As a young journalist cutting my teeth on obscure trade journals, a major highlight of my week was getting hold of the latest copy of The Economist. Sneaking into a quiet corner of the library, I’d dine alone for hours on the paper’s menu of succulent news bytes, flavoursome features and zesty opinion pieces.
Each week, The Economist gave a stunning view of a world in flux. But it wasn’t just its content that enthralled me. I was equally enchanted by the majesty of the paper’s prose, which had a power and beauty rarely seen in business or academic writing. I envied the journalists capable of producing such dazzling copy to a weekly deadline, and I longed to know their secrets.
An opportunity came when I managed to persuade an editor at The Economist to let me write an article for the paper. The experience was both humbling and illuminating. Observing how a first-class wordsmith engineered copy to read so handsomely, I gained a rare insight into how pristine prose was manufactured at the Aston Martin of Britain’s newspapers.
The stars seemed to align when I was offered a job on one of The Economist’s sister titles, a monthly magazine called CFO Europe that was aimed at finance directors of multinational companies. My role there, as a features writer, gave me the chance to sit among a team of highly accomplished journalists—including a former editor at The Economist.
After only a few months at CFO Europe, I’d been introduced to a raft of new writing tricks and strategies, and I found that I was finally beginning to display some of the journalistic flair I’d been so desperate to cultivate.
My break into mainstream media didn’t occur until some years later, when Bloomberg News hired me as a stock market reporter in Sydney, a role that drove me up another steep learning curve.
As Bloomberg readers were mainly investors whose fortunes depended on getting a fast and reliable read on markets, the newswire’s editorial standards were among the most stringent of any media company I’d worked for. And because of the high stakes involved, Bloomberg was run similar to a military outfit, where the utmost clarity and brevity were demanded of journalists and lapses in accuracy or news judgement rarely went unpunished.
Bloomberg editors scrutinise every word and punctuation mark in a reporter’s copy to make sure it is both necessary and meaningful. With such strict editorial oversight, it was impossible for a reporter to get away, for instance, with describing a company as market leading, without also supplying evidence of its dominance within a particular country or industry.
As a Bloomberg journalist, I wasn’t even allowed to say something so innocuous as that Australia was experiencing a heatwave, without authoritative sources, such as the bureau of meteorology, to back it up. Bloomberg’s style guide goes as far as to forbid the use of the word “but” in stories—because of its subtle negative connotations.
In a Bloomberg editor’s hands, a seemingly innocent sentence like, “The prime minister said the economy was performing well, but a report the same day showed unemployment had risen,” would have to be rewritten to read, less skeptically, “The prime minister said the economy was performing well. A report the same day showed unemployment had risen.” Though somewhat less graceful, the formulation technically speaking was more accurate.
I almost tore my hair out trying to abide by Bloomberg’s journalistic edicts. Still, I was grateful for the style guide’s annoying pedantry, because it led to my writing becoming progressively better, and it wasn’t too long before other mainstream news outfits began to notice. One day, I awoke to find the head of Australia’s Wall Street Journal bureau dangling a full-time editor position before me.
Having long admired the US business paper’s elegant and evocative writing style, I eventually accepted the offer. Editing the copy of the Journal’s distinguished reporters, I figured, would help me grow much faster as a writer. It sure did. In fact, my wordsmithing skills never advanced as much as when I was forced to view objectively the writing of others.
After a couple of years at the Journal, my bosses in Hong Kong asked if I’d be interested in training the paper’s reporters and editors across Asia. I jumped at the opportunity to teach my colleagues all I’d learned about quality journalistic writing. But I also faced a challenge. Though I knew that I wrote and edited pretty well, I did so mainly instinctively. If I was going to teach others how to write more delightfully, I first needed to become fully conscious of my own writing process.
My strategy, then, was to keep a record of the changes I routinely made to stories, so that I could present them later in classes. I’d show my colleagues, for instance, that I’d removed certain words from a sentence in order to make the writing more punchy; that I’d changed its structure to improve its rhythm; or that I’d moved a paragraph higher to make the text flow better.
The trouble was that my list of edits soon became unwieldy. It would be time-consuming, not to mention boring, for colleagues to have to wade through hundreds of revisions—including in stories they themselves hadn’t written.
As I contemplated this challenge in a mood of rising despair, I had something of a Eureka moment. Scrolling through my swelling library of edits, I observed an intriguing pattern hidden in the data. I noticed that regardless of how long I spent editing a reporter’s story—anything from a few minutes to several days—I only ever seemed to make four types of changes.
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I MADE THE WRITING MORE SIMPLE
A reporter’s copy would occasionally be slow and heavy, where reading it felt a bit like wading through quicksand. Therefore, to make the story faster and punchier, I’d simplify the writing in several ways. For instance, I might strike out redundant words, rewrite needlessly convoluted sentences and replace stuffy words—such as “commence,” “occupation” and “utilise”—with more breezy, casual expressions such as “start,” “job” and “use,” which instantly made the writing feel less sluggish. The act of simplifying a reporter’s copy almost always led to lighter, airier prose that flew off the page rather than sinking to the floor.
I MADE THE WRITING MORE CLEAR
With few exceptions, good writing is abundantly clear, which is to say that its meaning shines through brilliantly. As an editor, though, I’d sometimes encounter vague, abstract, imprecise or incoherent sentences which, if allowed to remain, would leave our readers feeling baffled or uncertain. If bad grammar wasn’t to blame, the problem often was lazy writing, where the author simply hadn’t taken the trouble to deliver their meaning crisply. Ambiguous sentences of the type, “James challenged Mike to a fight to test his strength,” were surprisingly common. So too was hazy terminology—such as “stakeholders,” “medium-term” and “value-added services”—that were harder to picture than, say, “staff and customers,” “in the next five years” and “24-hour technical support.”
I MADE THE WRITING MORE ELEGANT
Writing may be simple and clear enough, and yet still read badly because it lacks elegance—or doesn’t flow well. Inelegant prose has two main causes: bad organisation and poor rhythm. An amateur writer dumps ideas onto a page in no special order and is happy to rely on the information alone to give value. An elite writer weaves an elegant narrative, packaging points neatly into gracefully flowing sections. A good writer, too, is sensitive to the “music” of their prose and strives to create a better rhythm by tweaking the length and structure of sentences, and by manipulating the subtle stops, starts and pauses inherent in commas, semicolons, dashes and periods.
I MADE THE WRITING MORE EVOCATIVE
Evocativeness is the quality that gives writing its spark—which is why any book, article, essay or email that ignores this vital component tends to be boring. As an editor, I discovered many ways to make a reporter’s article more stimulating. I’d shun, for instance, tired cliches such as “innovative service provider” and “think outside the box.” I’d limit the use of dreary passive sentences, like, “The teacher was asked by the caretaker to hand over keys.” And I’d turn weary sentences—such as, “The authorities took strong measures to address the disorderly conduct of citizens assembled at last night’s violent protest”—into more intense, colourful passages like, “Mounted officers and police dogs battled into the night to contain dozens of angry, bottle-wielding protesters.”
* * * *
That day, I felt I had uncovered the matrix that lies behind all truly great nonfiction writing. In other words, I’d finally understood that simplicity, clarity, elegance and evocativeness were really the fundamental design concepts that made it possible to produce beautiful writing—just as the categories of light, space, colour and object enable an interior decorator to design beautiful rooms, and in the same way that the abstract ideas of pitch, tempo, melody and rhythm empower a composer to craft beautiful music. Whether the best writers applied the four properties of exceptional writing consciously or not didn’t really matter. It was clear to me that this was, indeed, the secret structure of all superior nonfiction writing.
Once you saw it, you could not unsee it—in your own or others’ writing. As an experiment, just try to thinking back to any piece of writing you really enjoyed reading in the past. I’m sure that, on reflection, you’ll find it was simple, clear, elegant and evocative in abundance. Or if it lacked any one of those qualities, I’m more or less certain it was because it had been deliberately sacrificed for one of the others.
Now that I had cracked the hidden code of standout writing, I could go ahead confidently and teach my colleagues how to write better. All I had to do was reveal to them each and every possible tactic for making a piece of writing optimally simple, clear, elegant and evocative. It wasn’t long, though, before the full implications of my discovery dawned on me. In possession of this mighty formula, not only would I be able to quickly turn fellow journalists into exceptional writers. I could do the same for millions of book, blog and business writers everywhere.