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June 1, 2024

 

Writing like a journalist can change how you express yourself. You might be writing an article. Or, a script for a podcast or video broadcast. Or maybe, a work memo or report.

Even if it’s “just” an email or even a direct message on social media, you’re going to use your words with clarity and confidence. You’ll also know how to be concise, instead of going on and on with a lot of blah-blah.

Most importantly, writing like a journalist means you know how to get to the point. You help people to focus and pay attention to issues you care about. You are trained to get to the heart of things, and get people thinking and talking.

And like journalists that I admire, you will also speak your truth in a way that’s uniquely you. How you write and shape your storytelling reflects your values, personality and unique ways of looking at the world.

The nine tips that I’m sharing here can help any storyteller. I also find these tools useful for talking to myself as I think through problems and creative projects.

If you like the information I’m sharing here, you’ll be joining generations of storytellers who have studied with me. For more than 20 years, these tips have helped students who’ve taken my classes in journalism, creative writing and speech communications.

Have fun connecting with your new skills!

 

Tip #1: It’s all about the 5Ws

Stories need facts. The basic facts are the 5Ws: who, what, when, where, why. Usually, the 5Ws are joined by an H-factor: how.

Every story has multiple Ws and multiple 5Ws.

WHO is involved? WHAT is at stake? WHERE is the story taking place? WHEN and WHY did certain things happen?

The HOW of a story might be essential, too. How did a situation come about? How did matters get resolved?

From here, prioritize your 5Ws. Some facts matter more than others. Decide what’s most important.

 

Tip #2: Gee/wow facts drive a story

Do you remember the last time a story or news article grabbed your attention? If you read, listened, watched or did all three to the story’s very end, you probably talked to yourself.

That story just had a conversation with you, inside of your head. And when the story ended you probably said something like: Oh, wow, that’s unbelievable. Oh, gee, I didn’t know that. If that happened, then you just experienced what I call “gee/wow” facts.

From the opening line to the very last word, good stories are packed with 5W facts. Some of those facts will stand out as detailed, strategically placed information that surprise you. You stick with the story until the end because you want to know how things turned out. And along the way, you’ll keep saying: Oh, gee. Oh, wow.

 

Tip #3: You must pass the “so what” test

When readers, listeners and/or viewers dive into your work, they have only one question on the brain: So what?

It’s not enough that you love your themes and opening sentences. Your audience will only stick around if you hold their interest. To quote the fabulous writer Elmore Leonard:

“Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

If you need to reorganize, be prepared for anything from minor tweaking to major surgery.

 

Tip #4: Present facts in a logical order

Sometimes, your story is hard to follow because you’re jumping around instead of presenting the story in some kind of order. Sequencing matters. What happened first, second and third? Is there a logic to how you’re sharing your main points?

It takes more than facts to create a story; the information must make sense as your share it. The audience must be able to follow the action.

If they’re reading or listening to the story, they have to see the scene playing out in their heads. They have to be able to visualize what’s happening, how it’s happening and maybe, why it’s happening.

So, be prepared. You’ll probably have to reorganize your material, multiple times. Along the way, you’ll make hard decisions. You might take out some facts and add in other 5Ws. If there’s missing information, be sure to fill the holes.

 

Tips #5: Quotes humanize the story

The minute you add quotes to a story, you bring your readers closer to you. Suddenly, they feel like they’re right there with you, inside the story. Best of all, they feel like they’re actually meeting the people you’re quoting.

In journalistic articles, reporters try to get a quote into the story as soon as possible. The most classic form is to use the first paragraph to focus the piece. The second paragraph offers a bit more depth or background. By the third paragraph – if not sooner – you slip in your first quote.

 

Tip #6: One idea per paragraph

Most of my students struggle with the idea of paragraph breaks. They feel like they’re doing something naughty. After all, man of them have been trained since high school to write research papers filled with long, sentences packaged into monster paragraphs that go on and on.

No more, no more! Instead, keep your paragraphs short. The secret is breaking up your material so that each paragraph is a nugget of information. A clearly-presented idea.

Once you feel yourself moving on to another idea, hit the “return” key. Start a new paragraph.

 

Tip #7: Group together fact that relate to each other 

Instead of throwing everything together into a mixed fruit salad bowl, separate out the different ingredients. Present them in groups. I call this matching “apples to apples and oranges to oranges.”

I mixed salad might taste good. But first, we have to see what you’re offering. If you’re throwing random apples and oranges at me, I’ll feel very confused.

Instead, make one paragraph all about apples, all about one topic. Then, put all the orange-related material in a separate paragraph. Once you see what you have, you might serve up the apples first. Or, maybe the oranges. Or, maybe you’re realize you need some blueberries – oops, what happened to the blueberries!?

 

Tip #8: Write in short sentences

You can take one word and make it a sentence. Yes. Yup. Really.  A one-word sentence or short sentence keeps your storytelling lively. You keep us moving from one thought to the next. adds liveliness to your storytelling. he goal is to hold onto your audience. Keep them moving through the story. Nice.

Short sentences are also great because you can move them around like little puzzle pieces. This helps you to sequence your information more effectively.

These short sentences are also a gift for anyone who has problems with grammar or who is learning English.

The basic structure of the short sentence is the simple subject-verb- object setup. Such a clean, tangle-free format! Here’s an example:

The dog ate my homework.

Let’s analyze this example:

  • The dog is the subject of the sentence.
  • Verbs describe action. In this case, the verb is ate.
  • The object of all this activity is my homework.

Sure, you can also write long, beautiful, fancy sentences. Long sentences take mastery of grammar, logic and your story outline. They can be powerful if you sprinkle them here and there.

 

Tip #9: Show, don’t tell

I used to live in a little town with a fantastic public library. But telling you that it’s “fantastic” is meaningless. What are you visualizing in your head?

Maybe this description will help: The library has floor-to-ceiling sunny windows that look out onto a view of the river and mountains. The wifi speed is so fast that every click of the keyboard leads to instant results. I’ve got my stuff spread out on a clean, wood table with six electrical sockets. The room is quiet and almost empty. 

Does that sound fantastic to you? Maybe yes, maybe no. But either way, you can at least see my idea of fantastic. That’s more information for you, as you get to know me.

Oh, one more thing: It’s okay to show AND tell. After I rave about this “fantastic” library, I show you want it’s like. Hopefully, as you read my words, you can visualize the library in your head.

 

And, for more tips...

Rule of 3: So many facts, so little space. How do you figure out exactly how to describe a person, place or thing? Well, pick three defining qualities. That’s all you need. There’s more details in my Rule of 3 blog post. 

Describe your story in a nut shell — or rather, make that a nut graf. I was on the phone a few minutes ago with a student who raved about my nut graf post. She said it changed her writing. This student is already a professional essayist and author. But this post helped her focus on the power of capturing time + change: What was, what’s new, what’s now.

Be concise. If you fear that you’re writing too much blah-blah, my concise writing check list can help. Finally – you can free yourself from the Research Paper Mentality that infects students. No more deadly filler material in your stories!