free resources about magazine writing and magazine
have taught magazine journalism at Ball State
University since 1990, where I am Professor of
Journalism and coordinator of the magazine journalism
major. Click on
About My Books (left)
for detailed information about books I've written about
magazine writing and American magazines.
is the Soul of Wit
“Since brevity is the soul of wit,
and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will
be brief,” said Polonius in Shakespeare’s famous play
This oft-repeated phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit”
means that articulate and intelligent speech and writing
should use few, but wisely chosen words.
Most lawyers and historians can write
reasonably well, but few of them are masters of brevity
Why is brevity important for journalists? I don’t
know where to begin to answer this question because the
answers are so numerous.
Here are seven good ones:
writing makes readers work harder
more time to read.
and tunes out your readers.
a lack of appreciation for the reader’s time.
● reveals laziness on the part of the writer.
● has a
high unemployment rate—too many of your words don’t have
a real job.
● shows a
lack of vocabulary for the precise word you should use.
Wordy writing makes readers feel like
they are following a slow-poke driver on a no-passing
highway. It annoys and frustrates them. Good writers
know how to choose words that express precisely what
they intend to say and no more.
Good writers respect their readers.
Here are some of my tips.
Every tip could use two minutes of explanation
and examples, but I don’t want to be wordy.
● Leave your opinions and observations out. Just the
● Use lots of nouns and
the adverbs and flowery language.
● Avoid if possible the
“helping verbs” like is, was, had, should, been, etc.
verbs in present or past tense.
● Avoid beginning a
sentence with these phrases: “it is,” “it was,” “it will
was,” “there will be” and similar dead constructions.
like “should have,” “could have,” or “would have” if
● Make sure every word
has a job —a job it shares with no other word.
● Create brevity by
eliminating one word at a time.
You don’t have to delete whole
● Proofread your article
ten times and eliminate ten words each time.
● Think like an editor
and ask yourself: “What does the reader need to know?”
reader miss anything if I delete this sentence?”
“Does this sentence repeat any idea
from another sentence?” “Will this sentence bore the
● Make every
sentence a zinger and not a slow-poke.
Now, these 485 words I've written
contain zero percent passive and 100 percent active
voice verbs. They contain 19 distinct ideas, which means
it takes no more than one sentence to express one idea.
That’s like a car that gets 45 miles to the
gallon—it’s highly efficient and economical writing.
Create stories that get 45 mpg and not 10 mpg—don’t
create word guzzlers.
Here are a few more tips:
To bring your voice and authenticity to
your writing, write in a conversational style like you
were telling this story to a friend over a meal. Trust
your instincts and write exactly what you see, hear and
feel. You can express your interpretation of
events in magazine stories, but be subtle and use common
Great magazine leads - I
talked to students about what makes a great lead. To
prepare for class, I spent about two hours looking
through about 20 magazines and read at least 100 leads.
Putting a person in
the lead was the prevailing principle.
About 80 percent of those leads described a person in
some way--either a full-blown anecdote, a narrative, a
scenario, a quote, or description of some kind.
People want to read about people. People hunger
for human contact even in their magazine articles.
And if people are doing something or expressing emotion
in those leads, it's even more attention-getting and
Reports versus stories.
A report conveys information to the reader. A
story conveys an emotional experience to the reader.
Newspapers give their readers reports. Magazines
give their readers experiences. Stories tell about
people doing interesting things, fighting, making up,
getting angry, laughing, failing, succeeding, crying,
and caring for one another. Stories that make the
biggest impact on me engage my emotions and not just my
brain. A special thanks to Roy Peter Clark's book,
Writing Tools, for giving me this concept.
Last update: Dec. 15, 2012