The Key to Good Writing: Keep it Clear and Concise

Writing in a journalistic style is a specialized skill. It’s based on the following principles:

  • Accuracy
  • Brevity
  • Clarity

In other words, keep your writing clear, concise, and correct. This approach can improve anyone’s writing

How important are strong writing skills? You may be the smartest, funniest, most well-spoken person in the world, but if your writing is rambling and full of misused words or poor grammar, you'll come across as sloppy.

Here are some tips from Sylvan Learning to help you to communicate more effectively. You can use these suggestions to put together your News Day audition, as well as apply them to other writing tasks, such as school assignments, essays, e-mails, blog posts, and more. Once you master this style, your writing will become clearer and easier to read.

Tips for Writing in a Journalistic Style

At the heart of news writing are the 3 C’s: Clear, Concise and Correct.

  • Journalistic paragraphs are very short – sometimes only one sentence.
  • Use simple sentences: Subject-verb-object is the easiest to read and has the most impact.
  • Never use a long word when a short one will do.
  • Prune out unnecessary words. Don't use 10 words when the message can be conveyed more effectively with five.
  • Avoid adjectives unless they're in quotes.
  • Use vivid "active" verbs. Avoid the passive voice.
  • Write in the third-person point of view (they, their, theirs, them, he, she, it, his, her, hers, its, him).
  • Use a person's whole name once in an article; only the last name is used in subsequent references.
  • Unless it's absolutely essential to the story, estimate when it comes to numbers. Don't say "193 students". Instead, say "nearly 200 students".
  • Avoid using the same word more than once in a paragraph – sometimes called an "echo".
  • Always read your story aloud. You want to make sure there are no tongue twisters or poorly placed commas.
  • When writing for the Web apply the "three S's”:
    • Keep content scannable
    • Keep content short.
    • Keep content segmented.
  • Always, always, always, proofread your work. Write with zero tolerance for errors. Don't rely on spell-check. If you're not sure of spelling, look it up.
  • Check and double-check for truth and accuracy.

Elements of a News Story

Headline: This is the title of the story. It should grab people's attention but mustn't mislead them. It should be short, bright, and sum up the story. If you're not sure, tell the story to a friend – what's the first thing you say to them? That's a good guide to the most interesting part of a story and will help you pare down the information for headline purposes.

Subhead: Also known as a deck, this fleshes out the core information in the main headline and helps lead the reader into the story. It's rarely a complete sentence but action is implied, as in "Mayor target of investigation." The "is" is implied.

Lead: The opening line or paragraph of a story tells the most important point or summarizes the most important information. Your goal is to distill this information into a brief, sharp statement focusing on the essential facts.

Structure: Use an "inverted pyramid" structure. Put the most important information at the beginning of the story, and less important details in subsequent paragraphs. This way, readers can explore a topic only to the depth their curiosity takes them. They can stop reading at any point and still come away with the essence of a story. Only the very interested reader will usually read all the way through a story.

5W1H: Always answer the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” of the story, keeping in mind that few leads can fit all of these in one sentence or paragraph. Is the event you're covering most important? The individual? The action that is going to take place? You have to judge what is going to be most important to the reader and sum that up in your lead.

Multiple Sources: The more people you talk to, the better your story. You can use direct quotes or paraphrase what someone says, but always remember to identify who says what. Quotations will add interest, so listen for colourful or amusing quotes when you interview people. You can use an indirect quote that serves to support a major element in the lead paragraph, followed by a direct quote to support the indirect quote – but don't repeat yourself.

Tone: Your job as a reporter is to report facts and the opinions of others and to leave your own opinions out of the story. The term for introducing your own opinion into a story is called editorializing. Don't do this unless you're writing something that requires a personal point of view or opinion.

Sentence Length: Sentences should have an average of 20-28 words. You don't need to spend time counting; just be aware that sentences and paragraphs are much shorter than you may have been taught in high school composition.

General WritingTips

  • A sentence is. A complete. Thought.
  • When the weather is perfect, you don't notice it. Good writing is the same; it should never get in the way of your message.
  • Unless you want people to move away from you, you don't shout when carrying on a conversation. SO DON'T USE CAPS WHEN WRITING.
  • Punctuation – commas, semicolons, question marks and periods – are tools that help readers navigate what they're reading, like paddles when you're canoeing. Don't let the paddles get in the way of the flow of your writing though.
  • A bad or weak opening line is like a bad haircut. It keeps people from noticing how good the rest of you looks. Think about your opening line – also called a "lead" paragraph. It should quickly and clearly tell the reader where you're going with your letter, essay or story.
  • Don't utilize lengthy convoluted verbiage to luxuriate in your own spontaneous philosophizing. Short words and sentences work best to get your point across.
  • Even simple misspelled and misused words stand out like a stained shirt in an otherwise nice outfit. Know your you're from your your and your its from your it's.
  • "Its" and "your" are the owners of something. "It's" and "you're" tell you who the owners are.
  • A job is what I want. Well, if you want a writing job, use vivid "active" verbs. Avoid the passive voice and you may get that job.
  • She may have dropped the ball, but she had another ace up her sleeve. Used well, metaphors can bring power to your writing. But beware mixed metaphors and cliches, which may confuse and weary your reader.
  • Stay away from generalizations or abstract ideas. Good writing is visual, so stick to words that help give readers a picture of what you're trying to say.
  • Editing is simply reading and rereading copy with an ear to how it sounds and an eye to how it looks. Be your own best editor and send nothing out until you've read it through several times. Carefully.