Reporters and editors everywhere battle and complain over length of stories. Even online, where newspaper space or tight broadcast schedules aren’t an issue, you need to write tightly to hold the reader’s attention and keep the story moving. You need to hone your ability to organize information and write tight stories that make every word count.
Plan to write tight
Coordinate with your editor. Discuss story ideas in some detail with your editor before you start gathering information. Make sure you agree on the probable scope of the story. This can save time wasted gathering information you don’t need. As you are gathering information and writing the story, you will need at some point to agree on a probable length if you are writing for print. If you delay this discussion too long, you may waste more time and effort and invite more frustration.
Consider the reader. A failing of some long stories is that they are written for sources, rather than for readers. Consider why you are including information in a story. To impress sources with your knowledge? To keep a source happy? Or to inform the reader? A tougher challenge is to decide whether you are writing for the reader with strong interest in the issue or for the reader with average interest. For most stories, you should write primarily for the average reader who would read the story.
Make your story useful. When you’re deciding what information is important enough to include, favor information the reader can use. What will help the reader decide how to vote, what to buy, whether to see a show, what route to take to work, etc.?
Consider follow-ups, sidebars, graphics, layers. You don’t have to cram all the important information you’ve gathered into a single story. Can a process or some numbers be explained better in a graphic? Could a secondary issue make a sidebar or fact box? Can a database provide information that adds depth but keeps the main story tight? Might some issues get better treatment in follow-up stories, rather than cramming them all into this story? Can you link to previous stories, rather than bogging the story down with background?
Write as you report. As you conduct interviews and research, start writing your story. This will help you develop and sharpen your focus earlier, and a sharply focused story is generally a tighter story. Writing as you report also will help you identify and fill the holes in your story. It will help you avoid redundant reporting (which often leads to redundant writing).
Set the pace
Your lead sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lead invites the reader into a story with the promise of a quick and lively pace. A ponderous lead invites the reader to turn to the next story, in which case it doesn’t matter how long or how good the rest of the story is. Use the techniques discussed in Strong from the start to help you write a brisk lead and give your story a sharp focus.
The writing process
Write without your notes. If you’ve done your research well, and if you’ve been thinking about the story, you have most of the story in your head. You know what the most important points are. You remember the embarrassing contradictions, the clever quotes, the damning evidence. So tell the story, without the distractions of that mess of notebooks and faxes and photocopies. Sometimes the process of flipping through notebooks and finding things you weren’t looking for distracts you from your focus. Of course, when you’re done, you need to return to your notebooks and other resources to ensure accuracy. When you return to the notebooks, you may find you have left out something important. But if you forgot about it, ask yourself whether it really is important.
Keep the end in sight. Decide where you want your story to end. Keep the end in view as you write, and use the information and anecdotes that lead you to that end by the most direct route.
Identify and avoid detours. Detours are a common problem in long stories. You will spend an inordinate amount of time checking out a tip or trying to answer a question. As the reporter, you may need to follow these detours. But as the writer, you don’t want to take the reader on detours. Make your story the straightest, smoothest road between the beginning and the end. Don’t include any turns that aren’t part of the route itself. Don’t just empty your notebook. Just because you collected a fact doesn’t mean you have to share it with your readers. Use the facts that help tell the story, and only those facts. Perhaps you knocked yourself out to find a fact that turned out to be unimportant. Too bad. Leave it out. Maybe the fact is important, but your effort deceived you into thinking the reader needs to know how you found it. Probably not. Just the facts, please. Sometimes you come across a funny or intriguing anecdote that doesn’t really relate to the main story, but you just fall in love with it. Maybe it’s worth a sidebar. Or maybe you just have to be satisfied with telling it to an editor or colleague. If it’s a detour that takes you away from the story’s focus, keep it out of your story.
Be demanding. Use only your best information, your best illustrations, your best examples, your best quotes. The more demanding you are of the content of your stories, the tighter your story, the stronger your focus. Some reporters view long stories as the only good stories. Without question, a tightly written long story has more depth and substance than a tightly written short story. But if you tighten by raising your standards and allowing only the best, clearest writing and most important and interesting information, you will write outstanding stories of modest length.
Allow time to rewrite
Much of the best work in tightening and strengthening stories comes in rewriting. Most of the tips that follow are rewriting techniques that can strengthen almost any story:
Read aloud. Reading your copy aloud will help you identify the awkward phrases, obvious candidates for elimination or condensation. Reading aloud will help you identify the long sentences.
Check each sentence. When you think you’re done, go through sentence by sentence. In each sentence, see whether a word or phrase can be eliminated without hurting the meaning.
Stamp out there is usages. Virtually every sentence that uses there with any form of the verb to be will grow stronger (and often shorter) if you rewrite without it. This usage takes the weakest verb in our language and pairs it with one of the vaguest words to create a weak, vague usage that robs sentences of their subjects. Avoid all forms: there is, there’s, there are, there was, there were, there will be, there could have been. If you’re prone to this, do a quick search for the word there when you’ve finished writing and fix each sentence where you commit this offense.
Minimize it is usage. Again, you are combining a weak verb with a vague word, especially if it has no antecedent. Examples are it is difficult, it is easy, it is important. Say what is easy, difficult or important.
Challenge uses of to be verbs. Is, are, am, was, were, been and being are weak verbs. Sometimes they are the most accurate verbs. You can’t and shouldn’t eliminate all uses of these verbs. But you should always challenge them. See if you can use a stronger verb. This may not save words, but it strengthens the words you use.
Challenge all weak verbs. When you find weak verbs such as do, get and have, ask whether you can replace them with stronger verbs. That doesn’t simply mean using a longer synonymous verb, such as obtain instead of get or possess instead of have. Ask whether you can convey the meaning of the sentence with a stronger verb. Again, you may not save words, but you strengthen the words you use, making your story feel tighter.
Write with active verbs. Active verbs not only strengthen your sentences, they help shorten them. Passive verbs generally require more words. The subject of the sentence should do the action. Sometimes (especially if you spot a by in the sentence) you can just flip the sentence around: That conviction was overturned by an appeals court becomes An appeals court overturned that conviction. Other times, you have the right subject but need to choose an active verb: Homer Simpson was declared the victor in the race for mayor Tuesday becomes Homer Simpson won the race for mayor Tuesday.
Replace phrases with words. Look at the phrases in your copy and try to find phrases that can be reduced to a single word: hardly ever becomes rarely.
Eliminate imprecise words. You will very rarely find a sentence that is enhanced by the word very. For instance, the very in the preceding sentence adds nothing. Look for other imprecise words such as many and several that you can cut or replace.
Reduce use of adverbs. Instead of using a verb modified with an adverb, see whether you can use a more precise verb that needs no modification: dash instead of run fast.
Reduce attribution. If you know something to be true, you don’t need to attribute it. Sometimes you can condense attribution with lead-ins and bullets. If the context before a quote, especially an earlier quote, makes the speaker clear, you might be able to eliminate the she said afterward.
Avoid inflated words. Don’t write utilize when it says nothing more than use. Don’t write approximately when it says nothing more than about. Don’t write purchase when it says nothing more than buy.
Paraphrase quotes. Many sources speak in jargon or convoluted sentences that reporters should not quote. Be demanding of quotes. If they don’t convey strong opinion or emotion, you probably can say it better (and tighter) than the speaker. If the speaker is using jargon that you wouldn’t use in writing or your readers wouldn’t use in conversation, paraphrase.
Condense phrases. When you find a sentence that strings together several prepositional phrases or multiple clauses, consider them an invitation to tighten. Try to combine or eliminate phrases. A phrase that modifies a noun might be replaced with an adjective. Maybe you just need to break it into two or three sentences.
Say what is, not what isn’t. You can’t always do this. Sometimes you have to say what isn’t. But often you can strengthen and shorten sentences by stating what is.
No ands or buts. Sometimes writers use and or but unnecessarily as transitions to start sentences. If the sentence doesn’t conflict with the one before, but is inappropriate as well as unnecessary. And is frequently an unnecessary transition. By the mere fact that you’re continuing, the reader knows you have more to say. The other overused words that you can cut frequently include that, the and a. Often you do need these words, but sometimes they are extraneous, such as the the and that in the previous sentence.
Catch redundant words. Formerly isn’t needed with past tense. Currently or now isn’t needed with present tense.
Catch redundant facts. Watch for quotes or examples that make the same point twice.
Catch redundant setups. Do you set up quotes by telling the reader most of what the quote will say? This is an easy place to tighten.
You don’t have to quote everyone. Do your quotes help make points? Do they advance the story? If you’re quoting someone just because you talked to him, cut that quote.
What’s the story about? When you’ve finished a draft, ask yourself again what the story is about. Sometimes your sense of this will improve or change as you write. Then ask yourself whether your lead reflects this current understanding of what the story is about. Then ask whether the body of the story reflects your understanding of what the story is about. If not, you must decide whether 1. You lost your focus, in which case you must rewrite the body of the story to maintain the focus established in your lead or 2. You gained a better understanding of the story as you wrote, in which case you must rewrite the lead to reflect your new understanding of the story.
I developed the original version of this handout about 10 years ago. It was initially published on the No Train, No Gain website. I have updated it several times through the years, including today. I publish it on my blog as part of a collaborative effort by several newsrooms to provide coaching in some writing basics for Digital First Media staff members. We are stressing digital skills heavily, but recognize that we also need to continue coaching and upholding high standards in writing.