Old Writing Advice—But Still Good

By Mike Feinsilber

Here’s a memo about writing that I wrote back in 1987—it is still plenty relevant. My wife says I edit the papers at breakfast, and I guess I do. Some of the points I made 28 years ago still need making.
What accuracy is to reporting—essential—clarity is to writing: essential. Nobody says that it’s easy to be clear. But you’re a reporter. You can call up anyone. What an awesome gift, unavailable to the multitudes. Find the expert who will make it understandable.

And the next day, read your competition. Sometimes there’s a lesson in how the other guy wrote it.

Context is crucial. You cover the subject. You know it cold. The reader has a life to lead and isn’t intimately familiar with the subject. Fact is, the reader forgets the difference between debt and deficit or what happened at Dien Bien Phu. Unless you put your subject in context—and do it immediately in the story, not at the end—your reader will shrug and move on and your story will be just one more mystery in the news. Mysteries in the news are what make nonreaders.

Shun clichés. If you are in a rush, clichés are useful, often economical, sometimes unavoidable. But they’re clichés nonetheless. They’re shopworn. They don’t cause thought to occur. They’re vague and imprecise, tired writing by tired writers. So here’s my proposal: never use a cliché without being aware that you’re doing it. Limit yourself to one a week. And if one sneaked into your copy unaware, sneak it out.

Shun journalese, too. And shun those words that only journalism uses—they’re clichés too. Triggering. Focused. Prompting. Declared. Sparked. Marred. Urged anew. Made headlines. Nabbed. Probe the verb and probe the noun. Nouns used as verbs—authored, penned, hosted. Adjectives used as nouns—notables, greats, classic. Ironic. Icon and iconic, overused, have lost distinctiveness. What we call historic or dramatic often ain’t. And if it is dramatic, we don’t have to tell: the reader knows. Those words usually exaggerate and when we exaggerate we undermine our credibility.

Tell things chronologically. When you write that something happened after something else happened earlier, that’s a signal to take the sentence apart and tell what happened first and what happened next. That’s how we think. When you write about something that happened in the past—and you should, for context’s sake—put the time element at the start of the sentence. Otherwise readers will assume that what they’re reading about happened yesterday.

Rewrite. Only journalists think their first attempt is perfect.

Quote. No—unquote. If you’ve been within range of a Feinsilber tirade, it was probably about quotes. I don’t hate quotes. I just hate unclear quotes, bureaucratic quotes, quotes that were manufactured by a flack to be irresistible to a reporter, wordy quotes, self-serving quotes, quotes that put inaccuracies into print, quotes that tell the reader what you’ve already told the reader, quotes so obscure that you have to write a following paragraph explaining what the gentlelady was trying to say, quotes that come off a piece of paper rather than out of a speaker’s mouth and broken quotes. Especially broken quotes. Here’s my rule of quoteworthiness: If the quote says it better than you can say it, use the quote. If you can say it better or tighter or clearer, you say it.

When I was a reporter, I used to fall silent in the midst of an interview. The guy at the other end is forced to keep talking. He’ll make his point again, then again. Thinking he may be dealing with a simpleton, he’ll make it simpler. And you wind up with a decent quote. The purpose of an interview isn’t to impress your source with how much you know but to draw from him everything he knows.

With the exception of such rare moments as that one during WWII’s Battle of the Bulge—when U.S. General Anthony McAuliffe replied to a German surrender ultimatum with one word, “Nuts!”—the one-word quote should be left behind in high school newspapers. The one-word quote drives readers “nuts.”

Be chary of the broken quote. And here’s my proposal: If you can remove the quote marks from a quote and nothing changes, remove the quote marks. Quotes should be in your story because they’re distinctive—and because they show the emotions of the speaker—not because they merely confirm what you’ve reported. The reader will take your word for it.

Shop talk should stay in the shop. Businesses and agencies of government have their own jargon. And jargon is contagious. Reporters hear jargon every day and pretty soon they’re talking that way. Worse, writing that way. Don’t let it happen to you. When you’re co-opted by sources, you’re working for them, not for readers.

I could go on. But you’ve gotten the point: Write as though journalism’s future depends on you.

It does.
Mike Feinsilber spent a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.
P.S. Here are 15 tips on handling quotes that Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark posted on September 2, 2015:

In the almost 40-year history of the Poynter Institute, there have been few topics that generate as much debate among journalists as how to handle quotes.

I love it when a dogmatic reporter argues, “I only use the exact words that a person says, nothing more or less.” Then comes my cross-examination: “Do you include every time the source says ‘like’ or ‘you know’?” “If the mayor says ‘gonna’ do you ever change it to ‘going to’?” The reporter grumbles. It’s my Perry Mason moment.

One of the benefits of moving my office from one end of Poynter to the other has been the purging of my files and the occasional discovery of something worth saving and sharing. In one dusty file I found a list of “eight tips on handling quotes.”

Here it is with some elaboration, plus seven more.

1. Be truthful.
Quotes should be faithful to the words and intended meaning of the speaker. My goal is not to trap a source into making a mistake. It is to make public a meaningful statement.

2. Adding language to quotes is more dangerous than taking stuff out, although both can distort meaning.
Distortion by subtraction is necessary in the very selection of quotes. Distortion by addition can get you fired.

3. Because of language prejudice on race and class, be careful with slang and dialect.
In “The Elements of Style,” E.B. White advises “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good…and you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce.”

4. That said, the American language is a great treasure.
If everyone you quote sounds like you, your readers are in trouble. Listen to NPR to get a feel for how skilled reporters and editors reveal the diversity of American speech.

5. Be polite.
Tidy up the quote rather than make someone sound stupid. Too many journalists have a double standard: they may clean up the mayor, but not the cranky old lady complaining to City Council.

6. It’s not a good idea to blend quotes from different interviews without a signal to readers.
The farther apart the interviews are in time, there more transparent the reporter should be.

7. When you quote, imagine that someone has taped the interview, even if you have not.
It can be a problem if you quote someone in print and then see the source on television the next day using different words than the ones you thought you captured.

8. No one takes notes at the speed of sound.
It’s OK to reconstruct a quote using both notes and memory. When you do this, it’s always best to read the quote back to the source. Be guided by the golden rule here.

Here are some more tips on using quotes in your stories:

9. Avoid echo quotes, ones that repeat the words that you just wrote.

10. Begin with the idea that you are the writer, that you can write it better than the source can say it. When that is not the case, use the quote.

11. Get a good human voice high in the story.

12. Only use the best part of the quote. Don’t let that part be hidden by less interesting or important words. When using, say, a quote of two sentences, try placing the attribution in the middle so that the parts of the quote stand out.

13. Prefer quotes in reports but dialogue in stories.

14. Many of these tips apply to “sound bites” for television and “actualities” for radio.

15. Remember how badly you were quoted as a source. Don’t do that.


  1. Mike edits the papers at breakfast? So do I. And everything else I read at all hours of the day and night. Old editors, unlike old soldiers, do die. But we keep on editing, and bitching, until the bitter end. Don’t we?

    • : Editors are everywhere. One summer afternoon I was waiting in line at the New Morning Farm street corner market in Northwest Washington. The farm hires high school kids to keep the produce moving. It sets up an express line so people with a few ears of corn don’t have to wait for a mass consumer to check out. A checkout girl called out, “This line for people with five items or less.” One of her colleagues heard her and muttered, “Fewer, not less! My mother would kill me if she heard me say ‘five items or less.'” I didn’t hug her, but I could have. Now if that young lady would take her lesson to Whole Foods.

  2. John Corcoran, Jr. says

    Thank you. Especially for not saying, “Avoid cliches like the plague,” which is the worst cliche cliche I know.

    The best reminder for me was to stay away from occupational jargon. It reeks of self-backpattery.

    Ages ago I worked for the Airline Pilots Association as a flack, spoke fluent media and a little aviation. I was called into a meeting as a translator when a media specialist was pitching something to my boss. My boss spoke only aviation, and the Media guy spoke only media. My stellar translationskill cemented my position there for a solid few months.

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