“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify.” — Henry Thoreau
Simplicity is the key to good journalism. Write clearly, write concisely, write honestly – and you’re on the way to writing well.
We live in a world that is governed by incredibly complex systems – both natural and manmade. The job of the journalist is to break these down – get to the nub of an issue and make sense of it all for your reader.
Simplicity is a virtue, and like most virtues, it can often be difficult to maintain.
There are many temptations, seeking to lead us from the path of virtue. For a hack, the greatest of these is the temptation of complexity. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over-complication. We think it makes us seem smart – and as such is a classic example of the ego getting in the way of the writing.
Researching a story, speaking to sources, unearthing and making sense of data gives us access to a huge amount of information – much more that our readers will have access to. It can often be easier to simply throw it all into an article you’re writing rather than take the time to break it all down and create a coherent – and simple to understand – story.
Taken in this light, complexity is a sign of a lazy journalism. It tells the reader that either you can’t make sense of it all yourself, or you can’t be bothered breaking it down for him. In my experience, the first of these is the most common.
I’ve already mentioned the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why. Pretty much all stories can be broken down to these essential elements. But when it comes to simplicity in writing, I’m a big believer in the 3 Es. – Engage, explain and eliminate.
Engaging the reader is the first – and biggest – challenge for any writer. In an era where people are being bombarded with information from a huge array of sources, we have become extremely good at editing out what is not useful. Most of the time, we do this unconsciously, scanning headlines and opening paragraphs for certain key words and phrases. Those that grab us, we continue to read; those that don’t, we ignore. You need to grab the attention of your reader from the first sentence, make it so that they HAVE to keep on reading. A never-before-revealed fact, an unforgettable image, a fascinating character – all these serve the same purpose – getting a reader engaged
Once you’ve hooked them, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. What’s the article about? What’s the story? That’s when you start to EXPLAIN.
John Smith was just fifteen when he walked through the gates of X Chemicals for the first time. Today his fifteen-year-old son waits for him at those same gates as he leaves for the last time.
John is one of 1,000 workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the closure of the Springfield plant – part of the company’s plan to cut $5m from its annual wage bill.
In these first two paragraphs, you draw your reader in by putting a human face – a name, a story, an emotion – on the story. Then you summarise what the story is about.
But as you go on to explain further, you must also ELIMINATE.
Chances are you have a huge array of facts at your fingertips – hours of research, interviews, data, statistics – all of which is swimming around in your head as you start to write the story. The art of elimination involves knowing how much of this can be left out, what’s not essential to the story – that background noise that will only serve to confuse your reader, not enlighten them. Cut out the jargon, the repetition, the meaningless data – anything that serves to confuse rather than clarify.
Remember: What you leave out is just as important as what you put in.