Keep it simple, sunshine

Back to the notebook


My day job involves editing articles written by highly intelligent people for a professional magazine. The topics are often fascinating and can be complicated, with lots of explanation needed. But simple explanation is hard to do.

Many people think that verbosity demonstrates the lofty intellectual plane on which they exist. Lengthy, multi-clause sentences with dangling participles, rotund phrases and arcane language unroll across the page, losing meaning as they go. It makes the articles jolly hard to edit, especially when they are over length and require major surgery.

When I was at journalism school, I spent endless afternoons trying to write stories that passed the A-B-C criteria – accurate, brief and clear. Explain it as you would to a friend in the pub, was the usual advice (most journalistic advice involved pubs in those days).

For anyone planning to submit a piece to a journal or magazine, especially if you’re not a professional writer, can I suggest seven basic rules? Whoever edits your piece will love you for following these:

  1. Ask what word count is expected, and keep within spitting distance of it. The chances of you being allocated additional space if you write double the length are slim.
  2. Write in the active tense, unless you have been specifically asked not to This is active tense: ‘The cat sat on the mat’. This is passive tense: ‘The mat was sat upon.’ Passive tense loses information (by whom?) and sounds pompous.
  3. Use simple words, and as few as you need. I’ve just changed the words: ‘higher echelons of the socio-economic spectrum’ to: ‘rich’. Six words saved, which is handy as the article is 500 words over length.
  4. Simple sentences are kinder to the reader than complex sentences. Try reading sentences aloud. If you run out of puff mid-sentence, it’s probably too long. Cut it into digestible chunks – one idea, one sentence.
  5. To denote a quote, use this format. ‘He said: ‘That’s fine’.’ Said is good. Don’t waste your time thinking up alternatives like commented, advised, noted, explained, revealed. Especially not revealed.
  6. Before you submit the piece, re-read the brief from the editor. Have you actually covered what you were asked to write about? Or did you get side-tracked by a fascinating thought that occured to you half-way through? The closer that your article is to the brief, the better the chances it will be published.
  7. Remember the aim of the piece is to inform and entertain the reader, not to impress them.

Follow these rules and the editor will bite your arm off for more articles. Remember the old quote: ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.’* Good writing isn’t measured by the yard.

*Original by Blaise Pascal, according to Wikiquotes, although also attributed to Mark Twain, TS Eliot and Cicero. Good company, all.


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