My first career was in journalism. I was a news producer, first for CBC Radio, in Northern Ontario, then for CTV and other TV outlets in Toronto. I worked long hours and wrote scripts daily behind the scenes. I was happy to work anonymously, off-camera, but this didn’t protect me from criticism: radio and TV hosts hate looking foolish on air. They aren’t shy about letting you know if your lines suck.
My media work, then, turned into a kind of multi-year writing boot camp. I learned to get my message across – quickly. So why not share some of what I learned in the trenches of daily news? Here are 5 writing tips I gleaned:
- Ask questions. After I draft any document, I print a copy, get out my red pen, and become that TV host who has to stand by every word. I write out questions the text brings up, like, ‘Is that true?’ or ‘How do you know that?’ If the answers aren’t there, I got to Tip 2.
- Digest the answers. If key information is absent, it’s time to read more, research, or ask someone who knows. Then I add these answers to my text. Inevitably, this messes up the writing; thus, the second draft is born. More work remains (including attributing materials), but now I’ve ‘baked in’ the most important information.
- Sharpen your angle. Journalists know that if you bog people down with too much information, they’ll tune out. That’s why they find an angle on every story. I try to emulate this in my writing. The angle defines what’s essential to my message. Even in fiction, one can ask: ‘What’s my angle on this scene?’ Suddenly, that long aside about a character’s cat gets the axe!
- Toss the jargon. Journalists want the widest possible audience for their message. This means avoiding specialized language. Even when editing for researchers who work with technical models, I try to keep the focus on communication. At the very least, I ask clients to define each term simply.
- Know when to stop. Brevity is a high value for journalists. They strive for it—sometimes to their peril. It’s hard to convey complexity in a few lines. But it’s worth trying. People come away with a focused message, and maybe enough interest to go find out more. When I trust my reader, I am closer to knowing when enough’s enough.