Einstein’s theory of brilliant writing

Trying to find the best quote from Albert Einstein is like wading through a very lovely sea of treacle.

The choice is extraordinary.

You could have this one: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Or, for journalists there’s this gem: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

But my favourite Einsteinism has to be this beauty:

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

I used it with some journalism students this morning.

And then I used it again with a reporter this afternoon.

It was that great Radio 2 philosopher Chris Evans who alerted me to it the other day, along with a few million other people.

Whatever writing or other communication you’re doing, this great quote should be perched metaphorically on your shoulder.

There’s a very good reason why one of the best training grounds for TV reporters is the Newsround programme.

Trying to explain and distil the key points of a complicated situation into concepts, images and analysis that make sense to children is a testing discipline.

Most importantly of all, it finds out the journalists who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

If you don’t understand what you’re writing about, if you’re forced to fudge and faff, the reader, listener or viewer hasn’t got a hope.

Good writing isn’t about having the intellect of an Einstein.  But it is about learning from his wisdom.




Kitchen porter feature had the recipe for the best writing

I’ve been talking an awful lot about kitchen porters in the last couple of days.

The world of that culinary Cinderella is not one I knew much about until Sunday night.

But, thanks to one of the best pieces of newspaper writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent weeks, I now know a great deal more.

My guide to this uncomfortable underworld was Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who did a shift as a kitchen porter for a feature in its food magazine.

It is a splendid piece, and I have been using it to reassure myself and my colleagues that there will always be a place for great writing – even in this attention-span-of-a-gnat digital age.

Let me share Rayner’s wonderful intro…

I am standing in another man’s shoes, and those shoes are moist. It’s nothing to do with the other man. Most of me is wet by now: there is sweat running down the small of my back and dripping down into my eyes; my trousers are clinging to my thighs, and the pads of my fingers have wrinkled, as if I’ve been in a bath too long, which is curious given they are inside elbow-length black rubber gloves. But the water they are plunged into is so hot my hands, like everything else, are sweating. I am pulling a shift as a kitchen porter at The Ivy, and I am quickly coming to a stark conclusion: these are shoes I am not fit to fill.

What he does here is something to which all writers should aspire.

What he does here – and it’s a message that I have been driving home to reporters, one copy clinic at a time – is paint a picture for people who weren’t there.

With that evocative and mildly disturbing first paragraph, Rayner sets a scene which plunges the reader straight into the humid heart of things.

But his writing goes on to tick every little box in the Wiltshire list of what makes great wordsmithery.

It’s warm, it’s insightful, and it’s personal while also giving a voice to other people – fascinating people.

It told me something I didn’t know, it piqued and then satisfied my curiosity, and – perhaps most instructively for those of us in the regional media – it shone a light on a hidden world.

When I talked to a reporter who was leaving her job recently, one of the things she said she would miss the most was the kind of privileged access we get to people and situations.

She was talking about the ability to speak to chief executives, police chiefs and MPs, but the ability to go behind other closed doors is just as important.

What other jobs, landmarks, sports, people or hobbies hide fascination behind their facades?

I was heartened to be told by an editor recently that her mission for the year ahead was to get the stories of more interesting people into her pages and onto her website.

The day before I read Rayner’s piece, my wife consumed – as she does every Saturday – the Guardian’s Family section.

It’s the only part of that paper she ever reads.

But she devours it – as do I – because it is packed with well-written tales of real people’s family lives.

There’s no cheap magazine sensationalism – just accounts of powerful chapters in people’s lives, told well.

As another reporter rightly told me yesterday, being entrusted to tell such stories is both a privilege and a huge responsibility.

It should also be a source of immense pleasure – both for the writer and the reader.

How to write better dropped intros

It can be one of the best ways to start a story.

But writing the perfect dropped intro is an art.

And it’s one that many reporters struggle with.

As I wrote nearly a year ago, using this more indirect, feature-y, approach can be a great device to vary the pace of papers and websites, breaking out of predictable, formulaic writing.

But it does take a bit of practice – and, often, a bit of fine-tuning.

Because when you’re taking readers on the scenic route to a story, you’d better make sure your words are beautiful.

While the odd extraneous word won’t necessarily ruin a hard news intro, one out of place in a dropped intro can kill it stone dead.

So here are my golden rules for a top dropped intro:

  • make it snappy: ensure your first few sentences are short and staccato.
  • keep polishing: read and re-read those introductory paragraphs to make sure they flow smoothly, taking the reader on a journey that is both enticing and satisfying. Simply taking out a word, or rejigging a sentence, can make all the difference. I’ve taken the word it’s out of my third paragraph, then put it back in again.
  • get to the point: there’s a fine balance between intriguing readers and frustrating them with your verbose long-windedness. When you’re taking a slightly circuitous route to the nub of the story, you need to keep up the pace.
  • paint a picture: dropped intros can help you set the scene evocatively, drawing people into the story.
  • people power: the dropped intro approach can force you to think of the human aspect and angle to stories. A mini-case study can be an attractive way in, making a point or illustrating a theme more powerfully than an off-the-shelf general intro.
  • don’t force it: there are some situations where a Ronseal, tell it like it is, intro is the only option.

Taking a different approach to storytelling forces you to think about, and improve, your writing.

And that should lead to greater satisfaction for writer and reader alike.

Good sport: why some of the best writing is at the back of the paper

I do love a dropped intro.

I’ve waxed lyrically here before about feature-writing and about the joy of a more imaginative approach to storytelling.

But, although I yield to no man or woman in my devotion to this indirect way of hooking in the reader, I also admit it can be overdone.

For years, Jeremy Clarkson spent three-quarters of each of his car reviews banging on about subjects a million miles from motoring, before eventually getting to his rather laboured point. The same practice has also been adopted by many a Sunday paper restaurant reviewer.

But today, let us salute Scottish sports writer Callum Baird, who – unlike Clarkson – manages to stay the right side of self-indulgence.

In a wonderful piece in the Glasgow Herald (although you’ll have to register to read it all) he weaves Greek philosophy and the Chinese belief system of Taoism into his report of what appears to have been the world’s most boring bore draw.

As Hold the Front Page reports today, Callum’s report of the nil-nil draw between Morton and Airdrie has become an internet hit.

It’s a beautiful illustration of the hidden talents of some of our sports desk friends.

The Bath Chronicle’s rugby columnist, Tom Bradshaw, once referenced both Descartes and the thought experiment Schrodinger’s Cat in a memorable piece that also worked the word pubic into the same surreal paragraph.

I wouldn’t call myself a sports fan – I support Plymouth Argyle, for God’s sake.

But I still devour sports pages for the sheer quality of some of the writing to be found there.

Columnists such as the much-missed Simon Barnes and Martin Samuel always have something to say which resonates beyond the field of sport.

And in the region in which I work, Tom, Steve Cotton and Mike Brown don’t just report on rugby – they analyse it, comment on it and explain it.

As always with the best writing, we often see the world in a new light as a result.

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.