Skip main navigation

Improving your writing

A video describing the editing process.
In previous lessons, you’ve started to write stories. And you’ve learned about the processes that journalists go through to get those stories. Now, we’ll add to that by showing you how to improve your writing. To do that, we’ll focus on accuracy, brevity, and clarity, ABC. We’ll show you the editing process that journalists use, and how that we can make your story stronger by using that editing process. Then we’ll give you some opportunities to try it for yourself.
First of all, a few pointers about editing. After you’ve written your first draft of a story, you should read it again and again, and ask yourself a few questions, so that you can edit it into a strong news piece. And be honest with yourself. Firstly, is it readable? Is you story written in straightforward, plain language? Have you avoided jargon or corporate PR speech? This can turn readers off. Then, check your spelling, punctuation and grammar again, and again, and again.
What have you done to make the story interesting? Just because the subject matter may be dry doesn’t mean to say that your story has to be boring. So try to spruce up any word, or phrase, or paragraph that may sound dull to you, because if you find it dull, your readers will too. Will your story keep the readers’ attention. Remember, your job is to get the reader past the intro to read the second paragraph, then to read the third, and the fourth, until they come to the end of your story. You want them to read all of what you write. Have you tried to make sure that every word counts?
Can you say the same thing using fewer, shorter, more precise words? For example, can you think of single words for these phrases?
Is your writing active rather than passive? This is a clearer way of writing, and it tends to be shorter as well. Let’s look at this sentence to show you what I mean. The government has decided not to introduce the planned tax increase in petrol and diesel this autumn. OK. Instead you could write, the government has abandoned plans to raise fuel taxes this autumn. The writing here is active, because it shows something that is happening, rather than something that is not. And that’s what you should try to do. Write in the active voice.
Editing is as simple as ABC. That means you need to ensure your story is accurate, brief, and clear. Let’s look at these in turn. Firstly, accuracy.
When you’re thinking about accuracy, look for conflict in the facts. This could occur because you’ve cut something out. And if you’ve done that, does what’s left make sense to you? If it doesn’t, then you need to change it. Also, make sure you haven’t mixed up any facts and caused a conflict through that. Check personal details, especially the spellings of names and addresses. Are they consistent throughout? Check figures, calculations, statistics, and percentages. Are they all correct? Use the correct words. Make sure you use the words that you mean to see. Check quotes. Is that what your interviewee said? Have you attributed the quotes to the correct person ?
What about brevity? Think about using direct language, and be specific in your choice of words. Avoid creeping nouns or phrases. For example, instead of, a war situation, just write, war. Make sentences positive. Eliminate expletives. For example, instead of there is no reason why he left home, you could write, he left home for no reason. Avoid qualifiers, such as somewhat, rather, very, little, quite. These can often be left out. Also, beware of overuse of subordinate clauses. So instead of writing, according to a report Scots are living longer, write, Scots are living longer.
You should also learn when and how to paraphrase in order to be brief. Where possible, avoid expanded phrases such as, this point in time. For example, this point in time is the winter of our discontent. And instead, write now is the winter of our discontent, just as Shakespeare did. Also, to prevent dull, verbose quotes using up your word count, think about whether you could shorten the quote by writing it in reported speech. For example, look at this sentence.
Actress Joanne said, quote, “I was born in Glasgow and attended St. Peter’s Primary, before moving to All Saints Secondary, which I lived with Highers in English, maths, and geography when I was 17.” Now, that quote is giving us mostly factual information. Therefore, that can be put in reported, or indirect, speech. And we could say instead, Glasgow born actress Joanne attended St. Peter’s Primary, All Saints Secondary, and left at 17 with three highers. It’s clearer, more succinct, and crucially, 24 words shorter. Lastly, clarity. Make sure you understand what you’ve been told, and that you convey that in your story. If you don’t understand what you’ve been told, then go back to your interviewees and seek clarification.
Avoid complex sentence structures or phrases. Use simple, concrete language and short sentences. And don’t use too many statistics in one sentence, especially in the intro.
Just remember to put the most important facts at the top of your story. That’s the ones that your readers want to read first.
The video above describes how to improve your writing by looking at issues such as accuracy, brevity and clarity. Remember, if you need to, that you’re able to pause the video in order to give you more time to study the slides in more detail.
What are the processes by which journalists produce effective copy? How do they deal with space restraints in publications? How might these issues relate to the 5Ws or Inverted Pyramid model?
Watch the video and post your thoughts in the comments area.
This article is from the free online

Introduction to Journalism

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education