Writing—and Talking—a Good Story

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.18.06 PMSometimes I think a good news story is not written but is talked. By that I mean the writing has a conversational quality—as though the reporter was talking to his readers. With this approach the reporter avoids the use of stilted sentences and awkward phrasing. Too many beginners tie themselves in knots trying to write in a journalistic style when simple declarative sentences would make their job much easier and more readable. If a story talks well it reads easily and naturally. And if you don’t believe this, try reading a good news story aloud. You will find that it flows smoothly past the tongue and the eye.

—Don Whitehead, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes as an AP correspondent, in the book, Reporting/Writing From Front Row Seats, Simon and Schuster, 1971.
By Jack Limpert

Echoing Don Whitehead, my luckiest break in journalism was my first job in UPI’s Minneapolis bureau. For eight hours a day, starting at 5 a.m., I filed the radio-television wire to Minnesota and the Dakotas. To come up with 20 minutes of broadcast news every hour, I rewrote the UPI news wire for radio and TV.

That meant short words, short sentences. I’d write a graf or two, then read it out loud to myself. (In a wire service bureau with 15 chattering Teletype machines, you could read something out loud without bothering anyone.)

Once the keep-it-simple mantra becomes part of your thinking, it’s there forever.

P.S. As a magazine editor, I think I got rid of the word “participate” several thousand times. You could take part in something in the Washingtonian but not participate in it. For an editor, there’s a warm feeling every time you change a long word to something shorter and simpler.

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