Lyn Riddle is a fiction writing student in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program, working on a very promising novel. She’s also an experienced editor and journalist, and because her comments about concise writing in our Converse workshop were so helpful, she was asked to bring into our class a list of tips for keeping writing lean and muscular.
I was cleaning up my office—more like beating back the clutter rather than a real cleaning!—and I came across a copy of her tips and was reminded again how absolutely on-target this advice is. Though this list is geared to freelance writers working for the newspapers she edits, it offers much wisdom for creative writers, too.
If you doubt the relevance of journalism to creative writing, let me—oh so concisely!— say one word: Hemingway.
Guidelines for freelance writers
The Journal newspapers hope to offer readers stories they can’t find anywhere else. That doesn’t necessarily mean the subject matter has not been written about – it means the reporting must be incisive, deep and detailed. That is the true difference between us and the daily papers: We offer more information about the things readers want to know. This is an important mission
Let the story tell itself. Sad stories are best written in simple prose. Let the situation drive the reader’s emotions. Not your writing. All too often reporters try to cover up sloppy reporting with stylish phrases. It never works. Don’t use a lot of adjectives or adverbs. Tell it simply, but with detail. Find out the breed of dog and its name. The special tree in the yard – what kind is it?
Don’t empty your notebook into the computer. Use only the information that advances the story. Don’t tell something just because you know it. A homicide detective’s pet name for his daughter is unlikely to be needed in a story about a murder investigation. It’s mildly interesting that a gritty investigator has a sweet name for his child but it bogs down the reader with information he does not need.
The lede is the most important thing you write. Make sure it tells the reader something he does not know. Avoid the easy way out. Sue Smith remembers the day her daughter died. Well, of course she does. Describe that day. Often your lede resides in the second sentence you wrote. Try this and see. You’ll be surprised.
The best stories answer one question, and the best questions are those that no matter the answer it’s still a story. Keep your focus on that question. Another way to say this is to write a headline for your story. Stick with only the information that applies to that headline.
Avoid loaded words such as only or just
Use active verbs.
Watch for clichés.
Quotes add spice to the story. They should be short. Avoid quoting someone as saying something you’ve just paraphrased.
Be clear. Simple. Direct. Precise. Pick the right word.
Look for redundancies in your copy. They are there, believe me.
Anecdotes infuse stories, but make sure they are telling.
Watch for unnecessary prepositional phrases. Usually the ones stuck on the end of sentences are not needed.
“Currently” is never needed. As is anything but “said.” Avoid people pointing out, explaining, exclaiming and especially those who are quick to point out. Also, people do not laugh words, although they might laugh as they say something.
Strip the word “that” from most sentences. She said that her house burned down.
In an effort to and in order to are simply not needed. Lop them off.
First ever. If it’s the first, it’s the first. Ever.
“Over” connotes physical space. Use "more than."
And numbers don’t jump, they increase. Basketball players and high jumpers jump.
About: Lyn Riddle began her journalism career at the Rock Springs Daily Rocket Miner on the high desert of Wyoming. In the years since, she has worked at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in California and the Greenville Piedmont and The Greenville News in South Carolina. She spent 15 years as a freelance writer for publications such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and Readers Digest then went back to The Greenville News as projects editor and city editor. She is now editor of Community Journals' weekly newspapers in Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the author of four books of true crime: ASHES TO ASHES, OVERKILL, FAMILY BLOOD and FIRST WE KILL MY HUSBAND, all published by Kensington Books. She teaches journalism at Furman University and is working on an MFA in creative writing from Converse College. Her work appears at www.journalwatchdog.com and www.lynriddle.com