfortheend."
Changeto:"Themoviewasdullandpeopleleftearly."
or,
TheCityCouncilvotewasnotunanimous."
Changeto:"Thecouncil'svotewasdivided."
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandnd"negatives,"sentencesthattalkaboutthingsthataren't.Seeiftheycanberewordedto
bepositivestatements.

Toddlerwithabutcherknife
Recommendedby:LexAlexander,assistantfeatureseditor/CARteamleader,GreensboroNews&Record
Trustyourselfwithadjectivesthewayyouwouldtrustatoddlerwithabutcherknife.Adjectivesoftenimplysubjectivevalue
judgmentsthatyourreportingmightormightnotsupport(andthatreaderswillinterpretasbiasineithercase).
Example:Findobjectivetermsforwhatyou'retryingtoconvey.Don'tcallthecitycouncilmember"ineective."Sayhehasseta
recordformissedmeetings,wasonthewinningsideofonlytwodisputedvotesinthepastyearandhasn'tgottenasinglemotion
orresolutionenactedsincetakingoce.
Don'tsayReporterXislazy.SaythatReporterXhasfailedtoconsulttheinternalarchivesforhisstories,resultinginthe
followingpublishederrorsoffact....
Yougettheidea.
It'slonger,butit'sfairerandmoreaccurate.
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandhighlightalltheadjectivesanddecidewhatpurposetheadjectivesserve.Arethey
implyingsomething?Aretheynecessary?Aretheyasubstitutefordetails?

Who'sthestoryabout?
Recommendedby:CarolynBower,TampaTribune
Neverassumethattheocialviewisthepegofthestory.WhenIteachaboutwriting,oneofthepointsIurgereportersto
consideriswhosestoryisthis.
Oneexample:CitycommissionerJohnHigginswillapologizetothewomanheejectedfromapublicmeetingtosettleherlong
andcostlylawsuitagainsthim,thecityattorney'socesaid.
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(Thisisaclassiccaseofthereporterforgettinghe/shegathersinformationandthendeterminesthedirectionofthestory.)
Rewritten:Aftertwoyearsofghtingcityhall,RitaMoore,72,isgettingwhatshewanted:Aformalapologyfromex-MayorJohn
Higgins.
Notperfect,butmuch,muchbetter.
Assignment:Gothroughanarticlewrittenaboutsomekindofgovernment-relatedevent,anddecideifthepointofviewofthe
articleshouldbechanged(Isitwrittenthroughtheeyesofthepublicocials,whenitcouldbestrongerthroughtheeyesofthe
taxpayers,residentsofthecommunity,etc.)

Read!
Recommendedby:LynnKalber,ThePalmBeachPost
Mybesttipis:Readgoodwriters.Actually,thebasicis"JustREAD!"-it'ssurprisinghowmanyreportersdon't.
Assignment:Gothroughyourpapersandndnuggetsofgreatwriting.Sharewithyourgroupwhatmakesthesenuggetsgreat-
strongdetail,greatquote,cleanwriting,conciselanguage,etc.Findoneofyourfavoritethings.

Tellthatstoryinoneword
Recommendedby:MichelleHiskey,reporter,AtlantaJournalConstitution
AttachaONEWORDthemetoyourstory-i.e.greed,monopoly,trust,hunger,etc.--tokeepyoufocused.
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandseeifyoucanapplyonewordtoit-athemeasidentiedabove.Thenlookbackoverthe
articleandseeifthereareplacesinthestorythatdeviatefromthisthemeandthereforedon'tbelong.Doesgivingathemeorone
wordtothestorymakeyouwanttomakechangesoradjustthestoryinsomeway?

Details,details
Recommendedby:JohnHatcher,CenterforCommunityJournalism
Assignment:It'sbeensaidthatgreatwritingisrichwithdetailandleanonu.Gothroughanarticleandndthedetailsthat
showajournalistwaspayingattention,notjusttowhatpeopleweresaying,buttowheretheyweresayingit,howtheywere
sayingit,andwhatwasgoingonaroundthemasitwasbeingsaid.Ifyoucan'tndanexampleofthis,ndanexampleofastory
thatwouldhavebeenhelpedwiththesesamedetails.

Thegreatjargonhunt
Recommendedby:unknown
Assignment:Gothroughanarticleandhighlightalljargonwords.Thesearethewordsusedbypublicocials,policeocers
andsportswritersthatmaynotmakeanysensetotheaveragereaders.Lookatthosewordsandseeifyoucanndawayto
translatethemforthereader.

Steve'sfavorites
Recommendedby:SteveButtry,WritingCoach/NationalCorrespondent,OmahaWorld-Herald
Writeasyoureport.Don'twaituntilyou'vegatheredallyourinformationtostarttellingthestory.
Don'tinsistonwritingthelederst.Sometimestheprocessofwritingthestorywillbringoutthebestlede.
Writewithoutnotes.Notescanbeadistraction.Thestoryshouldbeinyourheadandyourheart.Gobacktothenotesforfact-
checking.

Beforeyouwrite
Recommendedby:NancyWeil,AssistantNewsEditor,IDGNewsService
Organizenotesandinformation,developingasystemthatworksforyou.
Dierentcolorinks,stars,whatever.Usestorywheelsorwritedownkeypointsofthestorybeforeyouwritesothatyoudon't
forgetanyoftheelementsyouwanttoinclude.

Walkaway
Recommendedby:NancyWeil,AssistantNewsEditor,IDGNewsService
Providedyouaren'tonright-this-seconddeadline,leavetheoceifyougetstuck.Likewise,getupandmovearoundwhenyou're
workingonlongstoriesorstorieswithdiculttopics(getawayfromthemurderandmayhemyouarewritingabout).Takea
walkoutside.Gotoyourfavoritestoreandimmerseyourselfinthetactilepleasuresofshoppingfor15or20minutes,relaxandlet
yourmindgowhereitwantswiththestory.

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AUTHOR INFORMATION

Bill Mitchell
BillMitchellisaPoynterAliatewhomostrecentlyledPoyntersentrepreneurialandinternationalprogramsandservedasamemberofits
faculty.Previously,BillheadedPoynter.orgfor10years.BeforejoiningPoynterin1999,heworkedaseditorofUniversalNewMedia(95-99)and
directorofelectronicpublishingattheSanJoseMercuryNews(92-95).Billpreviouslywasareporter,editor,Washingtoncorrespondentand
EuropeancorrespondentfortheDetroitFreePress&KnightRidder,andabureauchiefforTIME.HeservedasaPulitzerjurorin2002and2003.
ContactBillatbmitch@gmail.com

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