Martin Gee for TIME
By Shani Raja
August 24, 2016

I left university sure I was a brilliant writer… Then I became a journalist.

I discovered that my writing skills were nowhere near as polished as I had believed. Editors would rewrite my articles—cutting unnecessary words, making the ideas sharper and adding a sense of rhythm.

It became my mission to crack their code, to learn the principles they used to make their writing sparkle. Now, after working as an editor at The Wall Street Journal for several years and training dozens of journalists, I’m able to share some of the secrets of our trade.

1. Keep it simple.
Many people try to impress by using fancy words and long, complicated sentences. The best editors do the opposite: Boil ideas down to their simplest form and express them in as few words as possible.

Consider this writing example: “I want you to utilize all of your resources to help facilitate a strategic dialogue among members of your team and to strategize ways of finding common ground between them so that there is less frequent antagonism in their interactions on a daily basis.”

That type of language is fairly common in companies and institutions. But what does it mean once you’ve stripped out the jargon? Probably, only this: “Please encourage your bickering team members to get along.”

Official-sounding words and hot-air-filled sentences don’t help you to look smarter. They usually make your writing wishy-washy and boring.

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2. Aim for clarity.
Ever read something you didn’t understand? Don’t assume it was because you were less smart than the writer. It’s more likely the points weren’t expressed all that well.

Top editors straighten out such points so readers don’t have to. One way is to write out an idea plainly, as if explaining to a friend. You can dress it up later if the language seems too colloquial, but at least the point will be clear.

Ambiguity is another clarity killer.

Here’s an example: “The friendship between Leonard and Mark has never been the same since he left town.”

That sentence is ambiguous if the preceding context doesn’t make clear which of the two friends has actually left town. This is better: “Since Leonard left town, his friendship with Mark has never been the same.”

The best editors never allow a reader’s attention to get hijacked by ambiguity, as that sours the reading experience.

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3. Strive for elegance.
The best editors know that words, sentences and paragraphs create a rhythm. A string of sentences about the same length or using the same subject-verb structure can sound monotonous, as in this example: “Qantas reported record profit. The airline said it was pleased with the result. Qantas is planning to increase the number of routes it flies. The carrier hopes that doing so will boost future earnings.”

You can experiment with breaking sentences up, extending them, and changing their structure to get a better rhythm, like in this revision: “Qantas reported record profit and said it was pleased with the result. To help boost future earnings, the airline is planning to increase the number of routes it flies.”

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The best editors also strive to create what I call “narrative elegance”—the neat flow of ideas through an article. The same principle works for any type of business writing.

A cover letter, for instance, usually has at least four parts:

  1. Your background/suitability
  2. Your hope of getting an interview
  3. Why you’re interested in the job
  4. How you came to hear of the position

However, that particular way of ordering the information is inelegant. This is better:

  1. How you came to hear of the position
  2. Why you’re interested in the job
  3. Your background/suitability
  4. Your hope of getting an interview

How can you start to incorporate these insights? Here’s a good start. Whenever you read something, consider the extent to which simplicity, clarity and elegance are present—and look for fixes when they’re not.

Use these three concepts to edit your own writing. You’ll notice how quickly it begins to stand out from others in your college, company or industry.

Shani Raja has taught top journalists how to improve their writing and has written and edited for some of the world’s biggest news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Financial Times and Bloomberg News. He also teaches the online course Writing with Flair: How to Become an Exceptional Writer.

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