33 quick tips for journalists

Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch

After a couple decades of trying to help journalists get better at the craft, I’ve developed a long list of tips and tactics to spur improvement.

And after attending and presenting at a few dozen newspaper conferences, I have come to learn that most attendees are left with one or two useful takeaways that they can put into practice.

Bart Pfankuch, quick tips for journalists
Bart Pfankuch

Rather than focus on a particular topic or element of our craft, this month’s column instead is simply a brain-dump of quick tips I’ve learned through experience or have stolen from other coaches over the years. If even one of these tips hits home and leads to improvement for one journalist, I’ll be happy.

So here we go, in no particular order.

  • Maintain a high standard for all your work, but occasionally pour your heart and soul into an article or project that offers potential for greatness or to provoke change. Some stories deserve special treatment.
  • In the car, turn off the radio and put down the cell phone. Windshield time is thinking time.
  • Always seek out the tension, conflict, drama and excitement that resides in a topic and then highlight that.
  • In interviews, ask unobvious questions that may be uncomfortable to the source or yourself. It’s OK for you both to squirm a little.
  • Be prepared for interviews. Do some homework before arrival. Know the basics of a topic so you can go deeper.
  • Provide solid context; learn how an issue fits into the world, a life, history or a place, then explain that clearly to the reader.
  • Meet people where they live, work and play. Avoid phone interviews if possible.
  • Probe for details, emotions, recollections. Get the source to paint a picture for you so you can paint one for readers.
  • Become a patient interviewer and reporter. Give people time to share important things and open up to you. Keep office chit-chat to a minimum to create time for better interviews.
  • Describe in your notes the five senses and more; record how people/places/things look, sound, smell, taste and what they feel like.
  • Watch for and record real-time movements, actions, interactions.
  • Ask people to reflect on things; get them to reveal their true feelings by being interested, probing and listening well.
  • In writing, chronology is your friend. We all live (and read) in time.
  • Strive to teach readers something new. If a story feels rote or obvious, keep it short or find a better topic.
  • Make quick work of stories that can and should be short. Speed through those to create time for in-depth work.
  • If you want to move on and up, shoot for producing six great clips a year. Of those, one or two may make it into an applicant package.
  • Force yourself to think big, to be ambitious, to dive into heady topics, to tell stories that someone, somewhere doesn’t want told.
  • Always be high on the sh!#-togetherness scale. Do what you say you will do, be on time, pitch in when needed, be a newsroom asset. The little things do matter. Have a good attitude.
  • Get great quotes, but use them sparingly. If something can easily be paraphrased, and meaning is not lost, then paraphrase it.
  • Write in an unpretentious, conversational style but not in a tone that is loose, lazy or self-indulgent. Please do not overwrite.
  • Read your work aloud before turning it in. If you stumble while reading, you need to give the piece more time, energy and editing.
  • Be your own best editor. Your first draft is never your final draft.
  • Develop a reputation for concise, clean copy. Train your editors that your material will be tight and clean and they’ll leave it alone.
  • Talk to people in the real world. Get out of the halls of government and talk to people who aren’t spokesfolk.
  • Don’t let sources convince you to repeat their lies. Fact-check your way to the truth.
  • When thinking lead, think headline. What do time-stressed readers need to know the most?
  • Always think maps, graphics, infoboxes, timelines, charts, sidebars. Strive to make your work easy to read and easy to digest.
  • Avoid big errors and small typos, too. Readers can question anything, they will inevitably question everything.
  • Be a storyteller, not an article writer. Many stories are best told in a hard-news, pyramidal fashion, but some call out for a yarn.
  • Tell the reader what happened, but also tell them why it matters, who is affected and how, and what if anything they can do about it.
  • Seek out opportunities to stretch your skill set. Try to write something funny, sad or in first-person. Branch out.
  • It’s good to get excited about your work; don’t be afraid to invest some of your soul into your profession. Be engaged.
  • For heaven’s sake, have some fun. Journalism absolutely cannot become drudgery or it may be time to get a teaching degree.

Bart Pfankuch is content director for South Dakota News Watch, online at sdnewswatch.org. Write to him at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.