I’ve recently come across several articles that discuss the reasons why one should think like a journalist when creating content. They stress finding credible sources, focusing on accuracy and being objective, all good ways to make your content stronger and help build trust with readers.
I’m completely onboard with the advice, especially since I have a journalism background. But I’d like to take it one step further and suggest that it isn’t enough to think like a journalist. You should write like one too.
Here are six writing tips I learned in Journalism School that will help you create better and more readable content:
Include a Nut Graph. Every good story has a nut graph. Think of it like a thesis in a research paper. It tells readers exactly what the story is about -- it’s the story in a nutshell. It also serves several other important purposes such as transitioning from the lead and explaining its connection to the rest of the story.
Use a News Peg. A news peg refers to the timeliness of a story. It’s a topical hook that allows you to capitalize on the themes, ideas and events that have already captured your audience’s interest.
Here’s an example: The Washington Post reported today that Latinos now outnumber Whites in the state of California. This is a great peg for an article that offers advice on how to market to Latino Millennials.
Kill Your Darlings. William Faulkner said “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Stephen King piggybacked on the idea with “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
So, what does it mean? It means that sometimes you have to cut the parts of your piece that you love most. Each choice you make as a writer should further or support your main point. If your darlings (those clever little turns of phrase, funny anecdotes, etc.) aren’t serving those purposes, give them the axe.
Write with Bricks and Balloons. All good stories include both hard facts (bricks) and entertaining details (balloons). The bricks keep your piece grounded -- they are the data, stats and findings that support and prove what you are saying. The balloons are those extra details that give color to a story. In short, balloons are the elements that make for great storytelling. Check out the balloons in this story written and reported by John R. Roby from the Press & Sun Bulletin in Binghamton, NY:
“Two next-door-neighbor-dads, having just returned from watching their kids march in the local parade, agreed to spend the afternoon sharing a pot of homemade Maryland crab soup (red, of course) and iced-cold National Bohemian beer.”
Numbers are Numbing. Using data and stats from reputable sources help with the credibility of any piece, but that doesn’t mean your copy should read like an Excel worksheet. Make numbers easily digestible for readers when possible. For example, a recent story in the Daily Mail describes the world’s largest yacht as 656-ft long or the length of two football fields. It’s much easier for readers to understand just how big the yacht is when they are given a comparison that makes sense to them.
Pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. On my first day of Journalism School, I was handed a packet of materials. Among them: an actual facebook and a copy of The Elements of Style.
You can decide for yourself whether the book is deserving of its reputation, but despite your final decision, there is no denying that Strunk and White offer some good advice, especially if you want to write like a journalist. Some of their most useful tips:
- Avoid fancy words. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.
- Write in a way that comes naturally. Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand.
- Be clear. Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style… But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.
By employing some of these tips, you will craft content that resonates and is remembered. And isn't that the whole point?