Keep it simple

“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.


Why proofreading matters…part 2

Just a quick one today. I came across the following in a national newspaper this week…


It’s bad enough to lose a precious instrument, but to loose it! And to do it twice! Wow!

Anyway, just thought I’d share this as another reason why newspapers need sub-editors. Now more than ever.

Jargon and how to avoid it

Jargon. It’s all around us. From the corporate world to the voluntary sector, it seems that nobody in authority is capable of saying what they mean any longer, instead couching their utterances in a meringue of meaningless buzzwords and quasi-technical gobbledygook.

Sadly, the media is also infested with this creeping canker. How many times have you read jargon-filled articles that leave scratching your head by the end, asking yourself ‘what the hell was all that about’?

It’s nothing short of an epidemic. Take a look through any ‘serious’ newspaper or magazine. Chances are it’s full of terms like ‘rationalisation’, ‘collateral damage’, ‘austerity’, ‘challenging trading conditions’…the list goes on.

It’s easy to understand why some business/political leaders use jargon. By definition, it’s a way of codifying language, obscuring it so that the true meaning of what you’re saying can be understood only by those in your own clique.

Hence the use of terms like ‘austerity measures’ rather than ‘cuts’, ‘collateral damage’ rather than ‘civilian casualties’, ‘friendly fire’ rather than ‘shot by their own side’. And we won’t even go into the linguistic diarrhea that is modern business jargon and which has introduced such terms as ‘buy in’, ‘going forward’, ‘low-hanging fruit’ or the execrable ‘core competencies’.

A good journalist will avoid jargon at all costs. If an interviewee uses it, ask him to clarify what he means. If he fails to do so, then do the job for him. It’s not your job to hide meaning behind obscure terms or to help him cover up what his corporation/department/organisation is really trying to do. It’s your job to let your audience know what’s going on – and to do so in the clearest possible terms.

People resort to jargon for two reasons: to deliberately obscure meaning or because they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

There’s no excuse for a journalist to fall into either of these two categories. If you’re unclear what a word or a term means, find out. If your interviewee is unwilling to use clear, unambiguous language, then it’s your job to explain to your readers what he’s talking about. He may be a mouthpiece for some organisation or other but you’re not. Don’t simply repeat what’s being said to you, explain it. Probe, don’t parrot. Clarify, don’t collaborate. Become a jargon-buster today and help make the world a better, clearer place!

The apostrophe – dos and don’ts

Ah, the apostrophe. That much maligned, much misunderstood, much misused little punctuation mark. Without it, there can be no possession because we wouldn’t be able to attribute ownership to anybody.

Spot the problem here? It should be the park of the people, not the park of the peoples!

And think of all those extra letters we’d have to type if we couldn’t substitute them with that little free-floating comma?

No, the apostrophe is not to be taken for granted. Nor is it something to be frightened of. Simply follow these simple dos and don’ts and you won’t go wrong.

DO use the apostrophe when…

  • …indicating possession. Example: Paul’s ball, Mary’s piano, Dad’s moustache, etc.
  • …using abbreviated words, such as don’t instead of do not; can’t instead of can not; wouldn’t instead of would not; he’s instead of he is.
  • …leaving out part of a word. Eg. ’48 instead of 1948 or ‘n’ instead of and.

DON’T use the apostrophe when…

  • …writing about more than one item (plural). So, the plural of banana is bananas, NEVER banana’s.
  • …using pronouns, such as his, hers, theirs etc. Example: The bananas are hers.
  • …writing the plural of abbreviations. Although technically there’s no hard and fast rule about this, I think it’s fine to write STDs rather than STD’s; don’t instead of don’t’s; 1940s instead of 1940’s.

And one last thing…

Lots of people get confused about using the apostrophe with plurals. When the plural of a word ends with the letter s, such as bananas, then generally the apostrophe will go at the end. Otherwise the rules outlined above still apply.

So, if a group of monkeys take possession of a bunch of bananas, they become the monkeys’ bananas.

However, if a group of people take the bananas, they are the people’s bananas.

Let the abuse of the apostrophe stop here!