Many journalists find their way to the industry because of their love of writing. We put together words and sentences to tell stories that matter, always with one eye on the word count and deadlines. Most of the time, we enjoy the process of writing as much as seeing the final piece of work getting published.
But what is good writing? Is it the ability of a perspicacious reporter to punctiliously select supreme words, refining his or her locution to the point of perfection? Or is it the skill of telling a story clearly, concisely and accurately?
You know the answer. But sometimes journalists’ passion for the written word can be their worst enemy and we end up stuffing our stories with fluff and gibberish.
Journalism.co.uk caught up with Steve Gamel, an award-winning journalist with 24 years of writing experience, to talk about his new book Write Like You Mean It: Mastering Your Passion for the Written Word. From organising ideas to beating writer's block, the book brings practical tips for anyone who wants to improve their writing. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
As a writer, what changes have you seen in the media industry over the past decade?
There has obviously been an intense push toward moving what was previously print-only content (newspapers, magazines, etc.) to digital content and video to stay on-trend and meet the demands of a wider and savvier audience. Consumers want the information that matters most to them right now, and the media industry is in an everyday competition to be the outlet that meets those needs first.
I can tell you as a long-time newspaper journalist that even though I still write for physical print editions, their focus is clearly "online first." Naturally, this has forced writers to create content that works across platforms.
But the written word is as powerful as ever. Writers still need to write, and they need to do so with powerful, engaging storytelling that will hook readers from the very first sentence.
What are your top three tips on good writing?
...become a pro at using the active voice.
Number one is to be a storyteller and put a human face on whatever story you are trying to tell. Regardless of whether you are a journalist, blogger, or non-fiction writer, you should have the innate desire to go beyond the normal process of putting words on paper and instead tell the story people want to read. As I say in my book, "people want to read about people. It just makes what you're writing about more understandable and compelling."
The second tip is to become a pro at using the active voice (when the subject of a sentence performs the verb's action). This is one of the best ways to materially strengthen your writing. Each sentence is stronger, more direct, and impactful. And more importantly, the reader feels the emotion in your writing.
The third tip is to allow yourself to be open to constructive criticism and feedback and use those golden nuggets as opportunities to be a better writer tomorrow than you were today. Surround yourself with other writers. Share your work with each other, and look forward to when another writer or mentor shares how you could have written something better.
Choosing the right words is sometimes hard. How do you deal with delicate subjects, such as trauma, race or death?
The approach is different depending on the subject. The benchmark is starting with awareness of who your audience is, be considerate of community norms, and strike a civil tone with each word you type. You want to doggedly pursue whatever story it is that you are trying to tell, but you also want to do so with respect for the people you are interviewing and those who have been affected by the tragedy, trauma, or even race issue.
If you start with that foundation in place and put yourself in those people's shoes, the words you choose as you sit down to write will be easier, simply because you have a firm grasp of the overall situation, your assignment, the people involved, and how to best get the story out to the masses.
What are the essential components of an engaging story?
Good, clean writing at its basic level – perfect grammar; an active, powerful voice; a varied sentence structure and word choice. Putting a human face on the piece and quality, compelling storytelling.
More and more publications are pivoting to video and writer teams are shrinking. What is the future of writers in the newsroom?
It is a misnomer to say all writers do is write. There is so much more writers do. They write. They post on social media. They take video. They manage and distribute content. They are all of those things wrapped into one. So while there is a lot of pivoting going on, I still believe writers are important in so many other valuable ways besides their ability to write effectively.
What advice would you give to a young writer starting out today?
Take the leap and put yourself out there. You were born to write, and the last thing you want is some of your best work collecting dust on a bedroom shelf somewhere. Once you have put yourself out there, determine what it is you enjoy writing about the most, seek guidance from other writers in that genre who can help you push forward, and constantly strive to be a better writer tomorrow than you were today.
Read, read, and read some more, but please do so with a critical eye. What did you like about what you read? What did you not like? How would you have written it better? These are great habits to start early in your career. They will serve you well years down the road.
Have you got a favourite tool?
Yes. A pad of paper and a pen. I know that sounds incredibly old-school, but the mere act of writing with a pen and paper takes the pressure off of staring at a blank computer screen. You get those creative juices flowing, and more often than not, you can stay focused longer. You also never lose track of a great story idea, plot twist, or random thought you might be able to use later.
Final words of encouragement for all the great writers out there?
Becoming the writer you have always wanted to be is a roll-up-your-sleeves endeavour that takes constant practice and determination. Do not just write to write. Write like you mean it, and write like you mean it to be read.
Do not miss our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired, with four days of panels and workshops from 19 October 2021. Check out the full agenda and tickets