Still more timeless writing tips retrieved from the attic

I’ve dug through old printouts from when I taught journalism. The paper clips have rusted, or gone through some kind of chemical transformation, and have fused to the paper. The words on the page seem just a little bit dated, too. There’s no mention of SEO, or jumping on what’s trending, or listicles, or social media. This is like reading a time capsule from the ancient world of 2005.

Some excerpts:

Keep sentences simple. Omit needles words. Avoid passive voice. The technical rules of good writing apply across all fields. You have to leave time to revise. You have to leave time to revise. You must always subject a piece of writing to the discipline of the knife. Don’t fall in love with any of your words and sentences. Develop relationships with editors (and readers) you can trust. Write when you write best. ENJOY the writing. Give yourself rewards for getting something done.

Don’t lean on adjectives and adverbs — good writing is built around nouns and verbs. More than that, good writing is built around sentences. Anchor your points in good sentences. [2014 Joel sez: Writing is a technological innovation in which symbols arranged in a pattern can trigger a reaction in the brain of another person who looks at these symbols.]

For science writers: Convey science as a search. Let the process of science — its doubts, its willingness to test an idea, to subject it to falsification — be part of your narrative. Include things that you would tell your friends but would never make it into a science journal — the mood, the setting, the meals, the dynamic, the details of the field work.

Journalist rules are not prohibitions; collectively they should liberate rather than repress the creativity of a nonfiction writer.

Great writing requires great reporting. The material dictates the story. The actual writing of a tale is to some extent merely a mop-up operation; the truly serious work is the research.

For most of us, writing takes effort and discipline. “Talent” is perhaps a bit overrated. Courage counts for a lot — the courage to attempt great reporting and great writing, to plunge into strange environments, to take risks. Industriousness is the paramount virtue. Successful writers work hard, and they’re never fully satisfied. You know the saying: A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.

[more coming]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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