The question of how to write a good story is essential to every print journalist. The former Guardian science editor, Tim Radford, has compiled 25 commandments which he thinks will lead to a well written story.
First of all Radford points out that “journalists write to support democracy, sustain truth, salute justice, justify expenses, see the world and make a living, but to satisfactorily do any of these things you have to have readers.”
“You have to be read, or you aren’t in journalism at all,” he adds. Therefore his first command is:
“When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.” Neat, tight, head on.
And Radford goes on with other vital observations that some journalists seem to forget while they are typing away, creating tomorrows copy:
“You write to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.”
How to start
“The first sentence you write will be the most important sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third.”
Because of today’s time pressure, massive competition and the rapid fluctuation of the Internet the importance of sentences unfortunately ends with the first most of the time…
Radford suggests that every journalists sticks a copy of “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand” over his/ her typewriter.
Apart from these thoughts about how the reader will react to the text, Radford also gives advise of how to write.
“Keep it simple”, “only use words when you’re sure what they mean”, “have short sentences”, have a clear message”, “don’t use too many foreign words” – nothing surprising or even new in there.
But reading papers shows that it cannot seem to be repeated often enough.
Leaving the bubble
Of course something like personal style and thorough research must be part of the package, but getting the basics right is so much more important.
And Radford is right: Journalists have to leave their research/ writing-bubble, leave their little cubicles, leave their self-importance issues behind and probably read a paper hanging from a strap in the tube.
Because “the most important thing to remember about writing a story” is “to make somebody read it”.
Read all of the 25 commandments here.