One summer in college I landed a job as a technical writer at a company that built a kind of industrial machine used in factories. The machine had been designed by the company's engineers, all very bright guys (and they were mostly men) with Ph.Ds from places like MIT.
The engineers hadn't just designed the machine, they'd written the user's manual for it. The manual described the intricacies of the machine's construction and operation in the kind of excruciating detail that the engineers absolutely loved. "You've got to read this," one of them told me, a disturbing gleam in his eye. "Yeah," I said, backing away. "Looks like a real page-turner."
In short, the manual was about as clear as the federal tax code. Problem was, the machine was destined to be used by factory workers with, at best, high school degrees.
The president of the company took me aside and told me, "Make me a manual that the workers can understand."
So I threw out the old user's manual and spent several weeks learning how to use the machine myself. I figured out which buttons to push, and in what order, in order to get the thing to work.
Once I'd figured that out, I wrote a manual that explained, step-by-step, how to turn the machine on, make it do what it was supposed to do, then turn it off. A typical passage: "Push the red button. Then push the green button. You'll hear a whirring sound. When the whirring sound stops, push the yellow button."
The engineers' manual ran over 100 pages. Mine was about 10. When I was done, the company president was amazed. "It's so.... simple," he stammered. He offered me a permanent job. (I said no.)
My point, of course, is that when writing, always remember who your readers are. Say what you have to say in terms anyone can understand, using as few words as possible.
Nowhere is this more applicable than in journalism, where, more often than not, your readers are the general public - everyone from the fifth-grader to the rocket scientist.
But for whatever reason - maybe from years of listening to English teachers - beginning journalism students often do the opposite. Instead of striving for simplicity, clarity and brevity in their articles, they feel the need to lard them up with complicated words and long-winded sentences. In the process they write stories that are often twice as long as they need to be.
Now, simplicity doesn't have to mean dumbed-down. Reporters routinely write about incredibly complex subjects, from nuclear physics to string theory to the aforementioned tax code. The user's manual I wrote, after all, was for a very complex piece of industrial machinery.
Simplicity means nothing more and nothing less than expressing your ideas clearly, in a way that the non-specialist can understand.
Ironically, achieving simplicity in newswriting isn't necessarily simple. Anyone can bang out an article filled with bloated prose. It takes a little more time and care to craft a story that says what it needs to say in as few words as possible. But with practice, it will become second nature.
Here are some tips for writing simply and clearly:
• Keep it Conversational: All of us have a natural ability to condense and summarize our ideas when we're talking. But when we start to write many of us gum up our sentences with overly wordy phrases and big words. If you're having trouble writing about something, imagine what you would say if you were explaining it to a friend. Then try writing it that way.
• Keep it Short: After you've written your story, go back over each sentence and cut out any unnecessary words. Keep a tally of how many words you're able to cut from each story and see how "lean" you can make them. Make this a habit, and pretty soon you'll be "writing tight" from the get-go.
• Share Your Work: Once you're story's done, show it to someone - your mom, a friend, anyone - and ask them if it's clear and easily understood. If they say no, chances are you need to make some changes.
• Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite: Even the best writers often have to write, rewrite and rewrite again in order to say what they want to say in a clear and concise way. So get used to the idea that your first draft is not your finished product. The good news is that as your writing skills improve, you probably won't have to do as much rewriting.