The Guts of Good Writing

The Guts of Good Writing

Writer Karin Winegar explains why despite all these new messaging channels, the basics of good writing never change

“Keep it short and make it sing,” my late editor told me at the big Midwest  newspaper when I started my job as a general assignment reporter. He’d had the benefit of a British education in the era before television, so he was widely, deeply and well read. He had a large vocabulary, a sense of narrative and a feel for rhythm, clarity and content. He had internalized all the good things that make writing effective, moving, smart, funny when intended and  in sum–worth reading.

good writing

Mark Twain began his career as a journalist.

Bad writing is like processed food – don’t put it in your brain. It will show up in your speech and writing.  You will acquire cerebral cellulite—all dimply and jiggly and useless. It will impede you from fitting into your best, bright thoughts.  You will –and should be—ashamed to be seen on the journalistic or writing beach. Bad writing will result in a limited ability to express yourself or describe a subject or event. It will pollute, hamper and distort your comprehension.  Have I nagged enough?

Feed your brain with the classics (no whining here about the tyranny of literature by dead white males, please) and  smart modern writers.  I just read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and was electrified by his skill with words, character and events. Where had Fowles been all my life? (No, seeing the movie does not count.) I also just read Martin Chuzzlewit and damn! Dickens is wickedly funny. The only Dickens most Americans undertake when forced is the Cliff Notes version of A Christmas Carol, which is like skim milk compared with crème fraiche. Go for the full book.  (No, the play doesn’t count, although it is pleasant.)   Some of my favorites: John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Jim Harrison, Tom Wolfe, Jane Austen and Mark Twain.

If you follow my orders and pick up one of these classics for a good read, you’ll see that a lot of the elements in good writing really haven’t changed despite the interwebs. No matter if you’re sitting down to write your first novel or getting ready to Snapchat a hot guy, the basics of good writing remain the same:

  • Get to the essence of the thing quickly.
  • Use lively verbs. Scowl, scoot, whisk, canter, amble…you get the idea.
  • Listen to your subjects and develop your ear for quintessential quotes.  You will feel it in your body when what someone says strikes just the right tone or reveals  a core thought or emotion during an  interview.
  • Be accurate. Once you have written, go back and check your facts and quotes.  That means calling people back. Pay attention—they may reveal even more useful things when you do this.
  • Face live people. They will tell you much more in person or on  the phone than by email or text or other feeble (sorry)  quick and dirty tools. Swapping e-mails does not a story make. It misses all the animal dimensions of aroma, sight, sound, color  and motion that shape and influence writing.
  • Lastly, or rather firstly, get prepared. Read about your topic or person as much as possible before writing or interviewing.  This can be daunting in the era of the digital universe, because there’s far, far too much out there.

Do it anyway.

Karin and Shadow Karin Winegar was a staff writer for The Minneapolis Star and then The Star Tribune for 20 years. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and publications ranging from The Chronicle of the Horse to SAIL magazine and  has won numerous awards including a Lowell Thomas award for investigative journalism. She is the author of  “Saved, Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform”  with a foreword by Dr. Jane Goodall and prologue by Dr. Temple Grandin. She currently freelances and writes privately  commissioned biographies. Her website is