When I was a journalist, I was always on the lookout for ways to become a better writer.
Since I write posts a lot more now, I’ve been on the lookout again.
Yesterday, I saw the best tip I’ve seen in a while about how to write better stories.
The older I get, the more I write, the more I realize: It's all about structure. Every story is a piece of engineering that either stands or collapses because of how it's made.— Chris Jones (@EnswellJones) June 11, 2020
I’ve mentioned former Esquire and current screen writer Chris Jones on this blog several times because he wrote The Things That Carried Him.
If someone were to take the time to put together a list of the best feature stories of all time, I don’t think it would be complete without Jones’ piece about Sgt. Joe Montgomery’s journey home from war.
The structure is one reason why.
It is unique because it starts at the end of the story and goes backward in time toward what you might consider the start.
The details are driven home like nails into the structure, which is why the story stands as one of the best I’ve read.
Details put readers in the middle of your story.
They paint mental pictures of the people and places you introduce to your readers.
When I decided to try to write my first serious fiction story, I used Google for tips.
The best one was three words from noted author Jerry Jenkins.
The above link is a page on Jenkins’ website about how to show things in stories.
When I read it, I scrapped my story.
I rewrote it with Jenkins’ advice and compared both versions.
It was night and day.
Details can cause a problem, though, especially for journalists who write for newspapers.
Most of my stories caused problems for page designers who laid the pages out in the way they look to readers.
My stories were long because of details. When I wrote feature stories, they were borderline longreads.
There wasn’t space in the paper for lengthy stories most of the time, which meant most of my features and other articles had to be cut to fit the space available.
Magazines, blogs or other content on websites might be more affected by the time people have to read stories.
I learned to write shorter stories more often after I found All of 100, which is a website full of 100-word posts.
I wrote 100 words, no more and no less, for a while.
The practice helped me cut unnecessary words, which made my stories fit space better and made them cleaner.
Editors can make or break a writer, and I was fortunate to be taught by great ones.
They took time to read my stories with me, mark mistakes, tell me why they were mistakes and make sure I knew how to fix them.
One thing I learned was how little “that” is needed.
The next two sentences are correct, but read them aloud and see which one sounds better to you.
1. She learned that she could write well.
2. She learned she could write well.
One of my editors cut “that” almost every time I wrote it, and I realized I didn’t need it 99 percent of the time.
Unnecessary words add up, and when you remove them final edits are easier.
I don’t edit these posts much, and sometimes I find mistakes to fix after publication.
This one probably has some, but I try to edit these post as they’re written.
I’ve made a bunch of changes to this one.
I still write by sound, because it helped me so much as a journalist.
If I was careful to use advice from editors, and I wrote by sound, I made less mistakes.
Use your voice
When I “write by sound,” I read a sentence in my head.
If a word “sounds” wrong, I pick another one.
I stick to journalism rules for the most part, but I also try to write like I talk when it’s possible.
It’s easier since I’m not a professional writer whose job it is to report only facts.
I can write my opinion, which a good journalist shouldn’t do except in opinion columns.
Most journalists I know hate to write columns.
I enjoyed them, because they were an opportunity to use my voice.
I don’t think my opinion matters more than anybody’s, but I think it’s important readers sometimes see glimpses of humanity, personality and style.
When you show readers glimpses of your personality, I think you become more relatable to them.
They get to know you and your voice through your words.
Use resources and read
Your voice is your own, but you can develop it more when you listen to others.
I was blessed with great coworkers in the media, and everybody in the newsroom helped me be better.
They all had ideas, and I thought it’d be stupid not to learn from them.
Another way I learned was to read.
I believe you can’t write to your potential if you don’t read.
I read all I see from Chris Jones, Wright Thompson (who wrote a great story about a bull) and other writers.
I read the way they phrase things, the way they use details and the way they structure stories.
They write better than me.
If I read their words and learn another way to become a better writer, I’ve met my goal.
This post is a response to Sue’s prompt, which is “tip.”