You've probably heard an editor say that when it comes to newswriting, keep it short, sweet and to the point. Some editors call this "writing tight." It means conveying as much information as possible in as few words as possible.
It sounds easy, but if you've spent years writing research papers - where the emphasis is often on being longwinded - it can be quite difficult.
Why Write Tight?
Several reasons. First, readers typically are short on time. They want to be able to quickly scan a news article to get the information they need. So the shorter, the better.
Second, after making room for things like ads, headlines and photos, the amount of space available for actual news in the newspaper is limited. This finite space is called the "newshole." Naturally, editors like to fit as much news as possible in the newshole, so again, the shorter each story is, the better.
So how can you learn to write tight?
Find Your Focus
Before you've written a single word of your article, stop for a moment and think: What is this story about? What's the main point? Decide what the main point is, then stick to that point from start to finish. Anything that doesn't relate to that point should be left out.
Sentences: Avoid Too Many Clauses
A clause is simply a section of a sentence that's separated by a comma. The following sentence has four clauses:
Officer Joan Lanton, who was at the scene of the murder, which occurred on Elm Street, described the scene as grisly and said two suspects are being sought.
Generally speaking, sentences in news stories should have as few clauses as possible. If you find yourself writing a sentence with more than one or two commas, chances are you need to put a period after one of the clauses and start a new sentence.
Here's that same sentence from above, this time broken up:
Officer Joan Lanton was at the scene of the murder, which occurred on Elm Street. She described the scene as grisly and said two suspects are being sought.
Just One or Two Ideas Per Sentence
Sentences also get too long when you try to cram too many ideas into them. Look at this example:
The president, who was suffering from a cold, which he caught last week in Norway, signed the treaty, which he had originally opposed, because he said the changes that had been made were sound.
This sentence is stuffed with four or five ideas. The result is a confusing mess. Better to do it this way:
The president had originally opposed the treaty. But he signed it anyway, saying the changes that had been made were sound. At the ceremony he was suffering from a cold that he caught last week in Norway.
Paragraphs: One Or Two Sentences Each
In addition to short sentences, editors like news stories to have short paragraphs. How short? Generally no more than 2-3 sentences each.
Short paragraphs are easier for readers to follow on the page. And stories with short paragraphs are easier for editors on tight deadlines to cut if needed.
Sure, it's your job to write the story and the editor's job to edit it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't edit yourself first. As you write, be on the lookout for excess words that can be cut. When you're done, read your story out loud and listen for longwinded sentences. Any sentence that can't be easily read in a single breath should usually be trimmed.
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