A good handbook on news writing, but with guidelines, personal tips and examples that go beyond its scope. This sentence probably sums up Rene Cappon’s philosophy: By and large, though, the most effective journalistic tone in the ’90s would seem to be the plain and unadorned. (p.58)

I learned that being concise and clear is extremely important for all forms of communication.

This short book is full of examples and Cappon’s wit. He identifies common writing pitfalls and helpfully offers suggestions to improve them. He also advocates for simplicity, writing against the overuse of metaphors, cliches, redundant phrases.

Though not a journalist, I appreciated this book and will frequently refer to it for practical wisdom.


  1. Quoting William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should contain no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that a writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. (p.7)

This is an excellent summary. Every word must count.

  1. (p.10) Specify people, make it clear whenever possible.
  2. (p.13) Use adjectives only when necessary.

… strong writing should rely on nouns and verbs. Pick the right ones and you’ll need few modifiers. Use adjectives to make your meaning clear, not as decorative afterthoughts.

  1. (p.15) Use qualifiers (hedging) sparingly. I know I’m guilty of this.
  2. (pp.16, 20) Use the active voice (and verb) whenever possible.
  3. (p.17) Be short, familiar, specific.

Use no more words than necessary to make your meaning clear.

  1. (p.20) Avoid there were and there is. This point is similarly made by David Fryxell in Structure & Flow, p.112.

  2. On writing a good lead. (p.27) The real key to lifting your lead out of the humdrum is to ask yourself what is different about each story.

  3. On including the time element in the lead. (p.35) rule: put the time element after the verb. Examples: said yesterday, decided today.

  4. (p.37) aim for an average sentence length of 16 to 17 words.

  5. On choosing words carefully. (p.48) To write well means to choose the right words for each occasion, not to fit the occasion to precooked words. That requires a thoughtful effort. And as Samuel Johnson said long ago, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

  6. On tone. (p.49) tone is primarily generated by the choice of words.

  7. On objectivity. (p.55) Cappon writes that reporters shouldn’t resort to hints or inuendos to lead the reader to conclusions not established by the facts. Reporting should maintain objectivity, with writers reporting the facts, allowing the readers to reach their own conclusions.

He quotes Gene Roberts,

the finest reporting, short or long, is always investigative in that it digs and digs and digs. The finest writing is almost by definition explanatory in that it puts things so vividly, so compellingly, that readers see an understand.

  1. On quotes. (p.66) Good quotes should summarise what’s on a person’s mind, crystallise and emotion or attitude or offer an individual perspective of some sort - preferably in a concise and interesting way.

  2. On the importance of details, quoting Sid Moody (p.82)

You’re looking for detail, verbs of description instead of adjectives or adverbs. Sure, the helmsman stands at the wheel like a Viking. But he also clamps his lips into a line to keep out the rain, narrows his eyes to gunslits against the wind, stares transfixed as a swami at the compass light. His knuckles are white from the cold and the strain of the helm. He sails on. The reader may have his own idea of what a Viking is, but you’re out there in the wet to tell him what this particular VIking did on this particular ship in this particular strom, and if you can’t give him specifics, you might as well go below and be warm and dry and eat goat yogurt.