Best of 2021: Craft tips for journalists

This year, we’ve shared 66 quotes on writing, editing, and the practice of journalism, culled from interviews, tip sheets, and Institute programs. We hope you’ll take time to revisit this fantastic advice as we look forward to the new year.

Writing and editing

  • “Your writing is the strongest when it arrives in your own voice.” — Tom Huang, Dallas Morning News editor, on writing in 2021
  • “There is no magic to it. All the amazing writing I have read over the last year has been the result of hard work during hard times.” — Marla Broadfoot, science writer with a PhD in genetics and molecular biology, on writing in 2021
  • “Write tight. I suspect that, like me, other editors get tons of pitches. Unless you have a pre-existing relationship with the editor and are confident they will read hundreds of your words to figure out whether they want to commission the story, be fast about what you are going to say, how you are going to say it, and why you are the person to say it.” — Prashant Rao, international editor at The Atlantic, on pitching stories
  • “Little gems of character, dialogue, description, and scene make a complex explanatory piece more compelling.” — Jacqui Banaszynski, editor at Nieman Storyboard, from “How narrative moments can elevate a non-narrative story
  • “Any use of language is a political decision. I try to ground what I write in the language of my people, of the place I call home, for it to represent my values and my experience.” — Mitchell S. Jackson, a National Magazine Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, in a Q&A with Nieman Storyboard
  • “[Editors] may be the lone bastion between the writer and an embarrassing correction or clarification. A simple ‘are you sure?’ or ‘source pls!’ can prod writers to catch their own mistakes. Full-on fact checking also wards off errors, but whether that should fall to the editor is debatable.” — Holly J. Morris, NPR Training team’s Digital Storytelling Specialist, from “Editors, keep your writers happy
  • “Words have ALL the power! Verbal and written communication are the cornerstones of society. We’ve seen how words heal, unite, and promote understanding. Conversely, we’ve seen how words can be weaponized and bent to create distrust and spread misinformation.” — Alicia Chantal, copy editor, proofreader, and writer, from #ACESchat
  • “PB&J is OK in AP style in all references for peanut butter and jelly. H&C is not OK in any reference for ham and cheese.” — AP Stylebook said on Twitter 
  • “I know I’m always harping on about verbs, but they do wonders. I’m judging a feature writing contest this weekend and one story came up short. Why? Verbs. They aren’t necessarily weak, but they’re meh. I kept imagining fixes to make sentences snap, crackle and pop. #writingtips” — Steve Padilla, Writing coach and Los Angeles Times Column One Editor, said on Twitter
  • “We are all born storytellers. We are born babbling and telling stories with characters that are doing something and going someplace and doing something for a reason. We are born with that skill. And then we get to journalism and we become stiff with facts. We forget we have a voice and arc and rhythm.” — Fernanda Santos, contributing columnist for Washington Post Opinions and journalism professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said during the 2021 Power of Narrative conference
  • “A little bit of personal narrative can inject a whole sense of like richness to a piece, because you start to feel like the author actually cares about why this is happening. But a lot of times, you can just get in the way and it comes off as self absorbed.” Jaed Coffin, journalist and professor of creative writing at the University of New Hampshire, told GroundTruth Navigator
  • “I’ve always believed as a journalist that the story shows itself to you, and you just have to do the work of being there and being present for as long as possible until it becomes more clear.” — Andrea Elliott, New York Times investigative reporter on her first book, “Invisible Child”
  • “A compelling lead is not enough. No matter how dramatic the news or how poignant the anecdote, digital stories need a statement, made without delay, that reveals the point quickly and all at once, and tells the reader why they should care.” — Holly J. Morris, NPR Training team’s Digital Storytelling Specialist, from “Nut graf and lead duos that point readers in the right direction
  • “I think centering people as they experience their lives makes for better stories and gives them some control over what story they want people in positions of power to hear. This is a move from fiction: The specific is more universal than generalities. People who were displaced or have gone through tragic circumstances are more than just that situation. If their personhood comes through, it honors their story and makes for better writing.” — Jessica Goudeau, award-winning author, from “Empathy as the prime directive in writing about displaced people
  • “Pick a topic that you know and are passionate about. Will you be the lawyer who argues only one side, or the judge who sees both and a possible third in between? Then experiment. Write about the topic in black-and-white, then try again in shades of gray. What fits your personality, and the piece you want published? But stay open to both. That’s the freedom of essay writing: You do have to plant a stake in the ground whenever you write, but it doesn’t have to be embedded in stone.” — Shoba Narayan, author, journalist, columnist, from “50 shades of nuance in a polarized world
  • “On any long or complicated story, I work from a detailed outline. I often end up deviating from it, but try to bring as much rigor as I can to thinking through structure on the front end. That process, and chiefly the discipline of assembling and prioritizing material, may be more valuable than the outline itself. I try to stay mindful of symmetry and proportion, for the story as a whole and within each section. I think a lot about section endings, and how they might propel readers into what comes next.” — Peter Jamison, a local enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, from “A profile of one family divided by vaccine politics reflects the divide of a nation
  • “Pick your words carefully. … Ask yourself what the audience will take away from your piece if they were to read just the headline, a tweet, a short post on social media or just the first few paragraphs of the article. Is there a conclusion that you don’t want them to come up with?” — Naseem S. Miller, The Journalist’s Resource

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

  • “Race coverage must be an integral part of every beat. It can no longer be treated as a reactive or special interest topic that newsrooms cover as breaking news event occurs. Race is the story, and it intersects and is the undercurrent of everything.” —  Kat Stafford, national investigative writer & global investigations correspondent at the Associated Press
  • “We will not be using deficit framing, which is defining people by the worst of their experiences. That’s not going to power our conversations. We don’t talk about people and communities. We speak to them, and we speak with them.” — Amber Payne, co-editor in chief of The Emancipator
  • “It’s not that representation is tokenism. Representation is actually meaning that we are creating institutions that can do their best and greatest work because they have minds that are reflective of the actual country that we live in.” — Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times Magazine, speaks with The 19th on making space in media for Black journalists
  • “Be careful about framing that creates a false binary between ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim World.’ There are nearly 3.5 million Muslims in the United States, and Pew has projected that by 2050, 10 percent of all Europeans will be Muslim. Include the broader context of how foreign policies and interventions tie into local events you are currently covering.” — Excerpt from the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association‘s “Guidance on coverage of Sept. 11, 20 years later
  • “It’s crucial that we push back against reflexive stereotyping that locks people in prisons of selective relevance. Consistently, we’ve found in our research at NPR that people of color show up most substantially in stories about race and ethnicity. When those stories were removed from the sample, white sources on NPR’s main shows rose to almost 85 percent. That means people of color are often missing from the stories of everyday life.” — Keith Woods, NPR’s chief diversity officer
  • “On the one hand, identifying people according to their wishes is good journalism — it’s in keeping with our goals of accuracy, respect for the people we cover, and a commitment to diversity. But descriptors require the same kind of scrutiny as other facts we report on, for a number of reasons. People within the same community may differ as to how the community should be identified; some may see descriptors as obscuring crucial differences within or between groups; and even well-intentioned identifiers can be experienced by some as demeaning.” — Jerome Socolovsky, NPR Training, from “Here’s how to describe people accurately

Covering COVID-19

  • “Reporters covering the vaccine and its usage among students, faculty, and staff at colleges need to provide context on how policies comport with state laws or preemptions, how students and local communities are affected by these decisions, and how to track vaccine mandates’ rollout and potential outbreaks.” — Journalist Rachel Leingang for an Education Writers Association tip sheet
  • “Meaning is a word with weight and gravitas. It imbues today’s journalism in myriad ways, ranging from puerile lists — ’10 things I learned from being quarantined’ — to essays about mental health issues that are emerging from COVID isolation. One way to search for your own meaning in the pandemic madness, or any non-singular experience, is to probe your past to recover traumas that you have forgotten, then link it to the present situation.” Shoba Narayan, author, journalist, columnist, “From Sept. 11 to COVID: Using the personal to write the global
  • “Using only scientific language in your reporting on vaccines could be less compelling for your audience. Emotions are a very important tool — this is something the anti-vax movement knows all too well — and can help us reach audiences that are turned off by what could be perceived as drier or geeky stories. Think about who might be the audience for your work: Are you reporting for a general audience or for a specialist publication?” — Freelance Journalism Assembly
  • “Sometimes, story ideas can be unearthed from a single sentence buried in a district summary. During COVID-19, the Beige Book is especially valuable for business journalists, or any journalist assigned to cover business topics, because national and regional economies are changing rapidly.” — Clark Merrefield, The Journalist’s Resource, from “Story ideas from the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book: Sept. 2021

Reporting on natural disasters and climate change

  • Relate your stories to the impacts, and don’t focus on the jargon. Sometimes, the public will latch on to fancy terms, and the forecast itself or threats are lost in the mix.” — Tevin Wooten, weather reporter and on-camera meteorologist with The Weather Channel television network, on natural disaster coverage
  • “Let me tell you that live coverage saves lives. The communities that are suffering most desperately need journalists to document their needs. Help follows coverage.” — Al Tompkins, senior faculty at Poynter, from “Why Jim Cantore and hurricane reporters in the eye of the storm matter
  • “As journalists, we must write about climate change with the same clarity of the scientists who have been sounding the alarms for decades. Platforming those scientists’ detractors in an effort to “balance” our stories not only misleads the public, it is inaccurate.” — Covering Climate Now, best practices to get the climate story right
  • “Avoid reducing sources to characters who can fill a hole in your story. Interviewees who have lost their homes, livelihoods or loved ones might feel all they have left is their personal story — telling it inaccurately will add pain atop of pain.  Ensure, therefore, that you’re infusing your reporting with compassion and complexity. Give readers a nuanced insight into the breadth of people’s experiences. Help them envisage how it feels to have your life disrupted or overturned.” — From the Dart Center for Journalism & TraumaHow to Cover Wildfires” guide
  • “I’ve pretty much never seen an environmental harm that someone wasn’t working to rectify. Share that solutions story. It will give readers hope!” — Antonia Juhasz, energy and climate author and investigative journalist, on covering environment stories
  • “If local and national journalists can take the climate change story and explain it in terms that speak directly to their own audiences, a public debate could help civic engagement with the issue. At the moment, while people can see the effects of climate change in front of them, there is little conversation on how to change political discourse, hold companies accountable and change individual behaviors.” — Meera Selva, deputy director of the Reuters Institute, from “Why we need a new local language of climate change reporting
  • “But like the high tides invading Miami Beach, the climate change story is leaking into the newsroom. Climate now is just as much a business and foreign policy story as it is a science topic. Local reporters need to be adept at spotting climate impacts in their communities and telling stories about the people affected by them. Business reporters need to understand the risks to the economy of potential stranded assets as oil and gas companies have to shift — perhaps suddenly — to renewables, leaving many of their proven, valuable reserves in the ground.” — Andrew Freedman, climate and energy reporter at Axios, via Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism 2022


  • “Make yourself easy to find. Keep your DMs open, respond to reader mail, get on Signal, WhatsApp, and provide a number where people can reach you easily. You never know when a source will want to speak and which medium they will prefer.” — Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter at The New York Times
  • “Never go in cold. You need an objective. If you can’t articulate why you’re there, it is difficult to pay attention. Sometimes my goal is simply embracing the challenge to find something interesting.” — Erin Cox, political reporter for the Washington Post, on covering long, local government meetings
  • “There’s simply no substitute for being in the room when someone is going through a moment that matters to a story, and while that’s not impossible now, it takes a whole lot more coordination, caution, and calculated risk.” — Jessica Contrera, The Washington Post
  • “There are two types of reporters. There are reporters who date and reporters who marry. … It’s not a relationship that you build quickly. It’s one where you have to really let them get to know you as a journalist, show them that you are always going to be honest and do what you say and protect their anonymity and that you’re not biased. I think some reporters make mistakes in that they try to curry favor with sources by writing things they think the sources will like and I think sources actually respect you more when you show them: no I am accurate and I am honest and I am objective and I’m actually going to check what you tell me so that I know it’s true and you know I am doing my homework on everything.”– Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, New York Times reporters and co-authors of “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination,” on the Longform Podcast
  • “I’m not doing an interview to get good quotes. And I’m not doing it to confirm something I already thought. I’m really trying to pick people who are going to teach me something new about the situation that’s unfolding. I want to tap into their expertise. But I also want to learn more about their experiences and their emotions.” — Ed Yong, staff writer at The Atlantic, told Nieman Storyboard
  • “Before I go into the field and film, I pre-interview. And what that means is I have a conversation, and very often it is a wide-ranging conversation in which I’ll hear something that the subject doesn’t fully know is a diamond — that is that aha moment for them and for me that they have just normalized. And then I’ll help them articulate. Figure out what is … their lived experience that we want people to understand.” — Kate Woodsome, Washington Post senior producer of op-ed video, from NPCJI panel on op-eds
  • “Sometimes the people you’re talking to have never sat across from a journalist before and they don’t understand the reporting process. The best thing you can do is kind of lay it out for them. Show them: Here’s how we get from point A to point B.” — Shelly Conlon, watchdog coach for three newsrooms with The Argus Leader (South Dakota), from NPCJI panel on diversifying education stories
  • “One thing that I try to do if it’s a community that is less familiar with the media or speaking with journalists, I try to point them to our past coverage. … It shows them that you’re not just caring about them today, you’ve reached out to them before, you’ve shown interest in them before, and you’ve done it in a respectful way. And often that will help ease any anxieties or nervousness because it’s something tangible that they can use as a reference and say, okay this person gets it.” — Delece Smith-Barrow, education editor at POLITICO, from NPCJI panel on diversifying education stories

General journalism tips

  • “Everything has to live on its own. Tweets, Facebook copy, Instagram posts, headlines — all of it. Anything we do has to have all the information and context to be to complete. Do not assume the reader will read a full article. Assume they will only see whatever it is you’re sending out to the world.” — Bobby Blanchard, director of audience at Texas Tribune, on using social media to share reporting
  • Readers are looking for empathy and candor. They’re asking journalists to level with them about what they know and don’t know. Almost everything becomes service journalism: How does this keep me safe? How do I stay hopeful? How do I live my life like this? Those lessons, which are really about caring for readers’ attention and humanity, apply to all sorts of stories.” — Steven Johnson, newsletter editor at the Washington Post
  • “I would say, know what you’re passionate about. Know what sparks your curiosity. Don’t try and do things because you think other people will like it. Knowing you like it — it’s really important.” — Shereen Marisol Meraji, Co-host and senior producer of NPR’s Code Switch, offers advice to emerging journalists of color in “Said Out Loud
  • “Right now in my inbox, I have probably 1,500 unread emails of #MeToo stories and tips. I try to read every single one of those, myself or my partner on my team, and the fact of the matter is we simply can’t investigate every one. So how do you prioritize? How do you think about which ones are worthy? And we are human, we are fallible — should we even be making that decision?” — Jessica Bennett, New York Times editor covering gender and culture, said in The Takeaway
  • “Academic research is one of journalists’ best tools for covering public policy issues. It’s also a tool that takes skill to use. … While there is no way to guarantee the quality of a study, these questions can help journalists avoid biased or otherwise flawed research.” — Denise-Marie Ordway of The Journalist’s Resource in “How to tell good research from flawed research: 13 questions journalists should ask
  • “It’s OK to pause the narrative and be transparent with your audience about the reporting you’ve done, what you don’t know, and what you want them to understand. As long as you can still stand by your reporting, this transparency builds trust with the listener.” — Alison MacAdam, freelance story editor, on tips for editing investigative podcasts
  • “To be a journalist is more than making entries into our national diary. It is, I believe, to tell the stories that bring us together; to find the common threads in all our lives that bind us to a common purpose, and not act as some glorified scorekeeper tracking winners and losers on a public stage.” — David Ng, executive editor of The Providence Journal, writes in Nieman Reports
  • “Many reporters never notice the ‘inspect element’ option below the copy and save-as functions in the right-click menu on any webpage related to their investigation. But it turns out that this little-used web inspector tool can dig up a wealth of hidden information from a site’s source code, reveal the raw data behind graphics, and download images and videos that supposedly cannot be saved. A simple understanding of this tool and HTML basics can also help reporters scrape data from any web page, with no background in computer science needed.” — Smaranda Tolosano, Global Investigative Journalism Network, from “Digging Up Hidden Data with the Web Inspector
  • “Stay one step ahead of your editors. Always have a plan. Be fluid and flexible. Read. Focus on theme. Find the universal in the particular. Put in the work. Don’t worry about what others are doing.” — David Maraniss, journalist and author, said on Twitter
  • “Sometimes, the data we work with does not really answer the questions we ask. In other cases, we may forget to apply traditional journalism ethics during the data collection and analysis stages of the investigation: We should be careful not to cherry-pick statistics that support our point of view, miss the context, or focus so much on our question that we don’t listen to what the data says. Remember, in data journalism, data is our source and we need to respect it.” — Journalist Miriam Forero Ariza on “Tips to make sure you know how to read the numbers
  • “When we think of novels, of newspapers and blogs, we think of words. We easily forget the little suggestions pushed in between: the punctuation. But how can we be so cruel to such a fundamental part of writing?” — Adam J. Calhoun, “Punctuation in novels” via “What I learned about my writing by seeing only the punctuation
  • “We know everyone calls it daylight savings time. You know better, though, don’t you? It’s daylight saving, no S. Delight your friends with your knowledge as we fall back.” — AP Stylebook via Twitter
  • “My instinct was always to meet the audience where they were, speak to them in their language, and show respect for their problems–no matter what they were. But most of all help them solve those problems in ways that felt approachable and collaborative so we could build a deep, lasting, mutually beneficial relationship.” — Phoebe Gavin, journalist and career coach, from “Exit Interviews: Phoebe Gavin
  • “One common piece of advice is to keep a “win jar,” or a file on your computer or in your email with compliments about your editing work. Open it up and read them every time you’re feeling unsure of yourself.” — Anna Dobbin, copy editor, conscious language specialist, writer, from #ACESchat
  • “Challenge received or dominant narratives on poverty. Ask sources who are experiencing economic hardship what changes or solutions they would like to see. This could spark new story ideas and will ground your reporting, ensuring that it speaks to those most affected by the topics you cover. It will also empower people living in poverty rather than victimizing them.” — Freelance Journalism Assembly, “A freelancer’s guide to reporting on poverty
  • “For better or worse, campaign coverage emphasizes what candidates are doing and saying. Washington policy and politics coverage emphasizes what the president and other leaders are trying to move through Congress. If Democratic candidates aren’t talking about America’s anti-democratic movement, and if President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer aren’t doing it every day in Washington, then the coverage will reflect that. That is not a defense of the political-media ecosystem but just a description of it.” – Politico Playbook
  • “My three guiding questions for stories: What’s the story? Who’s it for? How will we find them? … We must evaluate our news value, delivery, even speed in some pretty fundamental ways. What is the thing we want audiences to know, feel, understand—and act upon? If we do not have an answer to that question, perhaps more time and reporting would help all parties involved in the creation and consumption of journalism.” — S. Mitra Kalita, veteran journalist, media executive, author, via Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism 2022
  • “You’re an ambassador of journalism. … I think a lot of people don’t know how reporters really work. And so, showing up and being firm, fair, dogged, persistent and saying, ‘I need this. This is why. It’s in the public interest. And, no, I’m not going away until you give it to me,’ is helpful. Throwing a public records request into the ether just hoping it’ll come back has limited success.” — Nabiha Syed, president of The Markup, from NPCJI panel during Sunshine Week 2021
  • “When we talk about housing, we talk about it from the point of view of the developer, or, you know, the white residents who come to the council meetings, and that’s where the coverage stops. There really needs to be a change in how we think about our journalism, the mindsets that we use, how we understand our communities, and why people live where they live.” — Alexandria Burris, IndyStar reporter, from NPCJI panel on covering the intersection of housing and racism
  • “A generation ago we would probably be focusing more on defamation law. … But copyright law is the biggest growing area that we’ve seen in our media law practice at Ballard Spahr — especially in the digital environment where the ability to copy and paste into your work is just so easy to do.” — Chuck Tobin, litigator and former journalist, from NPCJI panel on media law
  • “Nobody is ever just a victim. We should really avoid making people in communities this two dimensional, just the recipient of abuse and hate because they often have community solutions.” — Moriah Balingit, Washington Post reporter covering national education issues and president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, from NPCJI panel on covering hate crimes
  • “Journalism exists to create a common set of facts and a public square. And if half of America is not in that square, that’s a threat to democracy.”– Tom Rosenstiel, “Rebuilding Trust in News: Top Tips from New Research
  • “We need to be more what I call offensive with FOIA. And that is, we need to be going after stuff all the time to get people used to the idea that we’re going to be asking for this stuff. And you’ve got to respond that this is not a one off. This is not something that we’re going to ask for, you know, once every six months, or maybe once a year. We’re going to be doing this all the time, so you need to get ready for us.” — Ron Nixon, global investigations editor at the Associated Press, from NPCJI panel on strategies for accessing information
  • “The stories we’re covering today are stories of a lifetime: the pandemic, democracy on the ropes. We’ve got to be in the game. Not as some wounded version of ourselves, but a version still capable and open to learning, still growing and capable of self correction when necessary. Our voices as journalists have never been more important. And we cannot become what our fervent critics want us to be: tone deaf. We have to strive to be pitch perfect.” — Lester Holt, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News and anchor of Dateline NBC, from NPCJI Fourth Estate Gala

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