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Editorial Edge: 3 Tips for Writing Better

“I’m not a writer.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, well, I’d be on my own private island right now and not writing this blog.

I’m not a banker, but I know how to use money. I’m not a chef, but I know how to cook (that boxed mac and cheese won’t make itself). The truth is we’re all writers in some way.

You’re a writer in an email, on a blog, in a client brief or even just in an Instagram caption. And as ubiquitous as autocorrect and abbreviations are, writing is not a skill you can do without. As such, it can always be strengthened.

Here are 3 tips to instantly improve your writing:

1. Don’t ask yes or no questions in an interview

If you’ve ever interviewed anyone — for an article, for a job, before starting a project or planning an event — you know nothing kills momentum faster than a one-word answer. There are some interview subjects who will, if given the opportunity to say “yes” or “no,” always take it. They will not expand, even if pressed. (See for evidence: Me following up a “Yes” answer with “Can you tell me a bit more about that?” and being met with, simply, “No.” Alrighty then.)

There are several reasons for this. Your subject:

  • May feel nervous or put on the spot
  • May not feel like talking that day, or
  • May just be succinct (and God bless them for that).

Asking a slightly bigger question can help loosen people up, as can sitting with the silence after you ask it.

For example, for a recent Unsung Nashville, I originally prepared this question:

When inmates train service dogs, does it affect their relationships with people in the outside world?

But the truth of the matter was that through my research, I already knew the answer was yes. So I made that assumption and instead asked:

How does an inmate acting as a service dog trainer affect their relationships with the outside world?

Just the phrasing necessitates a more-than-one-word answer. Instantly you’re having a conversation.

brenda dew with golden retrievers in training
Click the photo to read our story on service dog trainer Brenda Dew.

2. Make sure what you’re writing sounds good spoken, even if it never will be

There’s a musicality to every piece of good writing.

If something is well-written, it will be easy to read. That, in turn, will bring the concept to the fore instead of the words, so:

  • Think about the rhythm of a sentence
  • Use punctuation to help your reader’s eyes “breathe,” and
  • Remember that reading is visual. Subheadings, bullets, bold type and italics are tools you have to show readers what matters and help them arrange the information in their minds. Use them.

3. Start in the middle

What’s the most dramatic moment of your story? Lead with that.

Everyone gets writer’s block, and the fastest way to weasel your way out of that editorial hole is by scrapping an “introductory” introduction and getting to the point.

For example:

She was lying at the bottom of the pool. That’s the image Steve Reeves sees when he remembers the day his 4-year-old daughter nearly drowned.

In that example, a story about free swim lessons starts with the reason one man was inspired to start providing them. Or:

Lying on a cold concrete floor inside the Knox County Jail, Meghan Denney thought of her unborn child and started to cry. Her body trembled, her stomach churned, her head ached — the painful symptoms of drug withdrawal.

A story about recovery from drug addiction starts at the lowest point. (My co-worker, Blake, wrote that last one, but I love it as an example of no-holds-barred digging in.)

And it doesn’t have to be scary to work:

An old couch. Empty cups. A rogue flip flop. A floated keg — in any college town worth its salt, you’ll find these things flung across yards, especially during football season. Something you won’t often find? Three hard-working goats.

A story about a man who runs a sheep landscaping business starts where it started for him — in his yard in college.

Here’s a shortcut to get in this mindset: think about how you’d start your story if you were telling it to a friend. What would follow the words: “OK, so you won’t believe this…”? That’s your hook.

Putting the reader (and yourself) in the middle of the action and backing into the story is unexpected and fun. And hey, if it was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for us.

Click the photo to read this Better Tennessee story.

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