Four quick fixes any newspaper can use to improve writing
Community newspapers are always looking for ways to improve the reader’s experience.
We’ve improved design and photography and even experimented with larger point sizes and more readable fonts (And somewhere, Ed Henninger is smiling). But nothing improves the reader experience more than readable writing.
Some editors just glaze over when they start thinking about making writing more readable. Just too challenging a task, they assume.
But maybe not.
Let’s say you were getting your house ready for sale. Now in an ideal world you’d bring in Chip and Joanna Gaines and give them $30,000 to work with. Chip would knock out some walls and Joanna would line your den with shiplap. You wouldn’t even recognize the place.
But if you don’t have $30k, you can still make significant changes that’ll help your house sell. Throw out junk or put it in storage. Plant new flowers. Wash down the siding. Paint a few rooms. Steam clean the carpets. For less than $1,000 you can make a real difference in the curb appeal of your home.
And the same goes for your newspaper. Yeah, you really would like to bring in Roy Peter Clark for a week of in-house coaching or send everyone back to take some journalism courses (at TCU, of course). But get real. Nobody in today’s newspaper world has the money for the writing equivalent of a Chip-and-Joanna makeover.
The good news is that there are somethings you can do to improve writing, no matter what your resources or the expertise of your reporters. Now bear in mind, we would all like to do so much more, but here’s a place to begin, something that any newspaper can do, beginning today.
Quick fix #1: Many Texas newspapers are using choke-a-horse paragraphs. Long paragraphs are forbidding to readers. They think the story will be hard-reading before they ever start.
Paragraphs are one of the areas where size really does matter. And smaller is always better. And remember: You were taught in high school that paragraphs are a unit of thought – but in newspapers, they are a unit of typography.
There’s nothing wrong with one-sentence grafs. And can you occasionally throw in a one-word graf in features?
Depending on your line length, most newspaper grafs should not go over about four lines. And when you’re quoting someone, always start a new, full sentence of quote at the beginning of a new graf.
The best rule is that if you’re uncertain about whether to start a new graf, just do it. Your local English teacher may complain, but your readers will love it.
Quick fix #2: Leads should get to the point. If you are talking to a writer working on a story, tell him or her that he has 30 seconds to tell you what the story is about. Whatever that writer says, should be in the lead.
Often, when we are coaching writers, we look immediately to the words on the screen. Stop trying to work with, edit or improve words. Instead, work with ideas. And frame the 30-second query in different ways:
“Joe Bob, let’s assume somebody read that story you’re working on, and somebody else said, ‘Hey, what’s that about?’ What would he say?” The answer to that question should probably be in the lead.
Sometimes, when we are coaching writers at the university, and they are having a hard time with the story, we’ll just turn off the screen and say, “Stop writing and tell me what the story is about.”
Even veteran reporters begin writing without ever figuring out what the story is about and what the reader needs to know first. That gives you stories that bury the lead. Oh sure, it may be in there someplace, but today’s readers are less and less likely to wade into the swamp to find it.
Quick fix #3: Start sentences with subjects, not clauses or prepositional phrases. After all, that’s the way we talk. Let’s say you see somebody running down the street in your neighborhood, calling out the name of her dog. You ask what’s up. Would she say this: “Having distracted myself with helping my son with his homework and neglecting to shut the gate to the back yard, I missed Fido, called out to him, and discovered that he had escaped out that open gate.”
Or would she more likely say, “My dog got out!”
So why do we back into leads? See quick fix #2 – because we haven’t taken the time to figure out what the story is about. And we end up with something like this:
Although city attorney Billy Bob Beasley and city personnel director Hilda Rae Smith said they could not comment on an incident earlier this week in which a Jonesville police officer was said to have stolen drugs from the police property room, Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez said Monday that the officer was being suspended.
Why not get to the point?
A Jonesville police officer accused of stealing drugs from the department’s property room was suspended Monday by Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez.
Quick fix #4: Start your sentences with subjects. And follow them with a verb. Here’s a New York Times story that backs into the lead and makes it hard to connect the subject and verb:
Asked at a confirmation hearing two weeks ago if he was working with President Trump on a secret plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, smiled broadly and answered: “It’s true that he said that, yes.”
There are 49 words in that lead. The subject of the sentence (Rep. Tom Price) is 26 words in, and you don’t get to the compound verbs until 39 and 42 words in, respectively.
One of the best exercises for writers is to take a story and highlight the subjects in one color and the verbs in another. Then ask: Do the subjects come close to the beginning of sentences? Are the verbs right after the subjects?
These four quick fixes are only the beginning, but some newspapers can get a significant boost in reader-friendliness if they put them into effect.
(This blogpost grades out at the fifth grade reading level. It has an average of less than 8 percent complex words and under 14 words a sentence.)