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Professor Rick Dunham's concise guide to writing concise stories

Updated: Aug 24, 2023




By RICK DUNHAM

Global Business Journalism co-director


There is no room for self-indulgence in modern journalism. You need to hook the reader, get to the point, write concisely and maintain your reader's interest from beginning to end.


Self-discipline is vital. But even if your writing today is occasionally flabby or flowery, you can easily transform yourself into a better news writer by learning from the best practices of digital journalism veterans.


Here are nine brief tips that will help you shorten, sharpen and tighten your writing.

Rick Dunham: "When in doubt, leave it out."

1. Focus, focus, focus.


Figure out your story's theme and stick to it. Don't lose your writing focus by adding topics only tangentially related to the theme. Even good material should be deleted if it interferes with the story's structure.


As my favorite journalism trainer, Roy Peter Clark, puts it: “Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.”


When I edit a story, the first thing I do is to cut sections that do not support the theme. It's like hiring a tree-trimming service. They first lop off big dead branches and then start pruning smaller ones to make the tree healthier and more attractive.


2. "Omit needless words."


Those are not my words. They come from the Bible of modern journalism, Strunk & White's 1918 masterpiece, "The Elements of Style." Nobody has said it better in the past century. Each word in your story should add value to the news report. If it doesn't, omit it.


3. Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs.


Focus on meaningful nouns and action verbs. Adjectives and adverbs often inject opinion or waste space.


Case in point: "Donald Trump is a liar," he said angrily." What does the adverb "angrily" add, except your opinion.


My least favorite adjective: very. "Very" is very wasteful.


"Very good." How about "excellent"?


"Very wet." "Drenched" would be more descriptive.


Every time you say "very" in your story, think about replacing it or eliminating it. Use "very" very rarely.


4. Keep a list of words to avoid.


Some words are redundant or add nothing to your story. Just wasted space.


"Very" (see above) is one of them. "A little," "a lot," "some" and other vague quantifiers are good candidates for deletion. So are phrases like "that is" and "there are." I always delete "firstly ... secondly ... thirdly." And I don't allow "etc." to be used in any story I edit. There are better, shorter, more journalistic options to each of these.


Here are some other words that set off alarm bells as I edit my reporters' stories. I regularly trim them as I slim down those stories:

Currently

Presently

Nowadays

Literally

Really

In order to

Start to

Maybe

Just

Thing

Stuff



5. Avoid long quotations.


Long quotations – longer than two sentences – can slow down a story and add extraneous words and thoughts that distract from your taut narrative. If you are considering a quotation of three sentences or more, ask yourself, "Does every sentence add value? Do I need to include every sentence as a direct quote?"


If the answer to either question is no, take it out of the direct quotation. If you can say it more simply as a paraphrase, then summarize the thought in fewer (and clearer) words. If the third (and fourth and fifth) sentences detract more from the story than they add, delete them.


If you are using a quotation longer than three sentences, break it into two paragraphs. Long blocks of type are deadly on a mobile phone screen. They are a big turn-off to readers. Breaking up the quotation will add some much-needed white space to please the viewer's eyes.


Direct quotations should add context, analysis, opinion, commentary and/or insight. They should be tight and get to the point. They should punctuate key thoughts in your article. Never use a quotation that is simply a recitation of fact. Instead, tighten it and paraphrase it, and, if necessary, attribute it. Otherwise, if it is an undisputed fact, just cite the fact without a lot of extra wording.


6. Avoid flowery or bureaucratic language.


For some reason, too many journalists start adding wordy flourishes to their conversational English as soon as they sit down at a computer keyboard. Write more like you send a text message – brief and to the point. Don't add unnecessary or redundant words. And, for the sake of everyone, avoid bureaucratic jargon. (On my banned list: right-sizing, synergies, core competencies, de-layering, incentivizing, leveraging, elasticity and tranches.)


Here's a bureaucratic classic from the city of Fitzroy in Australia: "Refuse and rubbish shall not be collected from the site or receptacles thereon before the hour of 8:00am or after the hour of 6:00pm any day."


How about this: "Trash won't be collected from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m." It's simpler. It's clearer. It smells better.

7. Don't use too many numbers.


Pick the best, most descriptive data that illustrates the theme of your story. Place the numbers into context immediately. Put the newest number first, followed by earlier numbers or percentage change. Never overwhelm readers with a series of statistics. Most likely, your reader will stop reading the story.


8. Avoid too much background information.


You need to give readers some basic context in the history, but long descriptions of historical background can be boring and distract from the theme of the story. In the Digital Era, it is best to use hyperlinks to allow readers to dive deeper into the topic, if they so choose. But don't force them to read something that they might already know (or not be interested in).


That leads to the final point...


9. When in doubt, leave it out.


You might have a boring quotation from an important person. You might want to include someone in the story because they took the time to talk to you – but what they told you isn't that interesting. Every source, every paragraph, should earn their way into your story. If you have a sentence (or a paragraph) that doesn't add value to the story, leave it out. Unsure? Cut it.


I will always remember this advice from my brilliant BusinessWeek editor-in-chief, Steve Shepard: “What you leave out of the story is as important as what you put in.”


 

Rick Dunham is co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University and a visiting professor in the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. He is the author of the textbook, “Multimedia Reporting,” published globally by Springer, and co-editor of Springer’s Tsinghua Global Business Journalism book series.

Mr. Dunham is a veteran Washington journalist, White House correspondent and former president of the National Press Club. He has covered every U.S. presidential election since 1980. Before joining the faculty at Tsinghua, where he teaches multimedia journalism, data journalism, advanced news writing and U.S. media culture, Mr. Dunham was Washington bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle and White House correspondent for Business Week magazine.


Since arriving in China in 2013, Mr. Dunham has offered news analysis for news outlets from countries including the United States, China, Finland, the Philippines, Denmark, Estonia and Russia. He has trained professional journalists, journalism students and journalism educators in locations including the United States, China, Finland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Lebanon and the Philippines.

 




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