CLARITY: Good writing is clear writing. Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Just tell the story, quickly, in straightforward, conversational language, one clear phrase at a time. Wilson Follett, in Modern American Usage, summarizes the secret of good writing: "No one should ever be called upon to read a sentence twice because of the way it is constructed." Columnist James J. Kilpatrick says: "An author functions as a kind of forest ranger. His duty is to guide a reader along an unfamiliar trail. The pleasure of the hike depends to a large extent on how often the reader stumbles. If the reader keeps tripping over strange words, or bumping his head on overhanging clauses, or stubbing his toe on concealed antecedents, the reader tends to give up. The hell with this, he says, and he turns to something else."

TARGET: Write for the reader. In fact, try to imagine a reader in your mind's eye: perhaps the next door neighbor or the guy behind the convenience-store counter or your grandmother. Will your story engage and inform that reader?

VOICE: Use the appropriate style of writing. With a "hard" news story, keep it serious, punchy. With a feature, use a breezy approach; it's your chance to be clever.

DESCRIPTION: Good reporting is the key. Be a careful observer. Record in your notebook what you see, hear, smell and feel. Be specific; don't miss details ("a white shirt with tattered cuffs"). Record more than you will ever use. Vivid stories require keen observation. One trick: Keep a journal. When you see something interesting, note it and write it down when you get home. Build the habits of a trained observer.

CHECKLIST: Develop a checklist for good writing, keep it handy and refer to it often. Start with a dozen points. When you master one, replace it with another. Here's a sample to get you started:

  • Sweat the lead.
  • Show, don't tell.
  • Insert a memorable quote high in the story.
  • Try to keep one idea to one sentence.
  • Use the active voice as often as possible.
  • Keep subjects close to verbs, and modifiers close to the words they modify.
  • Choose a short word over a long word when no meaning is lost.
  • When using quotes, make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Beware of foggy antecedents.
  • Avoid "ize" words.
  • Tighten writing by making clauses into phrases and phrases into words.
  • Use sentence structure to emphasize what is important.