How to write right

Over the last two decades, I’ve enjoyed doing hundreds of copy clinics with reporters

Each has been different, reflecting the splendid diversity of the people I’ve worked with.

But there have also been many common themes, cropping up time and time again.

Here then are my top ten copy copy clinic regulars:

1. Keep it simple Keep re-reading your copy to ensure you’ve found the simplest way of saying something, and that your copy flows logically and smoothly. Use the simplest words possible – but not however, buy not purchase.

2. Keep it short Look out for repetition, and cut your quotes to the very best material.

3. Quotes These are for opinion and emotion, not for facts, dates etc. Ensure quotes don’t introduce new names, ideas, background that aren’t already explained earlier in the story.

4. Write for readers, not politicians Keep asking yourself: does anyone care, or perhaps should anyone care? This is particularly relevant when covering council meetings. You’re not the clerk, and no one wants to hear about councillors’ motions.

5. Cut and paste care There’s no shame in cutting and pasting, but take care. I see too many stories with ‘please contact’ and ‘our’ when we should be offering objective analysis.

6. Too much detail Don’t bombard the reader with too many intimidating upper and lower case proper nouns too high up in a story. Sprinkle the detail throughout the story, releasing key information such as ages, addresses, employment details etc in different paragraphs.

7. Paint a picture If you’re writing about a person who’s at the heart of a story, get their age, address and job details.

8.  Acronyms Only put these in brackets if you’re going to use them a lot in a story, and if they’re not obvious. Don’t repeat the full names of schools, organisations etc in subsequent mentions.

9. Singular and plural Councils, companies, charities, schools, government departments, pressure groups etc etc are all singular. And they take the word which, not who.

10. Avoid cliches like the plague Award ceremonies don’t have to be glittering or prestigious, gardeners don’t have to be greenfingered and award-winning hair stylists aren’t all a cut above the rest. And please be sparing over the use of words such as special and iconic.

So there you go.

One final thought: get into the habit of looking at your copy with new eyes once you’ve finished it. If you have to get up, do a twirl and sit down again, so be it.


2 thoughts on “How to write right

  1. Michael Scanlan

    Excellent advice – but also, as a reporter, don’t only look at your copy when you’ve finished it; look at it when other people have finished with it. See how newsdesk/subs have changed it and work out why. Or ask.

  2. Good advice – been reporting for 20 years too now, but these are all good easy points, to stop me getting ‘stale’ – thanks Paul!

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