How do I make hard facts—about pandemics, wars, natural disasters, social justice—easy reading? How do I get readers to pay attention to what they need to know?
How do I help contribute to a culture of writing that combats misinformation How do I instil hope into the hearts and minds of readers?
Roy Peter Clark, US writing coach and a senior scholar at Poynter, set out to answer these questions in his latest book "Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing." It is published as the work of journalists or, as Clark puts it, public writers, which becomes even harder in the world of lies, propaganda and misinformation.
Journalism.co.uk caught up with him to talk about tools we can use to engage, inform and hook readers.
How has journalism changed in the past couple of decades?
In the United States newspaper journalism has been facing two existential crises. The business model that sustained it has almost disappeared. No one is sure how to pay for excellent journalism. And it has faced countless attempts to undercut its credibility, especially, but not only from the political right. All that said, sharp reports and powerful stories continue to sustain community and democracy.
How did the pandemic and recent political events, like the storming of the US Capitol or the war in Ukraine war, impact news writing?
In so many ways, but especially with the pandemic, the world turned upside down. When things look the darkest, we need public writers (not just journalists) to step up and do their best work. It is not enough to find things out and check things out. We must take responsibility for what readers know and understand about the world, so they can make good choices in their own enlightened interest, and in the public interest.
What are your top three tips for clear writing?
Three tips for clear writing:
- Use shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
- Slow down the pace of information. What we call a period, you call a full stop. The more stop signs along a road, the slower the journey, which is good when you are trying to make something clear.
- You already know too much. Remember when you did not know, and start from that place.
- (Bonus) Subject and verb of main clause together near the beginning of the sentence.
- (Double Bonus) Avoid or translate jargon or technical language
How should journalists navigate culture wars?
I argue in the book that texts exist on a spectrum that moves from neutral to engaged to advocacy to partisan to propaganda. Individual journalists and also organisations need to establish with transparency where on this spectrum they stand. While the journalists I work with will want to be neutral about many things, they need not be neutral about everything (such as the effects of mass shootings or attacks on the Capitol or whether Putin is an arsehole). Reporters should be clear as to the standards and practices of their news organisation.
How can we write for younger audiences to help them engage with the news? Is there any specific approach?
You are asking a very old man. But an old man who has very young friends and colleagues. My young friends got me on Twitter and Facebook and introduced me to ways in which my content could work there. I embrace educational programs for young people and adults that introduce critical thinking skills. What to believe? And how do we know? Those questions will be increasingly important as technologies evolve.
One of the most important stories in my new book was written by a 16-year-old student about what it was like to get covid. Young people need to know true stuff. And they benefit from the vicarious experience of reading true stories. That stuff still works.
How do you feel about generative AI (i.e. ChatGPT) being used by journalists?
I have argued that the one technology more powerful than AI is HL: Human Literacy. For two centuries, the introduction of new informational technologies has led to predictions of the death of reading. Why would anyone want a description of Abraham Lincoln, when they can see his photograph in front of the tent? Why read what Churchill said when you can listen to it on the radio? Remember when you wrote your first story on a word processor? I do. The technology always grows ahead of the standards and practices. I predict that ethics and transparency will keep better pace with AI. And I have no objections to short informational stories being generated by robots, if it means that humans can be used for the important investigations.
I must add that when I first saw ChapGPT in action, my friend asked the robot which writing book was better, "The Elements of Style", or my "Writing Tools". The robot was kind to both works but had a clear preference for mine. So may such robots rule!
What makes a good story?
Reports point you there. But stories put you there. We do not turn to stories for information. We read them for experience. Stories are a form of transportation, where we can travel across time and space. Reports are based on who, what, where, when, why and how. Stories turn those questions into characters, scenes, settings, chronologies, motives, and processes: how things happened. Stories depend upon character details, a sequence of scenes, dialogue (not just quotes), and points of view. Reports and stories can be combined, using, for example, anecdotes to add action.
What skills will journalists need in the next five to ten years?
I never thought I would be so dependent upon this phone in my pocket, so it would be foolish to predict the future. I believe journalists will still need news judgment, the ability to gather and make sense of evidence, language and storytelling skills, numeracy and the ability to work with data, audio and visual literacy, computer literacy, civic and cultural literacy, and of course an understanding of ethics, law, and the larger purposes of journalism.
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