My very first day of work as a TV reporter scarred me for life.
I’d landed my big break at Golden West News, a regional television station in Western Australia and was set for a month at the head office to learn the ropes. I was out to impress.
The Editor was a formidable man named John Rudd who was a legend the news industry, the sort of bloke who proves the pen is mightier than the sword. He gave me an easy story to start off with, a very short bit for the newsreader to read about a car crash. Simple enough. I phoned the cops, got the info, dashed out the story and handed it in.
Writing advice I have never forgotten
‘Petal,’ Mr Rudd said, making a joke out of my last name. ‘This story is full of bloody police speak. You will write it again.’
I took it back and had another crack. ‘Again Petal,’ he said, handing it back. Then again. Then again and again until he finally let it go through.
After the news bulletin went to air he pulled me aside and gave me some advice I have never forgotten.
Over many years working as a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, Al Jazeera and Sky News I produced countless articles and scripts and headlines and with every push of every key I had John Rudd’s voice in my head.
Write twice, publish once
Having a second go is crucial if you want your writing to improve.
It doesn’t mean you have to change everything or hit delete and start again with a blank screen. But casting a critical eye over your work should be as standard a part of your writing process as punctuation is. There is little place for ego.
Before you publish anything you should go through a check list of actions to make sure you are submitting the very best piece of writing you can produce.
Here’s my personal writing hit list:
1. Read it out loud
I formed this habit in TV news where just about everything written is meant to be spoken aloud. I’ve found it works well for any medium though; you will be surprised at how many spelling or grammatical mistakes you can catch. This technique also allows you to test the flow of your writing and see if there are any confusing or clumsy areas that can be cleaned up. And don’t be embarrassed; it’s better to risk looking like a fool while you read out loud than get slaughtered in the comments section.
2. Kill your darlings
Terrible as this one sounds it’s completely necessary. Kill your darlings means you must consider everything that you’ve written to be fair game for the delete button. Even that joke you think is so brilliant. Ernest Hemingway once said ‘write drunk, edit sober.’ On your first draft write with a free heart and hand and express yourself to the fullest. But on the second pass, transform yourself into a ruthless weeder and get rid of every line or word or paragraph that doesn’t work and replace them with something better.
3. Double and triple check the facts
Then check them again. I once got raked over the coals at the ABC for getting some facts wrong in a story. It was the lowest point of my professional career and it came because I failed to check my facts. After that I checked everything I wrote three or four times over and never failed like that again. Facts are sacred and cannot be forsaken.
Even if you are writing about a topic you know back to front it pays to check yourself. A decimal point out of place or a wrong date can ruin your post and maybe even your reputation. Don’t risk it.
4. Get someone else to have a look
It is a weird fact of writing that you will never see all of your own mistakes. They are right in front of you, yet your eyes will never catch them all. But a fresh pair of eyes will find things you never even dreamed were there and offer fresh insight into how to improve the piece. Every good writer needs an even better editor. It’s true in news, movies and books and it’s true with blogs. Give your piece to a friend or your partner or a co-worker and tell them to be brutal with it.
So that’s the torture routine I put myself through before I publish. Even this article had to go through that particular process. I read it aloud and rewrote several sections that didn’t flow. I killed my darlings by cutting a paragraph on how news stories are edited because it distracted from the point being made. I even checked if I had spelled John Rudd’s name correctly; is it with an h or without?
Whatever you write, always rewrite.