How to become a better writer in two easy lists

One of the greatest things about maturing as a writer? You write so much that you have seen every cliche around, and you know not to use them.

One of the toughest things about maturing as a writer? You write so much that you must continue to write creatively without using cliches — or the creative lines you have already used.

Writers and journalists of any kind — be it video, audio, photography, or print — must make a conscious and continual effort to avoid repetition in what can be a repetitious job.

For sure, every story is unique; this is one of the great joys of working in journalism. Less unique, however, are story types. This year alone, a journalist may have already attended so many press conferences or city council meetings or sporting events that he or she struggles to find ways to cover them creatively.

I welcome any outside perspective that encourages me not to get too comfortable as a storyteller.

In the past few days, I have come across two such perspectives I feel compelled to share.

On Friday, Washington Post writer Carlos Lozada wrote the article, “To be sure, journalists love cliches”. After an introduction where Lozada intentionally uses cliches to write about the importance of not using them — a technique that, frankly, seemed a little cliche to me — he gets to the good stuff. Lozada produces a lengthy list of banned phrases and, as he writes, “Things We Do Not Say” in the newsroom.

Among his targets:

  • Be that as it may
  • Needless to say
  • [Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0 or 4.0 …)
  • At a crossroads

(Believe me, this is a mere taste; Lozada writes at least 50 of these …)

Print out this list, and make sure your scripts and articles include none of its items.

Monday I read a different list, from a different type of blog, with a different but related purpose. I will admit, I had never visited The Altucher Confidential before receiving a link to this article. But writer James Altucher, in a much less formal and ornate tone than Lozada, unveils a great guide of his own: “33 Unusual Tips to Being a Better Writer”.

I do not agree with every piece of Altucher’s advice, which is to be expected, I’m sure, of any list that contains 33 items. But some of what he writes is pretty ingenious. Here are a few of my favorites:

Don’t be afraid of what people think. For each single person you worry about, deduct 1% in quality from your writing. Everyone has deductions. I have to deduct about 10% right off the top. Maybe there’s 10 people I’m worried about. Some of them are evil people. Some of them are people I just don’t want to offend. So my writing is only about 90% of what it could be. But I think most people write at about 20% of what it could be. Believe it or not, clients, customers, friends, family, will love you more if you are honest with them.

Use a lot of periods. Forget commas and semicolons. A period makes people pause. Your sentences should be strong enough that you want people to pause and think about it.  This will also make your sentences shorter. Short sentences are good.

Deliver value with every sentence. Even on a tweet or Facebook status update. Deliver poetry and value with ever word. Else, be quiet.

A common unspoken theme in Altucher’s adages is a simple two-word mantra: “Challenge yourself.” Simply reading his list will force you to think critically about the way you write and tell stories. You will decide which items you don’t buy and which ones you can use to improve your work.

After all, if every story is unique, then every story told should be unique as well.

Thoughts? Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt Pearl at

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