Editor’s note: Jacob Lewis is currently VP, Publishing Director at Crown Publishing, and he previously served as Managing Editor of the New Yorker, where he worked for 12 years (1995-2007). We asked Jacob to share his insights on the key ingredients that every editor looks for in a piece of writing. Here, he highlights four key principles behind great writing.
Writing is meant to be read. Without a reader, writing serves no purpose. The perfect draft in your desk drawer is only as valuable as the paper it’s written on. Good writing requires attention to form and conventions, but it also requires an awareness of the audience at the other end.
Thinking like a reader while you shape the text and refine the idea is imperative to any good piece of writing. A good writer is a good reader and a good reader is why you wrote the article in the first place.
Readers of opinion and news are looking for information, articulation, compelling arguments, and always to be entertained. Writers and editors should look at these four key attributes in a story: point, structure, tone, language.
Always bear in mind that no matter how pithy and direct your headline is, readers need to know in a straightforward and direct way what you’re trying to say. You must start with a compelling lede, the purpose of which is to orient the reader and make them want to continue reading. This is not the moment to be superfluous.
Your 10th grade English teacher wasn’t wrong: your piece needs a thesis. If you can’t explain it in a sentence then you need to refine your idea. Readers do not want to struggle to discover what it is you’re trying to say, so make it clear and apparent. A bored reader will give up early and turn to something else.
A great example from PolicyMic: Congress Could Learn a Thing or Two From National Coming Out Day (Jared Milrad, Identities section)
Structure establishes the sign posting that will guide your reader through your story. Particularly for non-fiction pieces like opinion and news, you should not meander down tangents of thought. Think about your argument. What are the building blocks of it? What are the points you need to make in order to validate your point of view or your story? How are your examples illustrating your constructive point? Then write the article with those points as your underlying structure. Once you’ve created a clear argument or story path you can juice up the writing with flourish and detail without destroying the reader's journey. The best writing is the least recognizable. If the reader is focused on it then they are not focused on your point of view.
A great example from PolicyMic: What 20 Of the World’s Most Famous Writers Were Doing in Their Twenties (Daniel Lefferts, Arts & Entertainment section)
This is not a recitation of fact, though. It is a piece of writing, which requires a voice, the basis of tone. If you give your reader a “just the facts ma’am” experience, they won’t feel very compelled by what you’re saying. So if you have a point of view make sure it is reflected in the tone of the piece, in the words that you choose and the posture you take.
Remember that you’re talking to someone. At the other end of your article is a person looking to be convinced or informed or educated. They don’t just need to believe your points, they need to believe you. Your tone is, therefore, important. Anger, sanctimony, condescension, and belligerence never works.
A great example from PolicyMic: Congressman Shames Park Ranger for Doing Her Job While He Won’t Do His (Michael Luciano, Politics section)
As much as your editor will help you refine your voice so that it fits your argument, they will also shape your language so that its clarity illustrates your point. And, maybe most importantly, they will challenge you on your assertions. If you can’t convince your editor of your point then you have a long way to go to convince a reader.
A great example from PolicyMic: Kanye’s Jimmy Kimmel Interview is the Strangest Thing You’ll Watch on the Internet Today (Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, Arts & Entertainment section)
Ask Jacob your own question about good writing below. He’ll respond to a few of the Most Mic’d questions/comments.