Thou shalt not bore.
Do not start stories with the time, season, or weather conditions.
Do not start with “It was” or “It’s” or “When.”
Do not ever use time sub heads (12:15) to break up a feature story. Write in scenes.
Get an imagination. If it’s been done before, find a different way to do it. If it’s been said before, find a different way to say it.
If you can’t find the killer declarative sentence to lede with, use an evocative scene-setting description.See like a movie camera—make your writing cinematic.
Use all five senses.
Draw images from the bowl of details you gathered in your reporting.
Employ the elements of drama.
Tease the reader—benign manipulation.
Don’t begin your narrative stories with the climax. Give the reader a reason to keep reading until the end.
Don’t reveal everything all at once.
Make sure that your lede hooks the reader.
Employ Holy Shit details.
What you don’t describe is just as important as what you do describe–omission invites the reader to fill in some of the details themselves: Reading as the first interactive game.
Ask yourself: Why am I using this detail?
When in doubt, cut it out.
If someone reads this twenty years from now, will they understand the reference?
Don’t put yourself in stories unless absolutely necessary. (“He told me.” Ugh!) The byline should be enough.
Combine the everyday with the eye-popping.
Think of something to describe besides clothes!
Let your choice of details work subtly to invoke the attitude you wish to convey.
A little dialog goes a long way.
As dialog runs, have the characters do “business.” The business should be “telling”—something that advances the story or the character in a subtle or not so subtle way.
When running dialog, use “said” or “says.” Avoid fancy attributions—recalls, retorts, replies, unless it is done for effect.
Be careful of too much effect. It becomes affect.
Only use dialog that advances the action, the information, the details…. something in the story. Don’t have people talk just for talking’s sake.
Everything should be in for a reason. Otherwise it should be out.
Be simple when simple will do.
Show, don’t tell.
Make every word count.
Read out loud to yourself when you write. Hear the rhythm of the syllables, the words.
Avoid second person.
Build ‘em up before you take ‘em down.
Use full stops and paragraph breaks to heighten drama.
Period, paragraph, indention, new graph—it’s the same as a dramatic pause: an opportunity for the eye to reset, for the mind to absorb the thing that was last said.
Be reader friendly. If they don’t get it, they’ll stop reading.
Artful digression is the key to good writing.
Throttle back. Don’t be a show off.
Less is more.
Work behind the scenes. Never let them see you sweat.
Plant your gems in the rough.
Dare to be bad. Then go back and edit.
Writing is editing.
Be your own toughest editor.
Be your own best editor.
File your stories early, ten words shorter than the length assigned.
Never turn down an assignment.
Make your expense accounts neat.
Every once in a while buy your editor lunch.
Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. He’s been called “the Beat poet of American journalism.” For more than forty years, he has worked as a writer primarily for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire. Sager has written a dozen books; a number of his stories have inspired movies and documentaries, including the classic Boogie Nights. He is the editor and publisher of TheSagerGroup.net, a content brand.