Make Every Word Count

Make Every Word Count

Steve Buttry | June 27, 2008

Reporters and editors everywhere battle and complain over length of stories. Good reporters always gather more interesting and important information than they can use in their stories. Good editors always have more good stories, photographs and graphics than they have space. With space at a premium in newspapers today, you need to make every word count in your stories. However long your editors let you write, you need to hone your ability to organize information and write tight stories that make every word count.

Plan to Write Tight

Coordinate with your editor. Discuss story ideas in some detail with your editor before you start gathering information. This may be too early to settle on an exact length, but you should make sure you agree on the probable scope of the story. This can save time wasted gathering information you don't need. As you are gathering information and writing the story, you will need at some point to agree on a probable length. If you delay this discussion too long, you may waste more time and effort and invite more frustration.

Consider the reader. A failing of some long stories is that they are written for sources, rather than for readers. Consider why you are including information in a story. To impress sources with your knowledge? To keep a source happy? Or to inform the reader? A tougher challenge is to decide whether you are writing for the reader with strong interest in the issue or for the reader with average interest. For most stories, you should write primarily for the average reader who would read the story.

Make your story useful. When you're deciding what information is important enough to include, favor information the reader can use. What will help the reader decide how to vote, what to buy, whether to see a show, what route to take to work, etc.?

Consider follow-ups, sidebars and graphics. You don't have to cram all the important information you've gathered into a single story. Can a process or some numbers be explained better in a graphic? Could a secondary issue make a sidebar or fact box? Might some issues get better treatment in follow-up stories, rather than cramming them all into this story?

Write as you report. As you conduct interviews and research, start writing your story. This will help you develop and sharpen your focus earlier, and a sharply focused story is generally a tighter story. Writing as you report also will help you identify and fill the holes in your story. It will help you avoid redundant reporting (which often leads to redundant writing).

Set the Pace

Your lead sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lead invites the reader into a story with the promise of a quick and lively pace. A ponderous lead invites the reader to turn to the next story, in which case it doesn't matter how long or how good the rest of the story is.

Entice the reader. Don't treat your lead as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Regard it more like a g-string, brief and enticing. If your lead captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don't need them all in the lead. A long lead shows a lack of confidence, like you don't believe I'll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can.

Challenge long leads. We've all read excellent leads that were long: 30 words, maybe even 40. But those are rare. Most long leads are too heavy and slow. Check how long your lead is, even counting the words occasionally. If it's more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lead and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.

Stamp out punctuation. Many of the best leads have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lead, read it aloud so you can hear whether it's choppy or whether it flows smoothly.

Minimize attribution. Attribution lengthens a lead, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution?

Subtract numbers. If you use any numbers in your lead, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident to an average reader. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don't belong in the lead. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lead.

Write an alternative lead. If your lead is longer than 20 words, write a shorter alternative lead and evaluate the two side by side. Don't accept a long lead without testing it against a shorter lead. Keep a Sharp Focus

Ask what the story is about. A tight story is not simply a short story. A tight story of any length is a story with a clear, sharp focus. Ask yourself frequently as you gather information and as you write the story what the story is about, why a reader would want to read it. Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press suggests asking these questions as you try to find the story's focus: Why do you care about this? Why did you want to write this story? What touches you emotionally? Who is benefiting/being harmed, making money/losing money? How are readers being affected by what you have found? What is new here?

Write a headline. Writing a headline for your story might help you find your focus. Or a logo, if it's a series. Or a budget line. Whichever of these devices you use, you have to write a good one. As DeSilva says, "no 'Unit Mulls Probe' garbage."

Tell your story in three words. Bill Luening of the Kansas City Star recommends identifying your focus by boiling your story down to a three-word sentence, a noun, an active verb, and an object: "These generally emerge as themes, rather than a story focus, but they can lead to a theme statement. Maybe, if the story is a narrative, you can get them to outline the complication, development and resolution this way. The story of the Pied Piper then would be, Rats Overrun City. City Hires Ratman. Ratman Kills Rats. City Stiffs Ratman. Ratman Steals Children. Moral: Keep Your Word. Or...Flutists Kick Butt."

Tell someone about your story. Especially if you are struggling to find the focus, you may find it helpful to tell someone about the story. For some people, conversation forces brevity and focus. DeSilva suggests the bus stop test: "Suppose you are at a bus stop and someone leans out the bus window and shouts, 'What is that story you are working on?' The bus engine starts and begins to pull away from the curb. What are you going to shout?"

Find the surprise. Did something surprise you as you researched this story? Maybe that should be your focus.

Identify the emotion. Luening asks writers, "Where does the emotion lurk? Where, as a friend of mine here calls it, is the 'emotional center' of what they've discovered?"

Use story elements. You can find your focus by identifying the story's most important elements. Is this a plot-driven story, or is character the most important element? Or setting? Or conflict?

Organize your information. Identify the most important points of your story and the information that most clearly supports those points. This should be the heart of the story and in many cases the total story. If you identify more than three or four points, you probably have too many. An outline may help you organize.

Write without your notes. If you've done your research well, and if you've been thinking about the story, you have most of the story in your head. You know what the most important points are. You remember the embarrassing contradictions, the clever quotes, the damning evidence. So tell the story, without the distractions of that mess of notebooks and faxes and photocopies. Sometimes the process of flipping through notebooks and finding things you weren't looking for distracts you from your focus. Of course, when you're done, you need to return to your notebooks and other resources to ensure accuracy. When you return to the notebooks, you may find you have left out something important. But if you forgot about it, ask yourself whether it really is important.

Keep the end in sight. Decide where you want your story to end. Keep the end in view as you write, and use the information and anecdotes that lead you to that end by the most direct route.

Identify and avoid detours. Detours are a common problem in long stories. You will spend an inordinate amount of time checking out a tip or trying to answer a question. As the reporter, you may need to follow these detours. But as the writer, you don't want to take the reader on detours. Make your story the straightest, smoothest road between the beginning and the end. Don't include any turns that aren't part of the route itself. Don't just empty your notebook. Just because you collected a fact doesn't mean you have to share it with your readers. Use the facts that help tell the story, and only those facts. Perhaps you knocked yourself out to find a fact that turned out to be unimportant. Too bad. Leave it out. Maybe the fact is important, but your effort deceived you into thinking the reader needs to know how you found it. Probably not. Just the facts, please. Sometimes you come across a funny or intriguing anecdote that doesn't really relate to the main story, but you just fall in love with it. Maybe it's worth a sidebar. Or maybe you just have to be satisfied with telling it to an editor or colleague. If it's a detour that takes you away from the story's focus, keep it out of your story.

Be demanding. Use only your best information, your best illustrations, your best examples, your best quotes. The more demanding you are of the content of your stories, the tighter your story, the stronger your focus. Some reporters view long stories as the only good stories. Without question, a tightly written long story has more depth and substance than a tightly written short story. But if you tighten by raising your standards and allowing only the best, clearest writing and most important and interesting information, you will write outstanding stories of modest length.

Allow Time to Rewrite

Much of the best work in tightening and strengthening stories comes in rewriting. Most of the tips that follow are rewriting techniques that can strengthen almost any story:

Read aloud. Reading your copy aloud will help you identify the awkward phrases, obvious candidates for elimination or condensation. Reading aloud will help you identify the long sentences.

Check each sentence. When you think you're done, go through sentence by sentence. In each sentence, see whether a word or phrase can be eliminated without hurting the meaning.

H&J. If you think you've finished a strong story and the editor tells you to cut a few inches, hyphenate and justify your story. Then look for paragraphs with just one or two words on the last line. See if you can cut a word or two from those grafs. If you can do that without hurting those grafs, consider doing it routinely, with or without the H&J.

Stamp out there is usages. Virtually every sentence that uses there with any form of the verb to be will grow stronger (and often shorter) if you rewrite without it. This usage takes the weakest verb in our language and pairs it with one of the vaguest words to create a weak, vague usage that robs sentences of their subjects. Avoid all forms: there is, there's, there are, there was, there were, there will be, there could have been. If you're prone to this, do a quick search for the word there when you've finished writing and fix each sentence where you commit this offense.

Minimize it is usage. Again, you are combining a weak verb with a vague word, especially if it has no antecedent. Examples are it is difficult, it is easy, it is important. Say what is easy, difficult or important.

Challenge uses of to be verbs. Is, are, am, was, were, been and being are weak verbs. Sometimes they are the most accurate verbs. You can't and shouldn't eliminate all uses of these verbs. But you should always challenge them. See if you can use a stronger verb. This may not save words, but it strengthens the words you use.

Challenge all weak verbs. When you find weak verbs such as do, get and have, ask whether you can replace them with stronger verbs. That doesn't simply mean using a longer synonymous verb, such as obtain instead of get or possess instead of have. Ask whether you can convey the meaning of the sentence with a stronger verb. Again, you may not save words, but you strengthen the words you use, making your story feel tighter.

Write with active verbs. Active verbs not only strengthen your sentences, they help shorten them. Passive verbs generally require more words. The subject of the sentence should do the action. Sometimes (especially if you spot a by in the sentence) you can just flip the sentence around: That conviction was overturned by an appeals court becomes An appeals court overturned that conviction. Other times, you have the right subject but need to choose an active verb: Mike Fahey was declared the victor in the race for mayor Tuesday becomes Mike Fahey won the race for mayor Tuesday.

Replace phrases with words. Look at the phrases in your copy and try to find phrases that can be reduced to a single word: hardly ever becomes rarely.

Eliminate imprecise words. You will very rarely find a sentence that is enhanced by the word very. For instance, the very in the preceding sentence adds nothing. Look for other imprecise words such as many and several that you can cut or replace.

Reduce use of adverbs. Instead of using a verb modified with an adverb, see whether you can use a more precise verb that needs no modification: dash instead of run fast.

Reduce attribution. If you know something to be true, you don't need to attribute it. Sometimes you can condense attribution with lead-ins and bullets. If the context before a quote, especially an earlier quote, makes the speaker clear, you might be able to eliminate the she said afterward.

Avoid inflated words. Don't write utilize when it says nothing more than use. Don't write approximately when it says nothing more than about. Don't write purchase when it says nothing more than buy.

Paraphrase quotes. Many sources speak in jargon or convoluted sentences that reporters should not quote. Be demanding of quotes. If they don't convey strong opinion or emotion, you probably can say it better (and tighter) than the speaker. If the speaker is using jargon that you wouldn't use in writing or your readers wouldn't use in conversation, paraphrase.

Condense phrases. When you find a sentence that strings together several prepositional phrases or multiple clauses, consider them an invitation to tighten. Try to combine or eliminate phrases. A phrase that modifies a noun might be replaced with an adjective. Maybe you just need to break it into two or three sentences.

Say what is, not what isn't. You can't always do this. Sometimes you have to say what isn't. But often you can strengthen and shorten sentences by stating what is.

No ands or buts. Sometimes writers use and or but unnecessarily as transitions to start sentences. If the sentence doesn't conflict with the one before, but is inappropriate as well as unnecessary. And is frequently an unnecessary transition. By the mere fact that you're continuing, the reader knows you have more to say. The other overused words that you can cut frequently include that, the and a. Often you do need these words, but sometimes they are extraneous, such as the the and that in the previous sentence.

Catch redundant words. Formerly isn't needed with past tense. Currently or now isn't needed with present tense.

Catch redundant facts. Watch for quotes or examples that make the same point twice.

Catch redundant setups. Do you set up quotes by telling the reader most of what the quote will say? This is an easy place to tighten.

You don't have to quote everyone. Do your quotes help make points? Do they advance the story? If you're quoting someone just because you talked to him, cut that quote.

What's the story about? When you've finished a draft, ask yourself again what the story is about. Sometimes your sense of this will improve or change as you write. Then ask yourself whether your lead reflects this current understanding of what the story is about. Then ask whether the body of the story reflects your understanding of what the story is about. If not, you must decide whether 1. You lost your focus, in which case you must rewrite the body of the story to maintain the focus established in your lead or 2. You gained a better understanding of the story as you wrote, in which case you must rewrite the lead to reflect your new understanding of the story.


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