I keep six honest serving men;
They taught me all I knew.
Their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who
from a longer poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Although you may never aspire to be a journalist, the principles of news writing – accuracy, brevity and clarity – can help you become a better writer.
Known as the ABC of journalism, these principles ensure that ordinary people can understand what you write.
This is important to every writer, as the more ordinary people who understand your work, the more readers you will have.
Here’s how writing like a journalist will help you, no matter what type of writer you are:
1. You get to the point quickly
A news story starts with the conclusion. It begins with the climax, telling what happened before explaining how and why it happened.
The most important part of the story is told first. Details then follow in order of diminishing importance. This is why it is sometimes said that a news story is a story written backwards.
For example, if the Prime Minister is assassinated you will find out where and when before you find out how and why.
A story about a factory fire will tell you how many are dead and injured and the damage to the factory before explaining how and why the fire started.
This is known as the inverted pyramid. It ensures that the fundamental questions – who, what, where, when, how and why – are answered first.
Many modern movies also employ this tactic. Someone is murdered or something is blown up before the audience finds out how and why it happened. This may be a comment on our shorter attention spans today, but it works by engaging the reader quickly.
While you may prefer a slow burn for your story or novel, it is useful to remember that whatever your genre or style, each sentence, paragraph, essay or story, must have a point and get to it quickly.
2. Your message is instantly understandable
As literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) said in The Enemies of Promise: “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism is the art of writing what will be grasped at once.”
In a world with many competing messages, this gives you an advantage.
Dense writing is frustrating and alienating for readers. Complex ideas are best understood when they are expressed in plain language.
3. Your language is more precise
News writing uses plain English. There is no space or time for long convoluted sentences. You must say exactly what you mean to get your message across quickly and succinctly. This makes your language more precise.
Precise language makes your story clearer, more effective and satisfying. There is magic in discovering the perfect word – for example, not just red slippers, but “ruby slippers”.
Sadly, much modern writing favours obscurity above clarity.
We are no longer aware; we are “cognisant of”. We no longer see a rise in unemployment; we see an “up-tick”.
Things happen “on a regular basis” rather than “regularly”.
Things have “a multitude of uses” rather than “many”.
“The majority of people” like football, instead of “most people”.
One reason for this is the mistaken belief that it will make the writer or organisation sound more important.
Another is the worthy desire to protect vulnerable groups from pejorative terms.
The poor are no longer with us, but the “economically disadvantaged” are.
While you should always aim to write inclusively and respectfully, seek ways to merge clarity with respect.
4. You don’t waste your reader’s time
Readers may long to be transported through reading, but if the journey is long and tedious they will quickly jump ship.
Journalists must compete for space and readers with global, national and local stories. They do this by writing stories that are short and compelling.
Give your story the time it needs to tell it well and no more. It helps if you are sure of your message before you start. Outlining helps. When writing chapters, make a list of the points you want to cover and the emotional arc. Only include what you need to tell that part of your story.
5. You will understand the importance of craft
Writing is a craft, and as soon as you understand this, it becomes achievable. You must first have something to say, but you must also learn how to say it.
The ABC of journalism is one example of how to craft a story. There are many others, depending on the genre you choose, and learning them will guide you to become a better writer.
6. Your writing improves
Using words economically makes your writing stronger and more vivid.
Precision means avoiding flabby phrases. It means avoiding vanity and indulgence. It means choosing the right words, not just any words.
This doesn’t mean abandoning elegance. Think of Ernest Hemingway – a passionate advocate of plain English. Think of poetry. Study your favourite writers and you will find they say exactly what they mean. No more.
Writing plainly also leaves space for the reader’s imagination.
7. You learn to meet deadlines
While journalists strive for excellence, deadlines must be met or the paper cannot be published.
This is both painful and liberating, as although you may always think you can do better it also teaches you how to let go.
Letting go means finishing something – no matter how imperfect – and having the courage to send it out into the world. That is the only way your writing can improve and that you can grow as a writer.
If perfection cannot be achieved, then the pain of trying to achieve it is gone. You can only do your best within the time available, and that must be good enough.
8. You get more readers
If you have a good story and can tell it in a way that entertains and engages the ordinary reader you will have more readers. It’s that simple.
9. You will not be a writing snob
If you learn to write like a journalist, you will not be a writing snob.
You will understand that good writing does not require linguistic gymnastics or complexity. Good writing begins with having something worth saying and saying it well. Good writing is satisfying, engaging and thought provoking. It achieves its purpose, which is to reach and inspire readers.
Here are some familiar stories written in news style. See if you can complete them, adding the how and why. Write a headline, too.
1. An Otway Ranges woodcutter saved the lives of a Colac woman and her granddaughter today when he killed the wolf that had swallowed them.
2. A brave little Tasmanian pig outwitted a hungry wolf today, when the wolf climbed down the pig’s chimney and fell into a pot of boiling water.
3. An English princess who had been in a coma for 100 years was woken by a kiss from a handsome prince today, breaking a spell and liberating her kingdom.
4. The Handsome Prince has chosen a bride. She is Cinderella, 18, a kitchen maid, of The Manor House in Toorak – the only woman in the kingdom to fit the glass slipper.
Test the clarity of your writing at Gunning’s Fog Index.