I was already reporting for my middle school newspaper, “The Saghalie Skyhawk”, on crucial issues of the day like lunchtime panhandlers itching to satisfy a Cool Ranch Doritos craving, and writing horoscopes littered with alliteration.
What more could a girl want from a career?
I stuck with it, continuing to try on the journalism hat while writing for school newspapers in high school and in college.
I graduated with a degree in Journalism from Seattle Pacific University in 2005, around the time when prospects for career journalists were looking dire.
The digital age was taking hold, and the future was, at best, extremely uncertain for traditional media outlets. Even my professors were anxious.
Ever the pragmatist, I decided to abandon my childhood dreams of whiling away the hours in a real live newsroom for a broader communications career, though I had little more than an inkling as to what that meant in the workplace.
Once I finally joined the ranks of ye olde working worlde, I discovered my journalism education had prepared me exceptionally well for a veritable cornucopia of writing styles and mediums, and, even more importantly, I knew how to communicate with people.
But you don’t need a journalism degree to apply the basic principles to your writing. When you think like a journalist, you will become a better writer.
Here’s how you can use 10 tenets of journalism to improve your writing, no matter your genre or industry.
1. Remember the 5 Ws
Journalists can never forget the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why (plus the sixth unofficial W: Why should I care?).
These are not only the building blocks for a news article, they also serve as a baseline for a corporate communications plan, as a sketch for a customer profile and as a starting point for a novelist’s character chart.
2. Know your audience
Who are you writing for? What’s on their to-do list? What keeps them up at night? What television shows do they watch? What do they read? What are their political views? Do they have children? What do they want most out of life?
Imagine you are writing for one person. And don’t write a single word until you know who that person is, and why they will want to read what you have to say.
3. Refine your lead
Okay, okay: journalists would call it a lede.
It’s the same concept: your hook, your sizzle, your selling point. Your primary summary of what’s happening.
Figure out, first and foremost, what will engage your audience and motivate them to read more.
Human beings are wired for storytelling — so tell a story.
If you can add human conflict to the mix, all the better.
4. Show, don’t tell
It’s the art of painting a picture with words. It’s setting the scene. It’s using specific examples to engross the imagination.
For example: “She put on another pot of hot coffee” is rather generic.
However, “As she ran out the clock on the last 14 minutes of her 12-hour shift, the waitress reluctantly refilled the industrial coffee pot for perhaps the thousandth time that day” is not only more specific, it also conveys the mood of the scene.
Another trick is to weave in the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell — just don’t try to force all of them into the ultimate run-on sentence.
5. Trust, but verify
Whether you’re writing a competitive analysis for a business, doing research for your latest book or interviewing a subject for a magazine, you need to carefully evaluate your information sources.
Err on the side of the reliable, the reputable and the truthful. Stay away from drama and speculation.
Know the difference between an established news outlet or a qualified subject matter expert and a random online commentator.
Double-check your facts and vet your sources.
6. Strategically structure your writing
Imagine a pyramid.
Your most important, catchiest and most interesting content belongs at the very top of the pyramid.
Attention spans are shockingly short — you have mere seconds before your reader moves on.
Thus, it makes sense to arrange your writing from most important to least important, in case the reader jumps ship halfway through.
7. Mind the details
Names, titles, punctuation, dates, capitalization, citations and other minutiae (can anyone out there spell minutiae without the aid of Spell Check? I can’t.) can make or break your story.
If you demonstrate that you can handle the small details, you’re more likely to find more work, book deals and future clients.
Remember that accuracy, paired with consistency, lends credibility.
8. Aim to stir emotions
Writers write to connect with people. And people connect via their emotions and their shared experiences.
Read your writing out loud.
Does it feel flat and monotone? Try again until the words start coming to life.
Picture the scene playing out in a movie.
If you want your writing to have a lasting impact, make it your goal to evoke emotion: amusement, horror, nostalgia, anger, inspiration, or whatever is appropriate for your audience and your writing.
9. Trim it up
Throw out anything that doesn’t serve the primary purpose of your writing.
Sometimes diversions from the topic at hand can provide fodder for another blog, article, or book.
But if it doesn’t belong, or confuses the narrative, it’s got to go.
Take it from Mark Twain:
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very:’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Extraneous information and commentary weaken your work rather than improve it.
10. Focus on the human element
I love this technique for dealing with data.
Data byte: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Americans consumed 140.43 billion gallons of gasoline in 2015.
So, what? Do a bit of math to bring the point home to your readers.
Try this: Americans consumed enough gasoline in 2015 to fill more than 212,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Now you’ve made an impact and created a visual for your reader.
Anyone can think and write like a journalist.
Journalism is essentially the pursuit of truth, and truth can be expressed in innumerable forms: poetry, fiction, art, music, investigatory journalism, cultural commentary, blogging, and children’s books, to name a few.
Start and end with the search for truth, pay attention to the world around you, and you’re on the right path.
Trench coat optional.