Five Writing Tips from a Former Journalist

My first career was in journalism. I was a news producer, first for Morning North, a CBC Radio show, 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 as a journalist:

1. 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.

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.

3. 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!

4. 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.

5. 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.