Jump-Start Better Writing

By Jack Williams

All right, I admit it. My writing always starts out biblically—that is, “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2).  The difference, of course, is after six days the Lord’s creation was pronounced “very good” (1:31), while mine requires another revision.

What a relief to get that out of the way so you can avoid my mistakes and move forward in your writing career. Want to be the editor’s best friend? Try these eight writing tips to jump-start your next article.

Editor’s Law #1: If you have nothing to say, please don’t.

Say something worthwhile.This is your chance to deliver a compelling message, build a strong news item or discuss a controversial issue.  Give it your best shot. Who wants to read fluffy drivel that sputters and goes nowhere? On the other hand, people are eager to read articles or news items that connect with their lives. Any subject that stirs you will likely grab others also.

Editor’s Law #2: Know your English.

Start fast and use good grammar. Write with authority.  Use effective transition. Don’t be bashful about sub-heads; they guide readers (including editors) through your article.

Say it well. Research before you write. Don’t guess about statistics; look them up. When retired Tennessean editor Lloyd Armour died, a colleague wrote about the feisty journalist, “One might argue with his opinions but never his facts.”

Write with a smile. Anger colors word choice and darkens paragraph tones. Good writers never yell at, berate or ridicule others in print.  Exclamation points?  Hunt them down and kill them. They scream “amateur at work.”  The same goes for words in all caps. Make your point with strong verbs, not a blizzard of punctuation marks.

Editor’s Law #3: Less is more.

Say it short. Too-short articles may exist, but I haven’t seen one in years. Editors live in a tidy, less-is-more word world. Writing short does not require short sentences, although that works too, but says it with fewer words. Try it.

Just because you have a 1,200-word limit does not mean you must use all 1,200. A tightly-written 1,000-word piece will impress the editor. Readers prefer shorter articles. They turn the page rather than slog through adverb-infested paragraphs.

Editor’s Law #4: If it’s not worth your time to edit, it’s not worth my time to publish.

Edit, edit, edit. Writing is hard work, but the editing and rewriting process is party time for journalists. This is where we get a second chance to put a shine on a mediocre piece. In spite of what you may have heard, nobody gets it right the first draft. Hold your writing up to the harsh light. Turn it over, stand it on edge, shake out unnecessary words.

Want a reputation as a complete writer whose manuscripts sparkle? Examine every word. Road test each for reliability. If a word hangs around taking up space and does not clarify, modify or simplify—feed it to the dog.  The professional writer weeds his own garden. Read it aloud. The litmus test for writing is the “read it aloud” principle.

Editor’s Law #5: If it sounds bad, it is.

If you stumble while reading aloud, the paragraphs need to be tweaked, rearranged or deleted.  The ear and the eye often disagree on what’s good writing. When that happens, something is broken. Fix it.

Weak transitions aren’t the only slackers that limp off the page when read aloud. Fuzzy thinking flops belly-up on the dusty road to rejection. Clichés and jargon whine like spoiled brats when read aloud. Don’t skip this step.

Editor’s Law #6: Readers pay the bills; be nice.

Respect the reader. The same magic that tells little kids when you don’t like them plays out on the printed page.  Readers know if you write down to them. They sense if you think they’re too dumb to understand. And they resent it. So don’t do it. Treat them as equals.  Write to them as friends.  Just as high-pitched, squeaky-voiced speakers irritate us, so do writers who come across like a committee of cats sliding down a tin roof—all claws and yowls.

Editor’s Law #7: Focus, focus, focus.

Remember your purpose. Beware of mixing the message. News releases inform. Period. They do not lecture, scold or debate. They get to the point in one bounce and stick with the facts of who, what, when, where and why.

Editorials, however, offer a platform for personal opinion, slashing review or outright challenge.  Articles can be crafted to explain, exhort, indict, disclose and more.  Decide in advance which horse you plan to ride.

Henry Luce, founder of The Weekly Newsmagazine, told a prospective reporter during a job interview, “Our writers entertain, our editors inform, our researchers keep us accurate.”

Editor’s Law #8: Quit. With a bang!

Stop when you finish. Two elements create a good finish.  The first is to stop when you’re done.  It shouldn’t take all day to dismount.  Don’t talk about coming to a conclusion.  Do it. The second is end with a bang, not a whimper.

About the Writer: Until his death in 2016, Jack Williams was regarded as one of the premier communicators among Free Will Baptists. Jack served 30 years as editor of Contact magazine and later as director of communications at Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee.