Ask the Editor: How can I be a better writer?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: Ask the Editor.

But before we get to it: We’ll do Ask the Listener.

We are doing a listener survey. We want to know a little more about how often you listen, what in particular you like best (and least), how you listen, where you listen, whether our transcript site,, is valuable. Things like that.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s just 20 questions. We designed it so it’d take just 5-to-10 minutes of your time. If you visit, we’ll put a link to the survey there.

EICHER: We just want to make sure we’re serving you the best we can. Looking for ways to improve and it always pays just to ask. is the place to go to find a link to our listener survey. And thanks!

REICHARD: You know, a little-known factoid about putting together a program like this: every minute you hear on air? About two hours of labor is behind each of those minutes. You’ve got the writing, the editing, the voicing, the pre-production, the  post-production. It takes time, it takes people. All on a deadline.

EICHER: And sometimes we make flubs and have to do over.


EICHER: But the basis of all of it is the writing. Here’s WORLD Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky on how to do that better.

REICHARD: We’d better pay attention.

MARVIN OLASKY, EDITOR IN CHIEF: We often get questions that boil down to this: How can I be a better writer?

I’ve been teaching writing for most of my career, both at the University of Texas and through our World Journalism Institute. Along the way I’ve developed a few tips.

So here goes:

Many of you don’t know that we fought the American Revolution for one primary reason. To move periods— and commas—from outside the quotation mark, where those Brits place them, to inside the quotation marks.

And while we are picking on the British, here’s another problem. They have an inordinate love of the word which.

So every good American must go on a which hunt. Listen to this sentence: “ I like shirts which are blue.” That’s wrong! It should be “I like shirts that are blue.” You use that when you are describing something that’s essential to the sentence.

The only remedy for such errors is a which hunt. Get out that red pen and be ruthless.

And while we’re talking about red pens and ruthlessness, ferret out the Passive Voice. Don’t say, the room was messed up. Who messed it up? If you don’t know, find out.

And don’t start your sentences with the tired phrases —there are— or— there were. When you see a sentence like —There were 10 in the bed—you should rework it. Ten monkeys slept in the bed. Ten boys piled into the bed. Ten crocodiles snorted in the bed. All those sentences have more energy than —There were 10 in the bed.

And while we’re talking about energetic prose, let’s think about punctuation. Sentences with periods are energetic. But semi-colons are dithery. Should I have a full stop? Or should I just pause? A semi-colon is not quite a period or a comma. There’s only one solution: A semi-colonoscopy. It sounds extreme—but it’s the only cure.

Here’s a basic rule: Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. As Mark Twain said, “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.”

And, remember this: No one has to read what we write. Every word has to sell the next word. Every sentence the next sentence. Every paragraph the next paragraph. Keep it moving. A cluttered sentence is a cockroach. Squish it.

That means getting rid of extra words and phrases. Clutter like “First and foremost” or “in point of fact”—all that is unnecessary. Remember that “unique” means one of a kind. Something cannot be “more unique” or uniquest or uniquer.  

I hope you’re picking up a theme here. Good writing is re-writing. And re-writing. And re-writing. Editing your own work requires you to kill your darlings. If you don’t, an editor will. When you turn in a mess—why, the editor will wield his red pen with the same gusto that Zorro used with his sword. Except Zorro often smiled as he slashed. Most editors won’t.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Marvin Olasky.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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