Understanding the chemistry of good writing

‘Keep it short and simple’is the usual formula for teaching writing to journalists. It even works online, but it isn’t enough. Print media are changing.

Competing with instant news, video and audio, links and reader comments, (all combined in a convenient box which requires neither a walk down the road nor a purchase), newspapers are having to carve out a new role which demands far more than good spelling and the ability to write a snappy intro.

The future off-line lies in finding a unique selling point and the one thing the internet doesn’t offer is really good writing. The stuff that makes you cry or laugh out loud and read on just for the way the writer plays with words.

Some newspapers are already moving in this direction. Special sections and Saturday and Sunday magazines proliferate, all demanding well-written profiles and features.

Pieces of several thousand words are no longer unusual, but there has also been a massive growth in the number of short, personal and opinion items, all of them demanding fresh, original writing.

But where will all these brilliant writers come from when the push from the industry is to turn out students who can churn out news copy in three different media? In the scramble for the internet we should be wary of losing the time it takes to teach students to write.

Good writing comes easily to the lucky few and these are probably the people Daniel Finkelstein, comment editor of The Times, had in mind when he said in a recent Press Gazette that journalism is ‘more chemistry than physics”.

I have taught journalism for 12 years and practised it for a great deal longer and I teach the chemistry of feature writing, as well as the physics of news.

In features, a good strong story and unassailable evidence are just the start. You also need a feel for words, a sense of rhythm, an eye for detail and an understanding of storytelling. Students often plunge in, assuming that it will also be easy.

Too often the mixture fails to explode. It may bubble a bit, or just fall flat. It takes time to learn how to turn a story that matters into something that people want to read: from the snappy intro all the way to the end.

I have been practising on them and I have learned that one of the things they need most is to see good writing by great journalists and have it taken apart so that they can understand how it is made. Chemistry after all, is also a science.

I collect examples of really good writing from newspapers and magazines and dissect them so that students can see how, with a few words of sharp observation, someone such as Libby Brooks of The Guardian can light up a story and how George Packer of The New Yorker structures a feature of 10,000 words and how some journalists borrow from detective fiction and make themselves the hero. I knew it was working when a student who had been writing dull but worthy stories told me she finally understood what I meant.

With the help of Gary Younge, Martha Gelhorn, Antony Loyd and me, she demonstrated it, too, with one of the best pieces of undergraduate journalism I have ever read.

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