5 writing truisms you never learned in college

It’s unlikely your English professor shared this advice with you. Hint: Incomplete sentences are in; snark is not.


If anyone ever tells you it’s easy to string beautiful sentences together, he’s a big, fat liar.

Don’t listen to him.

I do, however, have friends in the writing community who bemoan the ease with which new-media “pros” took over the airwaves. They make writing look and sound easy.

Minus formal literary or journalistic training—or a solid grasp of sentence structure—they churn out blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages like mindless monsters with nothing and everything to say. Some get traffic, but most don’t.

As the medium continues to adjust to the message (apologies to Marshall McLuhan), writers with English or Journalism degrees still, even after all this time, need to adapt to a range of platforms.

Does it mean we surrender a bit of our literary souls? Nah. It simply allows us to tell another story in a different way. Some stories have become high art in 140 characters.

They never told us these truisms as undergrads:

1. It’s sometimes fashionable to use incomplete sentences. Sometimes is the key word, here. Just remember to write for your audience. If you look at writing today, you’ll notice incomplete phrases are sometimes preferred—especially if you want to evoke trendiness.

2. You must weigh 140 characters like a baby at birth. Weigh them slowly, carefully and lovingly. Just make sure you wash your hands.

3. If you can’t paint a picture with words, use an image. Use a picture that’s big, colorful and evocative of things that remind us of summer nights alongside swimming holes with Labrador retrievers and cute bathing suits. (Use Pinterest and other sites.)

4. Snark isn’t a virtue. It simply doesn’t work in new media unless you’re Perez Hilton. There are better opportunities to be on-point and genuine. Enrich your audience with solid information.

5. Tailor each story. To scan the content of a story is to love it, so tailor each piece as if it were in a good New York deli. This concept is anathema to good storytelling, but the reality is the Web has trained us to walk into a virtual shop, look for what we want—pastrami, prosciutto, turkey breast—”buy” that information, and move on quickly.

Is it easy to write for today’s media? Probably. Just look at the miles of drivel out there with no audience.

Perhaps this is the better question to ask: Is it easy to successfully write today? I’m afraid not, and a new set of rules apply if you want to earn an audience.

As those rules continue to evolve and cover everything from headlines to effective story length, we’ll learn what we’ve known all along: Good stories will rule forever and ever, amen.

And they’ll never be easy to tell.

Michael McCarthy is the editor-in-chief and content director of Washington Flyer. A version of this article originally appeared on Engage.

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