Showcase’s Rules of Writing
In 2001, Elmore Leonard — the beloved crime writer who occasionally sold his fiction to Hollywood — outlined his ten rules of writing for the New York Times. Tips like “never use the word ‘suddenly’” and “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip” were infused with his blend of humor and his spare style. But most important, his list made writing seem easy.
I have always loved these ten commandments, as well as those that followed. (The Guardian later adopted a similar series.) I suppose I like the idea that if I could just obey these rules flawlessly, I could dominate every story I tackle. It’s as though every blog, news story, magazine feature and even book is just a recipe to follow, like the one that will help you bake that decadent chocolate soufflé.
Of course, this could be the pipe dream of a young science journalist. As our storygrams show, stories are an intricate web of complex characters, witty quotes, historical anecdotes, hair-rising scenes, tricky science, considerable tension and so much more. There’s no simple way to string it all together — and yet rules still hold an allure.
With this in mind, we decided to build our own rendition of our favorite rules with the help of several writers featured on Showcase (including David Dobbs, Mark Johnson, George Johnson, Alexandra Witze and Natalie Wolchover). Although I gave them little direction, I somewhat foolishly expected that there would be quite a bit of overlap. A few writers might comment on writing that perfect lede, for example, or listening to your editor, allowing me to winnow my overflowing cache of rules down to a top ten.
But with every new list, I was surprised to see a set of rules wildly different from the one before. Sure, two writers commented on the fact that editing is best done aloud and that quotes should be interpretations above explanations, but the suggestions were wide-ranging. At the end of the day, the tips were so varied and wonderful that combining them would have been an injustice.
Instead, what follows is a list of 25 rules. Although they might not provide an exact recipe, they should help us get closer to that rich and creamy chocolate soufflé that’s also as light as air.
1.) To whatever extent possible write about what interests you. Otherwise it will show. — George Johnson
2.) The first sentence of the lede must tell people something they don’t already know. — Natalie Wolchover
3.) Tell the story in chronological order. (You might have to rewind a bit after the lede.) — Natalie Wolchover
4.) Weave the history of the research subject into the telling of the new story, avoiding a History Section. (Or if you must have a History Section, make it feel more interwoven and relevant by adding a sentence at the beginning that connects it to the new thing.) — Natalie Wolchover
5.) Write honestly. Be upfront about what you know and what you don’t know. — Mark Johnson
6.) There are not two sides to every story. More often there are many, and sometimes just one. — George Johnson
7.) Very important: Embrace complexity. Don’t paint over evidence that doesn’t support your thesis, or adds twists to the story. Use it to fascinate readers and show them how deep and labyrinthine real life truly is. — Mark Johnson
8.) Respect your reader’s intelligence. If you tell your story clearly, know that they will grasp implications or nuance that only crystallized in your mind after weeks of reporting — so you’ve got to explore those implications. — Natalie Wolchover
9.) Be prepared to sacrifice beauty for clarity. It’s more important that readers understand the story than it is that they remember your writing. That said, don’t purge the beauty from your writing. Clarity and beauty need not be in conflict. — Mark Johnson
10.) Write cinematically. Look for opportunities to place the reader in the midst of vivid, unfolding action. — Mark Johnson
11.) Use all of your senses in writing. Writers often use sight, sound and touch, but forget smell and taste, which can be very powerful in anchoring scenes in our memory. — Mark Johnson
12.) View every detail with great skepticism. Is it carrying its weight? — Natalie Wolchover
13.) When you’re stuck on some writing problem, go for a walk, run, hike, ski, swim, whatever — get out and move. Alone. The solution will usually come to you unbidden. — David Dobbs
14.) Use dialogue. That doesn’t mean just quotations, which can be flat and pull the reader out of the story. Conversations are alive and in the moment. Read plays to learn how the best writers use dialogue. — Mark Johnson
15.) Quote scientists’ interpretations and opinions, not their explanations (unless these are pithy as hell). — Natalie Wolchover
16.) Sure, you might have interviewed a famous or extremely quotable source. But don’t put those words in the story without a reason. Every quote should work to justify its existence — whether to illustrate a point you just made, or set up a new line of argument, or close out the piece. Think carefully about the content of each quote; make sure it is furthering your needs, not just showing off the soundbite you managed to get. — Alexandra Witze
17.) Stop the day’s work when you’re going well, preferably in the middle of a sentence or paragraph when you know what you’ll write next. This is actually incredibly hard to do. But the next day you’ll be glad, because you’ll get right back into the groove. — David Dobbs
18.) Your kicker better not rehash anything. It has to add new insight, make a final point or explore the profoundest implication of what’s been written. — Natalie Wolchover
19.) No matter how long you do this, the barrier against typing those first words will seem insurmountable. And what follows will not be good. But you will edit and edit and edit yourself until you produce something you are pleased with and occasionally even proud of. — George Johnson
20.) Once you think your story is done, step away from the desk. Stretch. Grab some coffee. Then sit down and comb through every verb in the piece. Annihilate the vague and flabby; beef up precision. No one will ever notice where you put your prepositional phrase, but lame verbs can torpedo a piece. — Alexandra Witze
21.) Don’t use colorful writing as a way to cover up for incomplete reporting. More reporting is often the best way to improve a passage. — Mark Johnson
22.) Every writer should run through a mental (or physical) checklist before turning in a piece. Are all aspects of the story thoroughly reported and fairly represented? Have all claims, dubious or otherwise, been checked with independent information? Are the sources comprehensive, authoritative, and diverse? What about adding some relevant statistics? Don’t just look at your copy and assume it’s finished; ask what’s not there that should be. — Alexandra Witze
23.) Read every sentence out loud. Saying the words out loud has a way of revealing the flaws, as well as calling attention to the importance of rhythm and pacing. — Mark Johnson (David Dobbs reiterated this point.)
24.) The most annoying thing about editors is that for all of your ranting and railing they usually are right. There are exceptions. — George Johnson
25.) Don’t listen to people who talk about things like “building your brand.” You are not a brand (that is for dishwasher soap and cigarettes), you are a person. And what you want to establish is your reputation. You do that by writing well about interesting things and by not making too many mistakes. And by correcting the errors that you will inevitably commit. You do it by filing your stories on time and by working well with editors — and by pushing back when you feel in your heart that the editor is wrong. — George Johnson