Properly pacing your prose

What did popular newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers and World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle have in common with journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway and journalist-turned-politician Winston Churchill? She, like they, wrote an average sentence length of 15 words.
Here is her reply to a philandering husband who asked advice on changing wives and merging families:
Time wounds all heels—and you’ll get yours. There are five children involved in your little racetrack romance. Don’t be surprised if you wake up and wish you had your wife and sons back. You are flirting with a muddy track on Black Friday and, the way you’re headed, you will get exactly what you deserve.
Ann wrote four no-nonsense sentences of 56 words. Her longest was 22 unsparing words. She averaged 14 words a sentence.
Here is a brief example of Hemingway at work:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving in the courtyard. It rained hard.
Four sentences, 41 words, 10.25 words a sentence.
Note the absence of commas or other forms of punctuation. Only periods. Not all of Hemingway’s writing is this staccato. But he sought an effect. 
Here is a brief example from Winston Churchill:
It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts.
3 sentences averaging 12.3 words. No commas. Only periods.
Here is Ernie Pyle’s moving account of the death of infantry company commander, Capt. Henry Waskow:
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
Four sentences, 60 words, 15 a sentence.
Here one of mine in covering a blizzard that trapped hundreds of families in the mountains of western North Carolina.
They could hear the whir of helicopter blades. It came over the ridgeline and hovered over the house. A soldier in parka and boots was lowered with a metal stretcher. His sons helped their crippled father into the stretcher. Then the copter pilot winched them up and soared off into a chill blue sky. 
Five sentences, 55 words, average 11 words a sentence.
Try it. It takes work to pare your sentences down. But the more you do it, the more you are conscious of it. You will begin automatically to pare down your sentences as you write them.
Your readers will love you for it.

My “Little Red Book on Compelling Writing” gives you inspiring tips such as this to enrich your own writing.
For a $9.99 electronic copy for only $4.99, please call Katie with your credit card at 803-359-7633, Monday – Friday, 9 am – 4 pm, or email me at
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Secrets of storytelling

Have you heard someone drone on and on?
They love their story and tell it again and again.
All of us want to be good storytellers, orally and in print.
If you retell a story, give it a fresh slant.
Share new lessons the experience taught you.
Make the lessons ones that will benefit your audience.

Here are tips from experts, courtesy of Elizabeth Bernstein.
Elizabeth writes for the Wall Street Journal.

  1. Make a point.
    This why you tell stories.
    You don’t have to state it but keep it in mind.
    I tell the story of how we started our 1st newspaper.
    The facts are the same but the way I tell it differs.
    And I draw different points in each telling.

2. Open dramatically.
You need a “James Bond opening.”
One of my favorites is one Charlie Farrell tells.
Charlie was a Marine fighter pilot.
His story is about his 1st landing on a carrier at sea.
The carrier deck looked like a postage stamp from above.
It is a white knuckle run.
Charlie makes you feel what he felt.

Paul Zak, who studies the neurobiology of storytelling, says:
• You must have reasons for us to want to read or listen.
• An exciting opening produces dopamine in our brains.
That helps to focus our readers’ attention.

3. Put flesh on your characters.
What are the people in your story like?
How did they act, feel and look?
Make readers care about your characters
Their brains will produce oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

4. Build tension.
Deepen your story. Create cliffhangers and surprise.
These give a reason to care about your characters.
It will engage them with your story.
When they are emotionally engaged, they bond with you.

5. Make personal disclosures.
Research shows that self-disclosure helps people bond.
But don’t exaggerate. It kills credibility.
You can make yourself the butt of the story.
Readers love those of us willing to show our vulnerability.

Final tip: If you’re retelling a story, admit it.
Research shows repetition makes you look inauthentic.
But if you admit it, it seems to make it all right.
Write or say, “One of my favorite stories is…”

Show rather than tell

Good morning,
Here we are again, thinking about improving our writing.
Today’s topic is geared to feature writing although it will work in news stories, too.

We talk a lot about storytelling in writing.
What we really mean is “Show your readers – don’t just tell them.”

Most of us are aware that it is more convincing to show something through action, behavior or dialogue than it is just to tell it.
Our ability and effort to show may determine if our readers think our story is realistic and that we are credible as storytellers.

This applies more to feature writing than traditional news reporting.
Yet it can be useful in both.

Here are 3 hints:

  1. Describe scenes with real people taking action or talking with each other.
    Let your readers hear what you hear and how you heard it – not only what they said but how they said it. Let them hear the noise of cities and the quiet of mountains and forests, the music of surf and wind.
  2. Let the reader experience what took place and how it made you feel.
    Take them inside the scene and inside yourself.
  3. Use concrete detail.
    Describe what happened as you saw it.

Relate strange places and people to places and people you and your readers both may know.
For example, show them an elderly man who “looked like Winston Churchill.”
Describe sunrise over a peak “like the Blue Ridge mountains.”

Bring your readers into the scene with you.
Think and write as if you were setting a scene in a work of fiction.

A fine reporter, Roger Beirne, was troubled after interviewing the mother of her son killed in combat.
His account told simply what he saw, the neighborhood where the family lived, the look of the house where the boy grewn up, how his mother appeared when she came to the door, what she told him about her son. It was a moving account.
Roger did not need to hype it up. He simply showed what took place.

During the Nazi bombing of London in 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote:
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night. Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead.
In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.

Australian journalist Helen Garner opens her account of a murder-suicide:
It happened in broad daylight one April afternoon in 2015, while the ciitizens of Melbourne were peaceably going about their business.
A chef on her way to get a tattoo, was driving past Lake Gladman, a reedy, rock-edged wetland, when the blue Toyota SUV in front of her suddenly pulled off and stopped. As the chef drove by, she caught a glimpse of an African woman sitting huddled over the steering wheel with her face in her hands. Kids behind her were rioting. A little one was thrashing in his booster, a bigger one dangling off the back of the driver’s seat.
Minutes later, a passing teacher saw the Toyota “drive full bolt straight into the water.”

These highly dramatic examples show what is possible.
Your story may not be as dramatic as these.
Yet similar human energy is there in most stories.

Here is an example from our newspaper:
It all began with a phone call Chapin Town Councilman Al Koon made on Monday, June 25, to his friend Paul Kirby.
Kirby is editor and publisher of the online Lexington Ledger and a former firefighter and correspondent for the Chronicle.
“Al called me about noon to chat as we often do,” Paul said. “It was unusual for him to call me mid-day as we normally talk in the morning or when I am driving home.
“When Al’s speech changed as we talked, it did so quickly and dramatically. He was completely unintelligible and it was clear that something was very wrong.”

Try it in your next story,
Make us see, hear, even smell and feel what you are experiencing.

Writing tip: Do your darned homework

Research will pay off

Do your homework BEFORE interviews.
It’s vital. You walk in blind if you don’t.
You waste a lot of time asking dumb questions
your research would have already answered.
Here’s an example of what I mean.

John Maxwell could have been a reporter.
He was diligent in his preparation.
He read about his subjects and took notes.
In the age of Google this is easier than ever.
If you don’t research, it’s your own fault.

When he was here last year, John told a story.
He had admired John Wooden for years.
Wooden was an amazing man.
He coached basketball for over 40 years.
In that time, he had 1 losing season – his 1st.
His UCLA teams had 4 undefeated seasons.
They won 10 NCAA championships.
7 of them were in consecutive years.
It is a record that may never be equaled.

Maxwell and Wooden had a mutual friend.
The friend offered to introduce them.
In preparation for a breakfast meeting, John:

  1. Read everything he could find on Wooden.
  2. Read all of Wooden’s inspirational books.
  3. Filled a legal pad with questions.

They met at Wooden’s favorite coffee shop.
After breakfast, Wooden invited him to his home.
They talked throughout the day.
Maxwell said they got to half of his questions.
But as a result, they became friends.

Some of the people we cover aren’t famous.
We won’t find them on Google.
They are local people – just plain folks.
They have written no books for us to read.
But they do have friends we could seek out.

Here’s a story that illustrates this:
My friend Bruce Locklin was a tireless reporter.
We worked together at 3 different newspapers.
In investigating a corrupt lawyer, Bruce talked with:

  1. Lawyers who had opposed him in court.
  2. Judges he had pleaded cases before.
  3. Former clients who would talk with him.

After all that, Bruce called the lawyer.
The man was anxious to give his side.
He knew Bruce had done his homework.

Bruce took 2 recorders to the interview.
He made 2 tapes of the conversation.
He gave 1 tape to the lawyer.
That was Bruce’s sense of fair play.
The tapes also would back up the story.

You may not need this much preparation.
But it’s good to know how others do it.

PS. The above will be in a new 2019 book:
“The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing”
Please email a comment on these tips.
We will include it in the book.
My address is

Writing Tip: Attention grabbers

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

All of us should write snappy openings.
It may be a news article or a letter.
Even a note to our kids.
Lets grab their attention and hold it.
Is that snappy enough?

Here’s why you should bother to do it:
Short, direct openings command attention.
We don’t want to put them to sleep.
Lets wake the old boys up.
They will thank us for it.

Here’s an example of how we should not write:
Florida’s protracted Senate election proceeded to a manual recount on Thursday, the next phase in an increasingly bitter and litigious fight, while Republicans declared victory anew in the race for governor.

That’s 30 words in a newspaper I enjoy.
It’s also one at which I sometimes cringe.

It could have read this way:
Florida’s drawn-out Senate election rolled to a manual recount Thursday.
It is the next step in an increasingly bitter and litigious fight.
The Republicans also declared victory in the race for governor.

A good rule of thumb to practice:
One thought per sentence.
The Wall Street Journal version had 3.

We aren’t dumbing down the writing.
We’re making it easy to understand.

Here are two examples of what we mean:
First the more traditional 10-word approach:
Two lawmakers wrangled over open public records last night.

There is nothing wrong with this version.
But here’s a snappier 4-word version:
The gloves are off.
A row between Sen. Joe Jones and Rep. Sam Smith erupted last night.

Here’s another example.
Traditional 13-word lead:
State lawmakers agreed yesterday 115-0 to open voting on bills affecting your taxes.

Snappy 3-word lead:
The taxpayers won.
In a 115-0 vote yesterday, state lawmakers agreed to open voting on bills affecting your taxes.
This was a victory for local lawmakers who pushed for open government.

If you’re into exercise, here’s one for you:
Pick at random one of your recent stories or letters.
Rewrite the opening.
Rewrite the opening again – differently.

I coached a magazine writer who wrote 15 openings to one story.
3 of them could have been prize winners.

Try for snappy leads of five words or less.
You’ll find it actually easier than it might seem.
You will even come to enjoy doing it.

Writing tip: Be original

Good morning, fellow scribblers.
Being original, one of our writers – author and journalist Tom Poland – says is hard work.
You bet. It’s hard thinking, too.
Writers who use trite phrases and reader-wearying cliches are lazy thinkers and worse writers.
Our son Mark and I were watching a college football game on TV the other Saturday.
We started counting the sports cliches spewing from the play-by-play guy and the color commentator. On one play alone, Mark counted six cliches.
We suspected the two thought they were doing a great job.
These crafty little critters creep into our writing if we’re not paying attention,
Words and phrases that turn us off are worn smoother than an old saddle.
The first few times they were used was OK.
After that, nothing, nada.
We have become “attention deficit” to these “thoughtless writer” sins.
The biggest problem with cliches for writers is that they are like radio jingles.
They stick in our minds and it’s hard to get them out.
You probably remember jingles you first heard as a child.
Cliches are like that.
They have become familiar with use.
They’ve lost their magic, writer Drayton Bird says. Our minds glide over them.
You see it too often in poorly-written advertising.
Almost all advertisers are passionate about their offers.
They are even more passionate about making sales.
Here are a few cliches worth avoiding like a sore throat:
• A chip off the old block
• A clean slate
• A dark and stormy night
• A far cry
• A fine kettle of fish
• They came to play
The “Be a Better Writer” web site has a list of 681 of them.
If you are suffering from insomnia, go there.
I guarantee you will fall asleep in under 12.5 seconds.
Please feel free to share these tips with fellow scribblers.
They’re from my new book “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”
If you would like me to include your comment in the book on the value you find in these tips, email 25 to 50 words to me at

Writing Tip: Load your gun belt

Good morning, fellow scribblers.
We’re going to discuss bullets today.
The bullets we’re talking about are the list building kind, not the lethal kind.
They are handy devices to help our readers survive a sea churning with details.
They separate items rather than making your reader wade through complexity.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
The mayor said she has fooled her detractors and been diagnosed with a brain tumor, that her doctors have prescribed an initial treatment of chemotherapy, and that she is optimistic about her chances of beating the disease and her opponent Nov. 6.
Instead, a compelling writer would have written:
The mayor said:
• She has fooled her detractors and been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
• Her doctors have prescribed chemotherapy.
• She is optimistic that she will beat the disease and her opponent Nov. 6.
Without bullets to ease our readers through the thicket of the mayor’s syntax, they might become lost and never found again.
Such confounded writing is the bane of those who must wade through academic and scientific papers. We should not make them continue to slog through our own prose in newspapers, magazines and correspondence.
Look for ways to use bullets in your own writing and seize them as if pure gold.
Next week: Those crafty cliches that creep into our writing,
If you want a sneak peek at “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing” due out next spring, email me at