The ABC of good writing for newbie reporters

We all remember our first time.

It was a bit messy, over quite quickly, and not hugely satisfying.

Afterwards we were probably plagued by self-doubt – was everything in the right position, did we forget to do something, and have we ended up making a fool of ourselves?

Writing your first story ain’t easy.

And virtually every day I see young reporters battling with the basics of crafting compelling and creative copy.

In my first-ever blog I wrote about the general principles of good writing.

But the hours – hugely enjoyable and satisfying hours, I should say – that I’ve spent doing copy clinics with less experienced reporters in recent weeks have persuaded me that there are three key themes which specifically apply to them.

So here they are – the ABC of good writing for reporters starting out in their careers.

A is for Adventurous.

As I’ve said before, one of the biggest sins in journalism is to be boring and predictable.

Your aim should be to keep your writing as fresh and original as possible, and to surprise the reader on a regular basis.

The dropped intro is a great way of breathing new and different life into your writing, particularly for human interest stories.

Resist the temptation to shop for words in the oven-ready cliche aisle – there is no law that says gardeners have to be green-fingered, awards prestigious, ceremonies glittering or restoration painstaking. In fact there ought to be one banning such autopilot phraseology.

B is for Brave.

Perhaps the most important of this holy trinity of wordsmithery.

I understand that it’s hard for newbie reporters to think they know best when confronted by authority in all its cack-handed glory.

But every week I come across journalists overriding their instincts to fall in line with the nonsense of others.

And every week, I encourage them to remember that most police officers and police press teams would fail any kind of basic spelling and local geography tests, let alone any exam which tested their ability to communicate in everyday English.

If I ever see the word female used as a noun in a crash report again, it’ll be too soon.

One of the most fundamental lessons for young reporters to learn is to trust those instincts, and to develop the courage to assess and summarise complex situations without clinging to the handrail words of police-speak and councilese.

What is really going on here, and how can I explain that in the simplest way possible?

That’s the challenge.

 C is for Clear.

Picking up on that theme of keeping things simple, another tough lesson for many graduates is that they have to unlearn some habits absorbed at university.

I have spent some time this summer helping one of my son’s uni friends to improve his dissertation-writing.

Part of that process has been to encourage him to widen his vocabulary, and to use more grown-up language.

At no point, however, have I advised him to over-complicate, or to use flowery and ornate phraseology for the sake of it.

But too many people emerge from university thinking that they have to write like a combination of Jane Austen and a thesaurus compiler to get on in the world.

Words are like tools.

We need to pick the right ones to help with the journalist’s job of crafting a story which will engage people, pulling them in, and beautifully flow until the final, satisfying sentence.

So, keep sentences relatively short, and avoid packing them with ugly-looking upper and lower case proper names.

Resist the temptation to rifle through that online thesaurus looking for variations on ‘said’.  I don’t want to see people declaring, continuing – or musing, David Brent magazine interview-style.

This isn’t about dumbing down, or inverse snobbery.

It’s about making sure those word tools serve us well, and that nothing gets in the way of flowing, engaging and at times surprising writing.

Good luck.

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2 thoughts on “The ABC of good writing for newbie reporters

  1. And organisations, schools and communities are only “celebrating” things if there’s a marching band…

  2. Photos close to home

    Your comment about clarity and short sentences reminded me of Tom Wicker’s lede back in 1963 – “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.”

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