13 lessons in writing that I wish I had known 40 years ago when I busted out of J-school

As I count down the final days to retirement at the Toronto Star, I figured out that I have edited an estimated 50,000 stories for the Star, written more than 1,000 of them, dozens of which were good enough for the front page.

I’ve got bookshelves of writing books and manuals, and you know what? I should have tossed most of them out long ago. Experience is the best teacher. Read a lot and write a lot. You will find your way, if you’re any good.

But if I have to boil down what I’ve learned in 40 years, here are 13 simple steps to better writing that you likely won’t find anywhere else. I only wish I had this list when I started out.

  • Writing is nothing without a foundation. Hone your interviewing and reporting techniques. Work hard. And write naturally. That’s it. Over time, you will get better. Books and teachers try to make it sound more complicated than it is.
  • Like E.B. White did, use simple, concrete words to powerful effect. One syllable words can explode off the page like dynamite.
  • When you write, play with words. Play with your sentences and paragraphs. Move the pieces around. Your eyes and ears will tell you when it’s time to stop. The result will usually be stronger than your first attempt. But don’t overdo it or you’ll end up confused and your paragraphs will end up twisted and out of shape.
  • When you’re looking at a blank piece of paper, just pretend you are writing an email to someone. Start it: “Dear, Mary: Guess what happened today.” Your next sentence will be your defining line and carry you on your way.
  • Get it down on paper quickly. Write as fast as you can think. Then revise after you’ve let the words settle. You will never have writer’s block if you do this. Lower your standards on the first draft. Write fast. Leave the hard work for the revision. That’s when you raise your standards. After your revised copy is ready to submit, double check names, dates and facts. But do this after at least 30 minutes so you will read your copy with fresh eyes. It’s amazing the numbers of typos and errors you will find.
  • Before you start on your first draft, write the strongest, most appealing headline you can come up with to sum up your theme. Spend a bit of time here. Make it too tempting for a reader to resist without over-selling it. An eye-catching headline will force you to get to the point of the story in the most powerful way. I learned this trick very late in my career when reporters were asked to write their own headlines. It used to be the work of an editor.
  • Let concrete nouns and verbs carry your writing. Be sparing with adverbs and adjectives. It’s hard because I love adjectives the most. The late author Arthur Hailey once told our journalism class that whenever he travelled, he would pick up the Bible in his hotel room and read from it. The Bible, he believed, is a model of good, powerful writing with lots of action verbs. I believe him.
  • Use a tape recorder, but don’t use it as a crutch for lazy writing. People who rely on tape recorders tend to overuse quotes. Short quotes that convey emotion work best. Your writing, not the quotes, should be the meat and potatoes of your work. This was a trick I learned later in my career: Write your first draft from memory. Then go through your tape as back-up and to fill in the most precious quotes. Use the taped interview to assess how the interview process went. Analyze your interviewing style. Did you hear yourself break into another question when the interview subject was going to expand on a previous answer? I’ve noticed this fault in me too many times when I play the interviews back.
  • After you finish an interview, collect a phone number and email from the interview subject if you can. I don’t know how many times I’ve left the interview and forgot to ask a key question.
  • Try writing a personal journal that you know people will read. Even if it’s just for practice. It’s the best method I know to strengthen your writing and pace. You care about your personal story more than anybody, so this exercise will teach you how to prune your copy, find the right wording, the right phrasing and the right tone.
  • Write your way and put your personal stamp on it. I recently came upon a great quote that gave me confidence in my own writing. It was from the author Neil Gaiman. “Start telling the stories that only you can tell because there’ll always be better writers than you, and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will also be people who are much better at doing this or that. But you are the only you.”
  • This next piece of advice helped me a lot. Don’t try to be a great writer. Try instead to be a great reporter. If you accumulate the best information, your writing will sail on its own.
  • I learned this technique from former colleague Lesley Taylor, who was a brilliant reporter at the Toronto Star. When you’re conducting a telephone interview, use tape as a back-up, but if you’re a good typist, take down the interview notes on your computer. It will save you time transcribing. You will get better with practice. And end your interview with this line: “Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you wanted to add or explain more fully?”

This is my daily countdown of stories and memories from a 40-year career of writing and editing at the Toronto Star, the Sarnia Observer, Edmonton Report, Edmonton Journal and Toronto Sun. I will retire at the end of April. I will be 63 and ready to reinvent myself. Into what I have no idea yet. Suggestions welcome.

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