Years ago, as a new real estate reporter at a personal finance magazine, I spent hours poring over my first story. I’d interviewed dozens of experts, written three different drafts, and was fairly pleased with my work by the time I filed the story.
About an hour later, the piece came back, ripped apart by my editor.
If you’ve never been in this situation, let me tell you: there’s nothing quite as humbling as thinking you’ve nailed an article only to then stare at a document filled with strikethroughs and queries. And yet, this is what makes stories better—the back and forth between writers and editors, the scrutiny of each noun and verb, the care over the lilt of a sentence. All of which is to say that in my two decades as a writer and editor, I’m still learning how to write well. It’s a craft that one can always improve on. Of course, I’ve learned some tricks along the way.
Tips for writing clearly
In a world where we’re all moving so fast and the deluge of content is unrelenting, writing succinctly and clearly has never been more important. Here are a few ways to do so.
Strip your story down to the basics
Sometimes as writers, we get so caught up in crafting beautiful sentences and creating a flow of ideas that we lose sight of the bigger picture—or what the story is really about. In these moments, I ask myself, “What am I actually trying to say?” And I try to boil everything down to the simple, underlying concept. I’ll write really basic sentences to reflect that concept, which I can come back to and beautify later, if need be.
Lean on numbers and case studies
There’s no better way to bring a topic to life than with data and anecdotes—particularly with complicated subjects. When possible, always try to weave in examples to help your reader understand your point. Consider the following two sentences:
It’s hard to understand people wearing masks.
It’s hard to understand people wearing masks because high pitches can’t travel through mask material, so you lose access to consonants—particularly f, s, sh, and th, which help us distinguish what we hear.
That second sentence tells the reader a lot more information.
Imagine scenes in different ways
A wonderful trick I was taught early on in my career was to think of the introduction as the beginning of a movie. What do you want people to “see” first? The camera sometimes can show multiple scenes at once. Other times it focuses on a specific something or someone and then zooms out. And other times, vice versa. The key is to bring people into your world—whatever that world is—and explain what it’s like.
Avoid lazy writing
We all do it; sometimes without thinking, we’ll reach for canned phrases, cliches, and jargon— think: the good news is, the fact of the matter is, etc. I had a ruthless Columbia Journalism School professor who kept a CPP Index—Cliches Per Person—on his students, and each month, he’d call us out on them. Rightfully so! Such words and phrases are the enemy of clear writing. Instead, reach for fresh language that more precisely conveys what you’re going for.
Quick tips to get unstuck
When you’re feeling stuck—because, if you’re a writer, you inevitably have such moments—try some of these tips:
• Write your headline and subhead first: This is a great way to zero in on what the piece is about to ensure you understand the crux of the story.
• Make your verbs work: Cut adjectives and focus on the action and nouns. Particularly in thought leadership, it’s imperative to use verbs that make numbers pop: In August, the number of delta breakthrough cases skyrocketed/jumped/soared [instead of grew] to more than 190,000.
• Speak or read it aloud: If you trip up while reading it aloud, chances are you’re not writing simply or concisely.
• Emulate: If you find yourself having trouble getting started, think back to something you’ve read recently that was cohesive and clear. I used to keep a list of stories and specific writers I admired in a computer file so that I could easily reference them for inspiration.
• Write from memory: If you’ve been on an interview with an expert or have read through the first iteration of a draft, put it aside and briefly jot down what stood out to you as unique and different. We usually remember the things we find interesting—and if you find it interesting, most likely a reader will, too.
It’s so easy to want to delete paragraphs or pages in a rage when writing. But that’s when you can try to turn writing obstacles into fun challenges. Try to wedge in a fresh, precise word here or there or push yourself to find a different data point that better illustrates the story. Celebrate the small wins because with each attempt, you’ll get better at finding a clear and succinct way of writing. And when in doubt, ask for help. The best pieces really are a collaboration, regardless of what a byline may say.
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