Storytellers think of readers

Good evening to you, my friend.

Yes, it is your ink-stained editor back to nudge you into writing better. Today we’re going to talk about your editing strategy.

When we lived in New York, we read all the daily papers but we had our favorite – the Herald Tribune.

I’m sorry the Herald Trib isn’t here today. You would love it.

The New York Times was an editor’s newspaper. It published reports from its far-flung correspondents around the world. 

It was authoritative. It took its news seriously.

The Herald Trib had a different strategy. It was a writers’ newspaper. It didn’t just report the news. It told it as a  story. 

Each story had a beginning, middle and end, like a three-act play. The characters – real people – came to life in its pages. 

It could be audacious, too. Its writers’ had opinions they were willing to share. They respected accuracy, fairness and truth. But they also told you the story behind the reporting and often what they thought about it. 

They digested the news for you. Analyzed it if it needed analyzing. They made it interesting and intriguing.

On Sunday mornings, I would walk down to the news stand and pick up the papers. Then my wife and I would divvy up the Herald Tribune and read it cover to cover. 

Only then would we turn to the Times and read it.

The Times had reporters. The Trib had storytellers.

I tell you this because you need to think about your own reporting, writing and editing strategies. 

Whether you write online, in print, on the air or some combination of them, what a dead newspaper and one that is on life support did has a message for us today.

It is about how we see readers and what they need and want.

I know who most of our readers are. I talk about it with our writers a lot. They may be bored with hearing me talk about readers but they are who we serve. 

Let’s serve them well.

Pump up your prose

Are you old enough to remember Charles Atlas?
It was probably not the name his family gave him but an apt pseudonym for a man who marketed a muscle-building program he called “Dynamic Tension.”
Without weights or other traditional gym equipment, he turned his 90-pound weakling body into a model of muscular magnificence.
I tell you this story as a metaphor for what you might do with the words you choose, those you discard and the results you get.
With this small volume, you will be encouraged to be ruthless with your prose.
Here are several examples of how a few simple, muscular words can touch emotions and reveal visions far better than long passages, no matter how eloquent.
Martin Luther King, Jr., with a lifetime in the pulpit, used 4 words powerfully again and again during his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. As former Times of London editor Harold Evans wrote in Do I Make Myself Clear, Rev. King invoked the cadences of the Old and New Testaments, “I have a dream.”
Abraham Lincoln stirred listeners at the Gettysburg battlegrounds with words today’s Washington bureaucrats seem to have forgotten, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
While waiting for the isolationist United States to join World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised America and his own people, “We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire.” Then he finished a broadcast heard on both sides of the Atlantic and on Nazi radios, too, with 10 taut words of appeal to America: ”Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
This is not literary elegance. It is workmanlike. No tears/ No whining.
Not a single wasted word, Evans writes.
Can we pare down our words? You bet. Make your surviving words stronger by paring away weaker ones surrounding them.
Here is an example from a 31-word news story lead, written and edited by professionals at the Washington Post. They should have been mindful of the simple power of words from King, Lincoln and Churchill.
Newly released data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows a trend in pill distribution that, according to plaintiffs suing the drug industry, can’t be passed off as reasonable therapeutic medical treatment.
Still puzzling that one out? Me, too.
Here is what I suspect they meant to convey to their readers:
Physician pill-pushing can’t be passed off as reasonable pain relief.
That’s what Drug Enforcement Administration data shows and lawsuits against the drug industry claim.
2 paragraphs, 25 simple words, 5 beginning with the letter “p.”
The longest one, “Administration,” has 5 syllables and 14 letters. It was unavoidable in this case as it is in the proper name of the data’s source.
Look at your words. How many can you cut to strengthen the survivors?