Weekly Writing Tips: Using Your Words Wisely

The Weekly Writing Tips are a collection of best practices for writing and reporting at Global Voices. August's tips are brought to you by Janine Mendes-Franco, regional editor for the Caribbean.

Hi GV-ers,

This is Janine Mendes-Franco, GV’s regional editor for the Caribbean, with your Weekly Writing Tips for August!

Prior to my joining GV as an author all the way back in 2006, Georgia, now our Managing Editor, encouraged me to start a blog. She thought it was a useful tool through which writers could hone their skills – and she was right. (She usually is, but don’t tell her I said so.) In this first installment, I’d like to talk about a few points that I find helpful when drafting GV posts…

Be concise

Our audience is pulled in lots of different directions and they only have a certain amount of available time to invest – so use your words wisely. Get the point quickly and stay on point. Ask yourself, “What is the post about?” Make sure every word, sentence and paragraph can be tied back to the focus of the story, even though they may reveal different things about it.

I’m sure most of you have heard of the super-short “novel” that was attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. A friend of mine issued a similar challenge on Facebook recently: Write the saddest story you can in four words. Her contribution: I wish I had. Another person wrote, referring to the date of Trinidad and Tobago’s upcoming general elections and the widespread dissatisfaction with the current administration: September 7th isn’t tomorrow. It can be fun to challenge yourself to write just what is necessary to tell the story well.

Use the active voice

One of the regional blogs I follow (out of Jamaica) is called Active Voice. I always thought it was a great name, and not just because it’s a useful rule of writing. “The president resigned” will always read better than “The resignation was issued by the president”, but I think using the active voice also reminds us of GV’s advocacy mission – we are all, even in some small way, activists. Our writing should attract attention, inspire change, or at the very least, get our audience to consider something from a different point of view. The active voice can also be used to great effect as a stylistic tool – check out Georgia’s completely engaging Bridge post, How To Miss A Coup d’Etat.

Do what you do well

Our GV Mission says that “we work to find the most compelling and important stories coming from marginalized and misrepresented communities”. When GV began, a lot of that effort was focused on curating those stories – now, we try to paint a picture, provide context and explain them in ways that curious global audiences can grasp. I love going to our site’s main page, clicking on interesting posts from around the world and understanding the issues in a way I may not from reading other news sites. GV authors do this when we tell stories from a unique point of view, offer new information or a fresh perspective or simply explain things in a way that no-one else is doing. It’s a great idea to read other authors’ work, because we all have different writing styles and can learn from one another. I always find myself immersed in the stories that Chris Rickleton writes, for instance – he has a way of drawing you in so that you feel you’re right there in the middle of the action. Which stories do you like to read? What can you learn from your colleagues’ writing styles?

Pay attention to the headline and excerpt

Ad man David Ogilvy once said, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” He was referring to print ads, but I think the principle still holds – if the headline is interesting enough, we’re that much closer to making the sale. If the excerpt summarises the brand properties (i.e. what you’re going to get when you read the post) in a catchy way, readers are probably going to click on the permalink. And if the opening paragraph is attention-grabbing and further piques their curiosity, we’ll have readers spending time on a post that interests them. Some quick suggestions…

For headlines:

For excerpts:

  • Quotations will sometimes do the trick. In this post, Lauren suggested I quote the interviewee in the excerpt: “Only 1 in 50 Haitian children with disabilities attend school. This is a tremendous setback both for the children who stay home and for the parents…”
  • Mix all the story ingredients together, like in this post by Winston Olsen: “A Bad rapper, a toddler conductor, a horse-loving President, football’s most violent team and a man whose name is not Jimmy.” Who wouldn’t want to read more?
  • Embrace juxtapositions, ironies and the like. Kevin Rothrock is really great at this. Check out his post, “The Beauty of Russian Homophobia” – the excerpt reads: “Titled ‘Beautiful People and What They Say to Me’, LGBT rights activist Lena Klimova posted photos of individuals in their everyday lives, and the threatening messages they’ve sent her online.”
  • Ask a question, like Oiwan Lam did in this post: “Can a protester really assault a policeman with her breasts?” I really want to find out the answer.
  • Summarise what the post is about, but do it in an interesting or amusing way. In this post by Tetyana Lokot, she writes: “Young Russian Communists want to make Lenin hip again – so they’re proposing a flashmob campaign that involves taking selfies with Lenin statues.”

Enjoy the rest of your week!

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