Part 1: The Daily Grind
I am a proud graduate of the best writing school in the world: the small daily newspaper. It’s how I learned to write – fast, clean and correct, with a little style but not so much that it got in the way of simply informing the reader. What I learned at small papers is still with me, though I confess I sometimes forget what various city editors did their best to beat into me.
It’s a lot like the way Web writers are taught to write today. It’s not new, but it has been resurrected. Journalism in the 1980s and ‘90s went through a self-indulgent period when “good writing” meant long, elaborate sentences and anecdotal ledes, meant to impress fellow reporters in the newsroom more than anything else.
We were just getting over ourselves when the internet happened.
Newspaper staffs have shrunk even more today, many down to zero. At the papers that have survived, reporters have even more to do. Like paltry wages and chaotic workdays, some things about journalism haven’t changed.
Whatever you’re writing – marketing copy, business proposals, novels, the cover letter for your resume – it can only get better if you adopt these habits of a daily news reporter:
3 Old School Writing Lessons That Still Work Today
Lesson 1: Write Often.
How do you get to the New York Times? Practice, practice, practice. In a small newsroom with three or four reporters and one photographer to cover government, schools, crime and local community events in several towns, you get plenty of practice. Five or six stories a day wasn’t an unusual output, and that included phone calls to sources to get the facts.
The great Nora Ephron once spoke at my college, the University of New Hampshire. Of her early career at the New York Post, she said this: “No one had writer’s block. No one thought it was cute. We didn’t have time for it.”
Write every day. Write several things each day. Practice, practice, practice.
Lesson 2: Write Fast.
Nothing focuses your mind like rushing to your desk 30 minutes before deadline with a notebook full of quotes and facts on a bank robbery, a city council meeting or a press conference. Sometimes the travel time back to the newsroom was too much, so we dictated it straight from our notes to a copy editor.
Having to write fast teaches you to find the essence of the story, to cut away what’s unnecessary and just tell the facts that matter. You write it the way readers will read it. Just the facts, ma’am. And no time to dress it up with meaningless frills. Save it for the follow-up, kid.
Give yourself an extra-tight deadline and imagine a grumpy editor staring at you from across the room, drumming their fingers on the desk waiting for you to turn in the story NOW PLEASE.
Lesson 3: Write Simple.
You are not here to impress anyone. (Well, maybe you are. But you shouldn’t be.) You’re here to tell us what happened. Just tell us.
The simple, declarative sentence is the ultimate expressive technique for good writing. Subject, verb, object. That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be short. You have to vary sentence length to keep from boring the reader. It does mean avoiding complicated syntax and unnecessary modifiers. It means –
Gotta go now. Deadline is here, and my editor is getting ugly.
Stay tuned for Part 2: My Tabloid Adventures (Shocking! Amazing! You won’t believe what happpened!)