THERE has never been a time when writers have more opportunity to put work in front of an audience hungry for information and entertainment. Publishing has become a simple matter of processing words and clicking a button. Nevertheless, I am passionate about keeping writing standards high.
Here’s some of what I have learnt about writing and editing features for the past ten years, some of them even published on paper!
Get to the point
Readers are fast and fickle. Good articles pose a question very quickly and get straight to the job of answering it. Even an essay on a complex subject matter will benefit from getting to the point nice and early. Readers can click away as fast as they found you. Engage from word one.
Add to the public record
One of the hallmarks of good journalism used to be standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. While the giants may now be in short supply, there’s no excuse for rehashing existing media. It’s a form of plagiarism, really. Reference what has come before, sure, but adding to the story will impress readers who know more about your subject than you do.
Let the reader connect
Readers love to feel smarter than writers. While you may be able to construe every well-honed argument on your subject, your reader may feel bludgeoned by your intelligence unless you give them something to use their brains on. TV quiz shows always give viewers more time to answer the questions than the contestants. It makes the audience feel smart, and keeps them tuning in. Leave a few loose threads for your readers to connect.
Watch out for your writing patterns
While they usually serve us well, often our unique writing patterns suppress great subject matter with an overbearing style. Throw yourself off sometimes. Make your third paragraph your first, and see what happens.
Keep it simple
Feature writing is not fiction. Keep the adjectives at bay and don’t set the scene too much. You’ll generally be writing about someone else’s truth, not your own, so keep the language less flowery and more factual.
Stick to the facts
In Australia, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has a handy code of ethics some journos have been following as long as others have been ignoring it. It’s just about establishing the truth, truthfully. If your work ever gets picked up by media outlets, and you haven’t fact-checked it already, it, and you, are likely to get dropped like a hot potato. Commenters will rip you apart.
There’s always an angle you just cannot take
Almost every story I have covered has revealed a really interesting angle, what I’d call the ‘real story’, but, for various reasons (usually linked to advertising) cannot be published for fear of offending someone. People are fascinating, we have endless layers of secrets and lies, but if you’re only there to do a write up on their garden (because the sales reps owe them a favour, and you got the unenviable task), you’re hardly going to reveal the reason the garden is so amazing is because it was built on abundant political kick-backs. Stick to the tulips, take the money, and save your award-winning efforts for another time.
Don’t surprise your interviewees
Send them a transcript of what they said, if not a late edit of the whole piece, before publishing and/or submitting, with an invitation for them to amend anything inaccurate but nothing stylistic by a certain deadline. If they don’t get back to you, no problem, you have a paper trail showing they had their chance. Keep all your notes and recordings long after publication. Even the threat of litigation can be hurtful, worrying and expensive for writers.
Should I be in the story?
The first piece I read in which the journo was the star was Lynn Barber’s profile on singer Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull behaved so badly in Barber’s eyes that the journalist made the first half of the profile about being kept waiting, and filled the second half with catty observations about failed celebrity. Yes, we now live in a world where so much of the media is ‘all about me’, but I believe it’s wise to walk the fine line between these two extremes, and think of the reader first. Unless we’re integral to the story, it’s probable the reader will be more interested in the subject than us. Barber won a British Press Award for that interview, but she has since received death threats, embargoes by other celebrities, and the publisher of one of her later interviews lost a 65,000-pound libel case for malicious falsehood. Putting yourself in an article has consequences, but Barber has often cited her Faithfull interview as a career highlight, so some outcomes can be career-building for journalists. Perhaps wait until you, and you employer, can afford a lawyer.
Stick to the word length
Even if you’re not writing for an editor, have a look at how many words constitutes a good article: they’re rarely over 800 words, and that’s diminishing each year. If an editor requests 800-1000 words, don’t submit 1250, saying, “I didn’t know where to cut”, because it’s annoying, lazy, and likely to see you overlooked for future work.
Read your own work
Maybe you’re publishing on your own site. Maybe you’re writing for an editor. Whatever the case, read, read, and read your work. Chances are you’re the only editor your article will ever have. Make it accurate, grammatically correct, and spell-check. Think of your predecessors who never had the benefits of dynamic spelling!
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
An extract from Write, Regardless!