I heard a very good writer once say that newspapers are by and large populated by literate technicians. He wasn't trying to be unkind. He was only saying what was, to him, obvious - that a great deal of what we present in the paper is not supposed to be poetry or even prose.
And while he was making an eloquent plea for newspapers to develop better writers, he also left me with the thought that most people who read newspapers could probably write pretty well themselves. They could, in effect, become at least literate technicians, and maybe at most good writers.I worked in the newspaper's Today Section for more than 10 years, where I read hundreds of freelance stories. I had to decide whether to accept them or not, and then how much editing they required. Some required hardly any editing - others were so awesomely bad you almost wanted to take up the challenge. I kept wondering why some writers did better than others, so I started listening to the better ones when they talked about their craft. I took good notes, and I'm willing to share them with you, in case you have a report to do, a story to write or a boss to impress:
1. Be clear. Make your point by going in a straight line. That means declarative sentences, sentences that have a leanness to them. Educators and sociologists have great trouble with this idea, but it works.
2. Be yourself. You can't write in someone else's style any more than you can wear his old shoes. Your toes don't fit in the shoes and his adjectives don't fit in your sentences. A simple, conversational style is by far the most effective way to get your message across. Pretend you are writing to a friend whose opinion you value.
3. Keep one idea to a sentence. Remember, we aren't building an elaborate structure here, we're trying to communicate. No palaces, just a gazebo.
4. Use the active voice. In your better sentences John hits the ball; the ball isn't hit by John.
5. If it is a long article you want to write, organize it first. Know what you want to cover and how you are going to end. Do an outline if you must. One of the best ways to organize is to tell the story chronologically after you make your key points. If you are struggling for the best way to start, ask yourself how you would tell the essence of your story in one sentence to your busy spouse or friend.
6. Try to keep track of people and things and provide some help so the reader doesn't get lost. If it has been a while since you introduced cousin Joe the water dowser, re-introduce him. Ditto the concept of parallel universes, in case your reader doesn't remember your elaborate explanation.
7. And transitions are wonderful ways to smooth out the bumps in your story. Phrases like "Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . ." deserve the regard we give them. (You can even use "and," as I just did.)
8. People are important to a story. I don't know what kind of piece you are thinking of writing, but I'll bet it's going to involve people somehow. If you are planning on quoting them, do it naturally. People generally don't talk in complete, well-rounded sentences, and if they do they make us uncomfortable. Developing a good ear will help make your story come alive. In fact, if you can figure out a way to get some quotes into your article it will pump a lot of life into it.
9. Try to see the whole scene, and not just your piece of it. If you can place your observations and comments into perspective, the reader will bless you because then he won't have to do it. You can bet that's one of his main questions: How does this all fit in with what I already know or want to know? Save him the time and energy.
10. Have some fun with it. Now I know you can't kid with the chairman of the board - but maybe you can. Let your personality come through. We're all tired of reading bureaucratic memos pumped out by a computer. We pine for a human touch. Why try to imitate something you hate?
11. Use a dictionary. Don't be afraid of making spelling errors. You can correct them. Don't put off writing simply because you are unsure of your spelling. These days most people are. But for heaven's sake, correct the thing before you turn it in.
Much more needs to be said, of course - much, much more. I'll likely hear from several English professors making that point. But I am convinced that anyone who reads a lot already has the groundwork for a good writer. You read this far, didn't you? You're qualified. Anyway, the advice is free - and worth every penny.