Most writers know the feeling. You sit down to start your article and five minutes later you’re still staring at a blank page. Don’t panic.
In fact, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve got the first step to writing a successful article just right. You’re thinking about what you want to say. The alternative is to pour a disjointed stream of consciousness onto the page.
It’s nearly 25 years since my tutors at journalism school knocked my writing into shape. Since then the technology used to create and publish content has been through one revolution after another. But those core reporting skills haven’t changed much. Below are seven reporter skills that you can use to create content your readers will find easy to read – and share.
Have an angle
A story without an angle won’t be much of a read. Consider these two headlines.
Artificial Intelligence Will Change the World
Your Next Holiday Flight Could be Piloted by a Robot
The first has no angle and very little appeal to potential readers. The second is a compelling story with a really strong angle on the broad subject area of artificial intelligence. So, focus hard on your angle to give yourself a chance of hooking your audience.
Don’t bury the lead
Begin your story with the newest information written in a sharp, accessible style. Look to answer the basic questions; who, what, why, where and when in the opening two paragraphs of your article. Context and supporting background material can be included later.
Keep it short
The best reporters write short sentences. They also use simple everyday language. They typically attempt to convey only one idea per sentence.
Your aim is to get the story across in a way that is easy for readers to understand. So, avoid putting obstacles in the way. Keep adjectives to a minimum, avoid flowery prose and lose the Latin phrases. If you are writing corporate content it can be tempting to reach for the thesaurus and include lots of big words to impress your colleagues. It’s likely to achieve the opposite and it will certainly alienate your readers.
Use active sentences
Many people struggle with the concept of the active and passive voice, so forgive me for taking you back to kindergarten for this one.
The first phrase many of us ever learned was “the cat sat on the mat.” It’s language in its simplest form and small children can easily understand it.
Now imagine telling a toddler that “the mat was sat upon by the cat.” It’s a much more difficult concept to grasp. That’s because it’s written using the passive voice.
Active sentences tell us who did what. Grammar buffs will recognise the subject-verb-object construction. The important point is that keeping your copy active makes it much more engaging. It gives clarity to your story and it normally takes fewer words to say the same thing.
Spelling and grammar
A writer’s reputation is grounded in good spelling and grammar. If you struggle with these there are online tools to help you. All computers have a simple spell checker. There are also more advanced online tools like grammarly that check not only spelling but also grammar, readability and other writing errors.
Attribution and accuracy
Unless you are writing a first person piece, there is no room for your own opinion in your copy. The source of facts, figures and quotes should be clear to readers. Make sure the sources you quote are credible. Do not use Wikipedia as a single source. Anybody can edit entries in Wikipedia so the data may not be reliable.
Check that everything in your piece is accurate. Your credibility as a writer depends on getting the facts right. Your company’s reputation may also depend on you getting your facts right. That means your job may depend on you getting the facts right. Check and once you’re happy, check it all again.
Polish your copy
Once you have written and checked your article it’s a good idea to go back and rewrite it. Your first attempt will never reflect you at your most brilliant.
For example, this article has 710 words up to this point. Is that too many?
The great American writer Mark Twain has the answer to that. Back in 1880 he said pretty much all of what I have said above. He used 106 words. I’ll leave you with those.
“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
Letter to D. W. Bowser, 20 March 1880
If you’d like to hear how we can help your business produce journalistic content, get in touch today.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call our team on 01494 672 122
Simon Torkington is Executive Producer at Formative Content and produces and oversees content production for some of our biggest clients.
Formative Content is a UK based content marketing agency producing high quality content, live event coverage and strategic communications support for clients around the world.