Five tips to make you a better writer

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“How can I be a better writer?” is a favourite question of students, as is the more concerning complaint, “But no-one’s taught me how to write”.

Let’s start with the basics. You can learn to write. You can learn style. You can learn precision. Anyone who tells you different is wrong.

But here’s the thing; it’s all about you. You have to want to learn and you have to put lessons into practice. There isn’t a magic spell that will make you a better writer. Few people are natural, born writers. It is practice and the observance of a few rules.

There’s lots of web-based advice on how to be a novelist, or a journalist, or a copywriter, or any of the many professions where writing is a core skill. But for this, I’m going to assume that you just want tips on how to express yourself more clearly.

  1. Write. It’s a cliché but the first step to being a better writer is to practise. Start writing. Write a blog or a diary or, if you’re one of my students, do your assignments. Malcolm Gladwell told us that if you spend 10,000 hours doing anything you’ll become a world-class expert. How many hours have you spent writing? How much practice are you really getting? Write something every day and you will get better.
  1. Read. There’s no way to become a better writer unless you can recognise good writing. Read everything. Read classic literature, modern literature, biography, history and politics. Read newspapers. Read the internet, although perhaps not all at once. Draw inspiration from everything you read. Love language and when you find a writer whose style you like, read everything they’ve ever published. In this excellent video the BBC’s Alan Little recommends reading poetry too. I’ve always thought life too short for poetry but if it works for you, go for it.
  1. Learn to proof-read. When I worked for ITN and The Times I was often sent CVs by hopeful young journalists. I was amazed by the grammar and spelling errors in them. How could anyone who wanted to work in journalism make such simple and off-putting errors on an important document? The answer is proof-reading, or rather the lack of it.

When you’ve completed a first draft, print it out and read it back to yourself. Out loud. Use a book to cover the next line of text so your eye doesn’t wander. Then cross out all the mistakes. Recast sentences that are unwieldy. Look at each sentence and remove every word you can without altering the meaning of the sentence. Most of us begin typing before we’ve really thought about what we want to say, when you’ve worked it out, rewrite the sentence.

In his excellent short autobiography On Writing, Stephen King recommends cutting every adverb, the words that end –ly. The idea is that if you’ve used one, you’ve weakened your sentence. If you write “The hero ran quickly” you’ve included unnecessary information, if you’re running you are moving quickly. It’s enough to write “The hero ran” or perhaps, “The hero sprinted”.   The great American writer Mark Twain agreed and carried out a war of attrition on adjectives, saying:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

After reading all those badly written CVs I checked my own. Naturally, I found errors. We all need to proof.

  1. Learn the basics of grammar. If you were employing a bricklayer and they told you they didn’t know how to mix mortar, would you hire them? People who want to write have to know the basics of grammar. If you don’t know the difference between its and it’s, or when to use which or that, or the difference between “let’s eat Grandma” and “let’s eat, Grandma”, find out.

People are often afraid of grammar, fearing it’s full of pedantic rules they won’t understand. It isn’t. There are plenty of pedants; the type of people who insist you can’t split an infinitive. They’re wrong and those who say “to boldly go” should become “to go boldly” have an empty space where their souls should be. Don’t fear them; it’s just about ensuring your meaning is clear. There are some excellent and readable books that can help. Eats, shoots and leaves by Lynne Truss, Essential English for journalists by Harold Evans, and the classic Elements of style by Strunk & White are all short and informative.

And while you’re thinking about grammar also think about clichés. Avoid them like the plague. Especially if they’re as old as the hills. Try and find fresh ways to get your meaning across to the reader rather than relying on the stale thoughts of other people. John Rentoul’s The banned list and Rob Hutton’s Romps, tots and boffins will help you avoid the worst examples.

  1. Find a mentor. I didn’t learn to write at school or university. I didn’t learn to write as a regional journalist. I learnt to write between six and eight in the morning, weekdays, in the early part of the noughties. I was working as a journalist at ITN and every morning I would pick up the overnight scripts written for John Suchet’s programme on the ITV News Channel. Every day I would rewrite them. And every day John would come in and tell me, with great enthusiasm and razor sharp analysis, exactly what was wrong with them. After a couple of years I thought if I got one or two past him each day without his rewriting from scratch, I’d done well.

Now, not everyone can have a great TV writer dismantling their style and putting it back together again. But there are plenty of places to seek advice.

Read George Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English language. His six rules are still the basis of good style. The Telegraph’s Tom Chivers disagrees, particularly about the relative importance of  active and passive voices (“The athlete threw the ball” vs “The ball was thrown by the athlete”). That’s fine. But Tom is a better writer than you and me, so he can do as he likes. You should write in the active voice.

Or there’s Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, or Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing,  or Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing. You get the picture. And, as there’s no idea that hasn’t already been done better by Buzzfeed, look here for more advice from writers.

One final thought: be interested and be interesting. Readers will forgive any number of errors, provided what you’ve written speaks to them. So, have something to say and say it well.

Who’s making great online video?

 

Which news organisations are doing great online video?

A couple of recent articles have prompted me to take a look at this – firstly  this one from Media Shift, in which Janine Gibson, incoming Editor-in-Chief of theguardian.com says it’s so entrenched in the system they barely think of it as a separate element anymore. Then there’s this one from journalism.co.uk in which The Times’s deputy head of digial, Lucia Adams, talks about their shift from quantity to quality.

To begin with I’d better declare an interest.

I set up the multimedia department at The Times and Sunday Times back in 2006 and ran it until 2008. We started experimenting with video in 2007. Much of that experimentation took the form of throwing mud against the wall to see what stuck, but there was an underlying strategy based on some key principles.

Firstly, that the quality user experience for online video would continue to improve so everything had to be done with the highest possible quality at the point of production. That meant buying kit and building facilities and not being derailed by those who wanted everything done on mobile phones.

Secondly, that videos should exploit the key drivers of traffic on the site; and, finally, that it should not compete head to head against existing broadcast outlets.

So, we made films about cars with the InGear supplement of The Sunday TImes, such as this one about the Porsche GT9, and got Gordon Ramsay to make recipe videos. I also pressed hard for a content sharing deal with a news broadcaster which would give us scale with news inventory but wouldn’t be competing on an unequal basis with ITN or the BBC.

We had our successes and I also made mistakes – auto-roll videos on the homepage being, perhaps, the most egregious. But it was new territory and, like all innovations in the newsroom, part of the challenge was creating new content and formats and part of it was embedding change and new workflows.

By mid 2008 we had reached around a million video streams a month – small beer by today’s standards but it felt significant at the time.

That was around the time I left the paper. It seemed to me that video was becoming less about trying to do something different, establishing a new brand and new ways of telling multimedia stories, but more about focussing on repurposed news clips. There’s some value in that but I didn’t feel it was playing to the paper’s strengths. So, I read Lucia’s comments about moving away from news and focussing on quality with something of a wry smile.

So here we are, six years on, videos never been more prevalent online. Everyone’s got fast broadband connections, the audience is there, what’s being done to service them? I’ll be taking a look at my old shop, The Times, plus The Guardian, Sky News, The New York Times and Vice. This is an entirely arbitrary list – but I think covers a good range of outlets.

1. The Times

Compared to the films we made back in 2007/08 the material being produced by The Times feels much more measured and professional. The material is well shot and there’s an emphasis on quality of production. The films are also well-distributed through the site, rather than being ghettoised under a video tab.

It’s clear video, and specifically sports video, is a key driver for users to pay to vault the paywall. The use of Premiership football is especially smart.

But for me, there are still some key problems. What is video to The Times? Is it just a nice to have added extra, or is it an integral part of their story-telling? There’s no doubt that video needs to be an element of a multimedia package. But I don’t see stories here both using video as a driver and playing to video’s strengths. For example, this film with Norman Lamont is good – but what are the specifically video-led elements that drive the story. Video is led by pictures, what images are used here that make this a must see video?

And I think that lack of identity extends to the look of the videos – there’s no Times style. That’s an issue, I think, after seven years of production and one they wouldn’t accept from the website. Perhaps Lucia’s drive towards a less-is-more approach will remedy this.

2. The Guardian

The look is something The Guardian is getting right. From news clips to longer format material, everything is in-style and recognisably on-brand. It feels as though the creative director has given this the once over and ensured everything is formatted correctly.

The Guardian has also worked hard to distribute video through the site, from short news clips from ITN and Reuters through to self-produced content, there’s considerable variety of video here.

But there’s also an issue. They’re just not using the medium to its fullest extent. Take a look at this video  with the excellent Alexis Petridis. It’s a good concept, Alexis is an engaging and eloquent presenter and the look is modern, metropolitan and recognisably “Guardian”.

But there’s just no reason for this to be a video – where are the must see-images, or must-hear sounds? This is radio with pictures. Or a column read aloud. And this mistake is repeated time and again around the site. They’re just not using video to story-tell effectively. I know with music reviews you can argue there are rights issues. But if you want to be the biggest website in the world and you want to do music reviews, man up and pay the MCPS.

3. Sky News

Storytelling using video isn’t something you would expect Sky News to struggle with. This is their bread and butter. The site is filled with video elements, live feeds, repurposed news packages, cut up two-ways, interviews, and short clips of must see video. If you want video, Sky News has it.

The problem for Sky News though is two-fold.

Firstly, the presentation is dull, conservative (with a small c) and old-fashioned. The site looks like something from the middle of the last decade, not the sort of all-singing, all-dancing digital experience you would expect of Sky. The channel’s been hugely innovative in television presentation, but that innovation doesn’t seem to be reflected in the digital experience. That’s a shame and I hope it’s something Sky quickly sorts out. Sky News needs to transform into a multiplatform operation, and that transformation needs to be quicker and slicker than is demonstrated by this site.

The second issue for Sky News is that they’re not making any concessions to the digital user experience. The content is offered up for consumption in the assumption that people will watch for the same duration and in the same way as on TV. That just isn’t the case. Like many broadcasters turned web publishers, they suffer from the problem of thinking more-is-more, rather than starting with the user and trying to deliver a news service that fits their needs.

4. The New York Times

Ah, The New York Times. Serious, dull, worthy New York Times. Don’t be expecting any fun here. That’s the cliche. And so it proves. This is the high-fibre version of online video. Serious subjects treated seriously.

But it’s done well. Really well. Take this video  – beautifully produced, well told. Money has been spent here and you can see it in the coverage. This is good video storytelling and story selection, mixed with decent budgets and worthy intent. Yes, this could all be a bit more dramatic; yes, it could display a little more wit and attitude. But if you’re staying on brand with the New York Times – this works.

And speaking of cliches, here’s a video where an American cooks a hamburger.

5. Vice News

To the other end of the spectrum and Vice – the wannabe MTV of digital and broadcast news. The brand is testosterone filled and in-your face. The words “woah dude” never far from any presenter’s lips.

But there’s some good reporting here – take this one from Ukraine – or this one on a far-right protest in Austria. Well chosen images, good interviews and insight. There’s no reason why any of the broadsheets or broadcasters should turn their noses up at this.

You might argue that there’s little breadth to the coverage – the story selection is all broadly similar. But this is absolutely on brand for the core Vice audience. The durations of some of the pieces are also surprising – there’s a lot of very long content on the site. Presumably this is repurposed TV content being used elsewhere in the rapidly expanding VIce empire – but are lots of  people really watching 45 minute docs on YouTube? Maybe, provided the storytelling is good enough.

It’s a bit of a cliche to suggest that digital-native publishers are doing online content with more verve and style than legacy media. But there’s no doubt that’s what’s happening here. Vice’s content has lessons for everyone, even if no-one should be aping their exact output. Seven years after I started doing web films for The Times, I’d say there are still big lessons to learn for newspapers and broadcasters when it comes to making engaging, well-made and well told stories for digital viewers.

On John Oliver quitting The Daily Show

The Guardian’s website has a short piece on some comments from John Oliver about quitting The Daily Show and his forthcoming programme for HBO. If you haven’t seen the moment where he gets choked up on his final appearance, it’s here.

I first met John back in 2007, when I had a small hand in setting up The Bugle podcast which he and Andy Zaltzman have now been doing for the last seven years. I had recently established the multimedia department at The Times and, after some early success with some football related podcasts with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, was looking for some new comedy ideas.

John and Andy came in and pitched the idea of doing a satirical podcast – the audio newspaper for the visual world – and the idea for The Bugle was born.

At that stage, John hadn’t been in New York long, so there was no doubt an attraction for him in keeping a profile going in the UK. It also gave him the chance to continue working with Andy. They’d already had some success as a writing duo – particularly with the Political Animal shows for Radio 4.

For The Times, the podcast was breaking new ground. There were no studio facilities in the Wapping office. Each week the podcast producer would head to a studio in west London with Andy, while John would go into a studio in New York, sometimes accompanied by Rory Albanese — the glorious American. It was recorded early afternoon on a Friday because it was the only day John was guaranteed not to have any commitments at The Daily Show. Then the producer would take the raw audio back to Wapping to edit. In theory, the show was supposed to go out on a Monday but we quickly got into the habit of releasing it Friday afternoon, so everyone could get down the pub without worrying about it all weekend.

I think it’s fair to say that not everyone on The Times was completely committed to the idea. There was a degree of uncertainty about whether the project would ever get off the ground. But it was forced through by the paper’s then Executive Editor, Keith Blackmore, who was completely supportive and who came along to the recording of the pilot.

At some point during a rather chaotic recording, John and Andy decided to launch into a long routine about the evils of Rupert Murdoch, which Keith bore with equanimity.

The following week, I met with Keith and presented him with a polished half hour pilot for distribution among News International’s various executives. At this point he asked, rather shame-faced, if I would cut the Murdoch material.

But, determined as I was that the show wouldn’t be derailed by institutional timidity, I’d already made the cuts. Through some sleight of hand, and by keeping John and Andy a little in the dark, we got the podcast approved and promoted by the paper.

The Bugle ran for four years with the Times. Sadly, the paper never really championed it as it should have done, which I continue to think was a great shame. I always thought it was a brilliant product, showcasing John and Andy’s great talents for both scripted satire and genius improvisation. I think a huge part of its success is that John and Andy sound like they’re having fun. In the pilot, we cut a lot of the giggling at each other’s jokes – but as time has gone on it has become a trademark feature. The Bugle also owed a lot to the hard work of producers Tom Wright and later, after I’d left The Times, Chris Skinner.

After the launch, The Times turned its attention away from podcasts to web video as the prime focus for the multimedia team. So, The Bugle always had a slightly odd position as the only comedy podcast supported by the paper. But it steadily built up an audience and it always pleases me to see it referenced in the comments whenever The Guardian runs a story on John.

So, best of luck John with the new show. And I hope The Bugle continues for many years to come. With that, there’s just one more thing to say:

Fuck you, Chris.