Writers are always eager to learn from the masters. We’re told to read widely, and model our writing on the work of those we admire.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to meet the famous (in communications circles) Don Ranly, Ph.D., IABC Fellow and professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism.
We met and had coffee at an IABC World Conference, where he was speaking – probably on Refrigerator Journalism. That was his term for presenting useful information readers could and would clip and pin on refrigerators or bulletin boards.
Here’s a collection of some of Don’s own pinnable advice about writing, which I try to follow:
- “The lead should lead – it should pull readers in. The story should unravel from the lead.”
- “The lead, the top of your story, must tune readers into WIIFM – What’s in it for me? The who, what, when, where and why are important, yes, but only to get to the most important question, the so what?”
- “…get the word ‘you’ into the lead. The lead used to be: ‘Last night by a 5-4 vote, City Council raised the price of garbage pick-ups $1.50 per month… Now the lead is: “You’re going to pay $1.50 more for your garbage pick-up…’”
- “Stop telling readers everything you know. Give them what they want or need to know. Then stop.”
- “You know that your story must hook readers within the first few sentences, and that usually involves engaging them at a human level (with a human story). …But why should we care? Unless readers understand the implications of the complication you have presented, your story is meaningless, and consequently, uninteresting.”
- “It is your job to provide readers with all the information they need to understand your story, and to provide it only and exactly where they need it and are ready for it.”
- “Find a problem (issue, product, idea), but don’t write about the problem. Find a person who is dealing with the problem, and tell us how he or she is doing.”
- “Start your story with a story; use an anecdote that nails the issue you are dealing with. It’s The Wall Street Journal approach to writing…telling the news in a more compelling, interesting and memorable way.”
- “Sometimes the best way to tell a story is the way it happened – chronologically. Narrative writing is not just for fiction or entertainment. An hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute approach can add interest and structure to an account.”
At one point, Don subscribed to my newsletter, and when he later unsubscribed, he graciously apologized. “It’s just that I have far too much mail,” he said. ”I think you do some good, useful stuff. Keep at it.” I’m not embarrassed to say I was thrilled.
Are you a Don Ranly fan too? What advice of his has stayed with you? Please share in the comments.
Note: This August, Missouri School of Journalism alumni and friends established the Don Ranly Magazine Scholarship to honour his contributions. The scholarship will go to students wishing to pursue careers in the magazine industry.