Wading through the waffle

When thinking about how to introduce the concept of putting together clean, crisp, readable copy to my blogging students, it occurred to me (flash of inspiration if you will) that several news articles I had done this week were notable for one reason.

They all came from source material that was lengthy or dry or incredibly technical.Bill Burris

Not perhaps unusual for a journalist specialising in medicine and science.

But there did seem to be more chopping and simplifying than usual.

Which brings me to my tip of the week – be ruthless.

Deciding what to leave out can be just as vital as the text that ends up in your final copy.

It is tempting to be precious about every clever metaphor/explanation/quote.

But the readers will not thank you for waffling on.

This week’s haul started  with a bit of molecular biology from a team of US scientists who had worked out the nitty gritty of how zinc can help the immune system fight infection.

Crafted from a 1,200-word press release going into some pretty high-level scientific detail and a 25-page Cell Reports article with the snappy title ZIP8 Regulates Host Defense through Zinc-Mediated Inhibition of NF-kB, this was not straightforward.

In fact very little of the scientific detail even included in the press release made it to the final version.

This was all about a novel concept with a little bit of context.

Then there were the results of a trial comparing treatments for stroke where the main problem was trying to explain the concept of intra-arterial device-based approach for clot removal to the non-vascular surgeons in the audience.

And a sigh of relief as a slightly more simple paper crossed my desk showing that GPs are pretty quick at picking up cancers – unless you have a hard to spot type of cancer.

Chop, chop, chop

Yet complex science papers are not the only time I get to practice cutting out reams of text.

The next day started with a survey from a cancer charity who were launching a report on patients who lack support from families and friends.

I had a well written press release and report to work from.

But piles of statistics.

No one wants to read a long long list of survey results and so there I go again, choosing which is most important, finding new ways to present figures, and chopping through the bits that can be excluded.

Last but not least was an exclusive story on doctors missing signs of being underweight in children – one I found in a medical journal.

Researchers do not write for the general public and use lots of strange phrases that would not spring to mind when chatting about study results down the pub (as I have been known to do).

It means coming at the information in front of you from a completely different point of view, with the reader always at the front of your mind.

All this shows one thing, whatever source material you are working from, always look for better, snappier, shorter, clearer ways to say what you need to say.

Whether it is news or views, the rule remains the same – be ruthless, tell the story, and above all, keep it simple.

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