GateHouse Newsroom

10 tips to tighten your writing

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

Great ideas live forever! We found this post from the GateHouse Newsroom vaults that still rings true today for reporters looking to tighten up their writing.

Sometimes as I'm reading a story, I think, "This simply has too many words." And that reminds me of a scene in "Amadeus" when the emperor tells Mozart his work is quite good, but he has too many notes. In case you don't know the scene, there's a snippet in the attached video.

Mozart was indignant, and rightly so. The emperor fancied himself a musician, but he couldn't point to what was extraneous. In case you're feeling defensive of your own writing, I offer you specific ideas to tighten your copy. You can even do a search (usually Control F or Command F) to look for these offensive words or phrases and cast them out of your writing forever.

Your readers will thank you.

1. There is/there are: If you find sentences that start with or include this phrase, you can usually find a stronger and shorter way to phrase the sentence. (I've changed names so I don't call out anyone in public.) Here's an example I found online:

ORIGINAL: At the Veterans Day celebration held at the (Smith Center) recently, there were three veteran's groups represented. (17 words)

REWRITE: Three veterans' groups attended a Veterans Day celebration Tuesday at the (Smith Center). (13 words) You could more precisely say 'Members of three veterans' groups" and still come out ahead.

2. Very: As Mark Twain says, "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." Need I say more?

3. More on adverbs: You can search your document for words ending in "-ly" to ensure those adverbs are working for you. Sometimes they are a cry for a stronger verb.

ORIGINAL: She walked slowly into the room. (6 words)

REWRITE: She sauntered into the room. (5 words)

4. Stutter quote: Sometimes quotes aren't the most efficient way to explain something. If you can explain something more succinctly, remove the direct quote and explain it in your own words, using attribution. The worst use of a quote is when it repeats what you just said – the stutter quote.

ORIGINAL: Smith said the department is grateful for the assistance.

"It's a great benefit to us they came out with the program," (Smith) said.

REWRITE: Even though the words aren't identical, they convey the same idea. Leave out the quote and save 14 words.

5. Jargon: If you can explain something more succinctly, remove the direct quote and explain it in your own words, using attribution. Here, we need to define Plaintiff and Defendant for our readers in addition to rewriting to shorten this. Always ask yourself what the reader needs to know and the quickest way to explain it. In this civil suit, the plaintiff is the family and the defendant is the U.S. Forest Service.

ORIGINAL: "Because this deadline has been extended, the Court finds it necessary to also extend the deadline for Plaintiffs to file a response to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss," (the judge) wrote. "Accordingly, Plaintiffs will have until April 15, 2015, to file their response. Defendant's reply is due two weeks from the date that Plaintiffs file their response." (56 words)

REWRITE: The family's deadline to file a response has been extended to April 15. The U.S. Forest Service will have two weeks after that to reply. (25 words)

6. And: Look for opportunities to eliminate one of the verbs when someone is doing something and something else. Sometimes one presupposes the other, and you can delete the first.

ORIGINAL: The city applied for and was awarded a no interest loan. (11 words)

REWRITE: The city was awarded a no-interest loan. (8 words)

7. Make it possessive: Sometimes you can eliminate a prepositional phrase just by making something possessive.

ORIGINAL: Construction on the wastewater project will be pushed into 2016. (10 words)

REWRITE: Wastewater project construction will be pushed to 2016. (8 words)

8. Passive voice: So much of writing is ensuring our verbs work for us.

ORIGINAL: Cost of the project is to be shared with the county. (11 words)

REWRITE: The county will share the project's cost. (7 words)

9. Make/conduct: Has your city council ever made a decision? Have police conducted an investigation? Then you can cut some words!

ORIGINAL: The city council made a decision to cut taxes after a four-hour debate. (14 words)

REWRITE: The city council decided to cut taxes after a four-hour debate. (12 words)

10. In order to: If you cut words in order to tighten your copy, you need to go a bit further. Cut words to tighten copy, and get rid of a couple of words while you're at it.

As senior director of content, Jean Hodges develops strategy and works with newsroom leaders on digital transformation, from newsroom structure to using analytics to inform news decisions. As journalists face myriad challenges, the best are experimenting with new ways to draw readers in, while fearlessly tackling watchdog reporting and sticking up for the underdog. Hey, there's hope for us yet. 

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