Writing tips from my former newspaper editors

You know the people you’re trying to pitch—the reporters? This is the advice they’re getting from their editors. Pay attention.

I worked in professional newsrooms since high school, and in that time I picked up scads of writing tips from editors. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Don’t use “over” when referring to an amount. Instead of saying, “Over 10,000 people are expected to attend the event,” use, “More than 10,000 people are expected to attend. “Over” is a spatial indicator, not a numerical one. An editor pounded that into our heads. Now, I cringe when I see it in print.

2. “Both” is frequently unnecessary. You don’t need to say “Both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will attend.” The word “both” is implied when you list them. An exception would be when it is shorthand for an already identified twosome: “Shall I bring ice cream or cake?” “Bring both, please.”

3. “We didn’t hire you to write clichés.” In one story, I used the phrase “as the cliché goes …” and the editor made me rewrite it. His point was that if you have to say that something is a cliché, don’t use it.

4. This is the only time it’s acceptable to begin a story with a quote:

“The world is going to end tomorrow,” the President of the United States said in an address to the American people.

Otherwise, there’s no quote that could possibly grab a reader’s attention better than a well-written lead (or lede, if you prefer).

5. Never use the word “important” in a story. One of my favorite editors would never allow us to use “important” in a story. We never got a full explanation, but I assume it has everything to do with showing the reader instead of telling them that something’s important. Either way, I’ve taken it as a challenge throughout my career to never use this word outside of a direct quote. I suppose it’s been one of the most important tips of my career so far.

Any examples from your former or current days in newsrooms that you’d care to share?

This story first appeared on PR Daily in March 2011.


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