Five Lessons From BU

Thanks for all the help, BU! I leave a far better writer than when I entered.

Grad school’s done. I’ve written all my papers, and my “thesis” sits on my advisor’s desk – likely never to be read.

One grade remains unentered, but I already count it as my 10th “A” in 13 classes.

So what did I learn? Here are five lessons Boston University taught me about writing.

A good story raises questions

My favorite story written for BU was about the Berklee College of Music club hockey team. Boston.com published it, which was tremendously satisfying. But the reaction of my friends when they heard my topic satisfied me even more.

My first two stories written for Advanced Journalism Seminar – a course many disliked because of pain-in-the-ass professor Nick Mills, but I loved because of the freedom in choosing stories – didn’t strike a chord with anyone. My Ultimate story helped me develop the vocabulary with which I’d approach the unbelievably four Ultimate stories I’d write for Somerville Patch. The concussion story gave a local (Brookline) angle to a national issue – a tried and true strategy in journalism. But people reacted to those stories with a muted “Oh. Cool.”

But every time I mentioned the Berklee story, people said, “Berklee has a sports team?” Or, “how did you find out about this?” Those are the questions journalists love. They mean the story is something completely new.

I love new stories. And when you get asked questions like that, you know you’ve found another one.

Two short sentences usually beat one long one

The biggest difference between other semi-professional writers I know and me is their preference for longer sentences. You learn in college that long, multifaceted sentences are useful: A professor can’t read each of 30 essays verbatim, so he scans your essay, sees that you know your shit, and gives you an “A” without much scrutiny.

Journalists can’t hide behind such deception. Our readers aren’t experts, and they start out wanting to give the article their full attention. When they read a complicated sentence, they won’t assume you know what you’re talking – they’ll decide you don’t know how to write.

So give a reader two sentences. Let the period stop the thought like it’s supposed to. Give the reader a moment to digest one idea, then introduce the next.

Instead of showing how smart you are, you’ll actually teach something. Your readers will thank you for it.

Always choose the active voice

Too many writers think the end of the sentence matters most, so they write passively, putting their subject there and overusing the verb “to be.” The end of a sentence better might have impact, but active, forward-moving verbs evoke a more vivid image overall. And journalists should concern themselves most with the sentence’s overall imagery.

Journalists use articles the way painters use canvases, using smaller elements to evoke an overall concept. Subjects matter, giving readers the who, the what, the where and the when. But verbs matter too, giving the how and often the why.

Which is more vivid: “the officer was stabbed three times by the robber before fleeing the scene,” or “the robber stabbed the officer three times and fled the scene?”

Give your sentences punch. Make them spring to life. Use the active tense.

Tell your story honestly

Anything you write will inevitably piss someone off. The bigger you get, the more some your readers will take umbrage at your words. The Internet gives the angry a voice.

If someone takes the time to yell at you, it means that person first took the time to read you. Every negative comment you’ll ever get is from a fan, whether that person knows it or not.

Never worry about the response – worry about the subjects. Worry about misrepresenting them. Worry about getting a quote wrong, or taking it so out of context you change the meaning.

Your readers will never write as well as you can, and they’ll try to tear you down for lack of another option. But you’ll need to work with the same sources – coaches, media relations and administrative people, athletes, etc. – over and over again.

As long as your criticsm is honest, your sources won’t tune you out. You might not make friends, but you don’t need them – you need professional contacts. And you build those by writing honestly about them.

Edit mercilessly

Every sentence I write, I scrutinize one, twice, even three times. I put my writing through a fine sieve, trying to cut every extraneous word, catch every confusing sentence. I’m not an expert, but I write with clarity as my second priority behind narrative.

When DigBoston published an editorial I wrote, the print editor told me editing it for size was a tremendous pain. I had already edited the article so well that further trimming was nearly impossible. “Every word was perfect,” he said.

I’m not arrogant enough to think that or any other column of mine is “perfect.” But when I write, I block out a large chunk of time for merciless editing. The results have only been positive.

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