I know, I know.

“You’re marketers, designers, former television producers, teachers… but journalism?”

Hear us out.

Journalists are some of the best writers and editors in the world, and writers from every discipline should pay attention.

A few years ago, I took an online editing course that changed my life.

The teacher: Shani Raja, a journalist and editor who’s worked with the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, the Financial Times, and Bloomberg News

I was editor-in-chief for a student journal at the time, prepping to coach the junior editors we’d just onboarded. So, in the interest of treating editing as a skill instead of mere intuition (a bad habit I developed in academia), I looked around for resources and stumbled upon Editing Mastery.

More on how that course shattered my worldview down below.

Jester is gearing up to teach a course on social media writing with CEPSM in the fall, and Shani Raja’s courses are one set of resources we’ll be recommending wholeheartedly. After all, there’s only so much we can teach in a day!

In the meantime, whether you work in business, government, marketing, or, well, journalism… (anywhere, really)… 

… if you’re keen on improving your writing and editing skills, read on for some quick hacks we’ve pulled from the world of news and reporting.

1. Writing is Visual

Everyone forgets that reading (and therefore writing) is visual.

You see words, you process words, and THEN your thinking shifts and swirls around the new ideas you’ve taken in.


So how a sentence looks matters. How a paragraph looks matters.

Even in print books, walls of text are jarring and exhausting.

But online, this truth is on hyperdrive, transcendent and all-important.

Journalists (and then bloggers) learned this early and started breaking up long paragraphs into bites of 1 to 3 sentences. Visually and mentally, this does wonders for the reader.

And when editing, you’ll pick up on those terrible sentences you let slip through, hidden between better ideas in long paragraphs. You’ll get a quick sense for what ideas are on topic, what sentences can stand on their own, and what you need to scrap.

So try throwing in some line spaces, using punchier sentences (even sentence fragments if your audience will allow it), and try cut-out or block quotes to emphasize ideas you want to drive home.

If you enjoyed our heuristics post in May, you’ll love Unleash Your Primal Brain by Tim Ash.

The reason I recommend it for this editing hack: visually, this book takes a very innovative approach.

The author uses entertaining block quotes (framed by monkey hands clutching the border) to highlight key ideas, usually a new sentence that feels off-topic. The visual grabs your attention, nudging you awake if the dense neuroscience started to lull you, and these well-placed pivots make the material so much more attention-grabbing and memorable.

See what you think!

2. Cut the Fluff

Journalists are experts at taking complex ideas and translating them into everyday language.

You do this by using simpler terms and cutting out jargon, but you also need to trim points down to their sharpest, most direct expression.

“Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words.” – William Strunk Jr., made famous among writers by E.B White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little)

Never use an adverb when a strong verb will do. And journalists go even further: Never use an adjective when a strong noun will do.

“He ran quickly.” becomes “He sprinted.” or “He dashed.”

“She was incredibly brave in the face of overwhelming danger.” becomes “She was a lion staring death in the eyes without flinching.”

Strong metaphors are a great way to cut down on sentences dense with too many adjectives.

3. Clear Over Clever

Many novice writers stumble over the need to be clever.

Often at the expense of being clear. If your reader can’t understand your point, you’ve lost them. And the more important your point, the greater the offense.

Academics are the greatest offenders here. Some audiences more than others will be willing to spend extra time deciphering your ideas, but the best truths speak for themselves. The best stories tell themselves.

So present the facts as clearly as you can, in a coherent order, filling in the blanks without talking down to your audience.

When editing, make sure every sentence, every idea, can stand on its own. Make your writing crisp and clear, and watch out for vague ideas or double meanings.

4. Persuade or Impress — Pick One

This next hack builds off the last one. You can persuade, or you can impress, but if you set out to do both, you’ll almost surely fail.

Journalists strive to report facts with objectivity and integrity, but every writer has a voice. So while persuading may fall more under the marketer’s umbrella, journalism remains a powerhouse of persuasive writing from which we can all learn.

A huge part of crafting a persuasive voice is adapting tone and language to your audience.

Government and corporate workers often struggle here, because they are so used to writing with the express purpose of complying with policy while impressing superiors. But the moment they need to write for the public, these writers can’t shake the feeling of their boss’s eyes looking over their shoulders. And it shows.

You need to meet your audience where they are, speaking their own language, and while that means dropping the flowery, bureaucratic prose of the cubicle, and might mean a few headshakes from higher up, your results will silence objections.

You won’t always have complete freedom over voice in your writing, but when you do, make sure your ego isn’t barring the real priority: communicating clearly and persuasively with the audience you serve.

5. Get to the Point, Yesterday

“Don’t bury the lead!”

There’s a time and place for building up to a good point, and never underestimate the power of curiosity. A well-placed hint with the promise of later revelations keeps many a reader enthralled in a good book.

But journalists know a good story starts strong and hits hard with the driving facts. Your reader has to know upfront what you’re about and why they should keep reading. 

So, when editing, check the order of your ideas, and make sure your main point is front and center. The exercise of pulling your heavy-hitter ideas to the top will also help you see where you’ve strayed off-topic. And then you can trim the excess or reserve those tangents for future content.

6. Walls, not Hedges

Build walls around your ideas, not hedges.

This next editing hack seems to be the hardest for writers at all levels.

And I just gave you an example. “Hedging” refers to beating around the bush, propping up sentences with hesitant language like “seems to” or “to some extent,” “arguably,” “might be,” suggests,” and so on.

I recently wrote a work of fiction with over 100 instances of the word “seemed” before I went to town on those disaster sentences, so we’re all guilty here.

We do it because we want to protect ourselves, cover our bases, and limit our critics. But hedging makes your writing weak and signals a lack of credibility. 

Be honest and don’t exaggerate, but don’t empty your writing of significance by adding caveats to every sentence. You can often address objections or other possibilities further down in your content, allowing you to state your case clearly while showing you’ve considered alternatives.

Removing “hedge” phrases will force you to be more precise, more clear, and to state exactly what you mean. You’ll sound (and feel) more confident, credible, and persuasive.

7. Use a Cliché

This last editing hack is one literary critics will hate and every writer with a broad public audience needs to hear.

Familiarity is your friend. 

Literary experts and editors will jump on even a hint of cliché in writing with reckless savagery, and they have a point: plenty of expressions are tired and easily replaced with fresh language.

BUT familiar terms and expressions are extremely powerful. They let your readers connect new ideas to old thoughts already hard-wired in their minds. If your language is too novel (again, too clever) they’ll stumble over it. The best way to help your readers understand something new is by building a bridge with objects, phrases, experiences, and visuals they already know. This is why a well-placed metaphor is so critical to good writing.

So don’t abuse clichés, and try to recognize when you’re using them. But when you’re editing and notice your writing feels cold, distant, and unfamiliar, bring it back to earth with something common to your audience.


And that’s a wrap. 

These editing hacks, core principles for revising your content, will jump your writing decades forward.

In my case, I have no doubt I’d have continued for years, maybe decades, writing dry, stuffy papers for academia with substance crowded out by hedging and fluff. Instead, I get to write content I love, with people I love, for clients doing incredible work in our communities.

See if these tricks can do the same for you. Treat writing as a skill to hone instead of an innate talent, explore resources and systems to improve your craft, and you’ll be amazed by the fulfillment you’ll feel and the results you’ll accomplish.

And if you like those results, consider joining us in the fall for our course with the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing, or reach out if you want training customized to your business needs.