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Why good writers have a mountain to climb

Good writing comes in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few bases that should always be covered. Here, Mike Sassi, editor of the Lincolnshire Echo, takes a back-to-basics look at what make a good writer…

Would you be interested in reading about a woman who has just climbed Everest?

You might. But you would probably be more gripped by a story about a local school dinner lady, with five children and a wooden leg, who scaled the world’s biggest mountain during her half-term holiday.

Particularly if you knew she took the kids with her!

Which illustrates the most important attribute of all good writing: It paints a vivid picture.

Good writing comes in all shapes and sizes.

The majority of newspaper journalists are news reporters. The quality of their stories is defined by the thoroughness of their research as much as the clarity of their prose.

Cub reporters are taught that every piece they write should answer the questions; Who? What? Why? When? and Where?

For anyone attempting to write well, the five Ws are a good place to start.

They are the difference between a good newspaper article and, say, a council press release or public relations newsletter.

A good news story will use comprehensive answers to the five W questions to paint its picture.

Comment columnists and feature writers may fill their pieces with brilliant descriptions and potent arguments. The news reporter will use short sentences and simple language to put across the most interesting facts.

They can all be equally good writers.

Another definition of good writing says that every story should tell the reader something they don’t already know.

Accomplished commentators, like Boris Johnson or Richard Littlejohn, regularly produce fresh and original copy for events which are already the subject of thousands of column inches across dozens of newspapers and magazines.

Other writers inspire their readers by offering stories that are different.

It is the ambition of every good journalist – whether they be news reporter, sports reporter or feature writer – to see his or her byline on a great scoop.

The theory is that more readers will be interested in an exclusive story.

In recent years the explosion of the Internet and other electronic publishing means that there are fewer and fewer genuine exclusives.

What’s more, the good reputation of the Exclusive byline has been tarnished by its overuse, particularly on the sports pages of the national tabloids.

When Newcastle centre forward Alan Shearer announced recently that he would postpone his retirement it made the back page of almost every national newspaper. Yet more than one of them labelled it as their exclusive.

Ironically, the story first appeared days earlier in a local paper!

But it isn’t only big national stories that use new or orginial facts to hold a reader’s attention.

In a local newspaper a well-written article may reveal details (Who? What? Why? When? Where?) of a planned new road or leisure centre.

On a features page it might tell the story of a young mum who has lost her first child, or of an old soldier returning to the scene of a battle.

Whatever the case, the principle is sound. Much good writing, tells a tale which has never been told.

Good writers must, therefore, have something worthwhile to write about. But they must also be able to turn their ideas into prose.

There are a number of rules to follow. The best are obvious.

A well-written piece will limit itself to one idea per sentence. Endless lists or sub-clauses confuse readers.

If the new leisure centre has a pool, steam room, sauna, basketball court, climbing wall and creche… a good writer will not try to get them all into the same introduction. He or she will prioritise.

Sentences should also be dynamic, rather than passive. It is always most concise to write that police arrested the council leader.

If the council leader was arrested by police then valuable words have been wasted – and the sentence would have been dulled.

Keeping the language simple is advisable. The council chamber has seating accommodation for more than 300 elected members, local authority officers and members of the public. However, it is better to say: The council chamber seats 300.

Being positive also helps. The council leader has decided that he will not be remaining in office for the duration of his elected term. But everyone knows: The council leader has resigned.

Finally, the good writer will recognise and avoid the gobbledegook that has seeped into our language through official channels.

He or she will know that a spade is always a spade and never an implement of manual production.

At one time poor people were poor. Since then civil servants have decided that people are actually needy, deprived, underprivileged, or even (God help us(!)) disadvantaged. We should realise, however, that back in the real world poor people are still just… poor!

So, the best written article or feature will grab and hold your attention like a fabulous painting or striking photograph. It may be full of witty turns of phrase or impressive arguments. But it will certainly have something to say.

And it will always say it clearly.