Don’t be lazy, and 15 other random writing tips for journalists

'Kúnlé Adébàjò
16 min readApr 20, 2024


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I am very suspicious of the notion that I have something valuable to teach others.

So you must understand how difficult it is for me to write an article like this because who am I to presume I have enough expertise to tell others what to do and what to avoid? But then, if I’ve achieved so much with the little I know, then I must be doing something right, right? It is why I wrote On Words and Awards years ago, to see if others could benefit from my insights and methods in being crowned winner of so many essay writing competitions. So again, maybe there are a few nuggets I can offer to journalists and other writers based on years of experience, which they’ll find useful.

We often make the mistake of thinking that because a principle or trick is crystal clear to us, it must also be obvious to others. We must swim against this presumption and share what we know. There is always someone out there who’ll be better for it.

First, I do not think a person can become a great writer unless they believe in the power of storytelling and their ability to potentially wield that power. You have to know how much good or damage can be done simply because the right set of words is said to the right set of people in a certain way or because those words are never said or written. You have to realise the power of rhetoric in politics, the power of branding in business, and the power of storytelling to rouse people to action or lull them to sleep. You have to truly believe that the pen, in the hands of a wordsmith who is not facing immediate danger, is infinitely more powerful than the sword. Only the loudest and most tactful storytellers can rule the world. The best way to reach this level of conviction is to read up on examples and case studies, of which plenty exist.

Now that we have that out of the way:

Don’t be lazy

Avoid anything that seems like lazy writing or journalism. Do not let anyone fool you into thinking writing is easy-peasy. It can seem like a gift, sometimes. Like all you are doing is stretching your arms and effortlessly picking ideas from around you, channelling them onto the page like a rare word bender. Like you either have this ability or you don’t. Nope. If you don’t work hard to put a piece together, it’ll show.

The hard work might be in the depth of research you dived into before writing, it might be in the robustness of knowledge you’ve built on the topic over a long period, it might be in how long you spent mentally visualising your article before you wrote the first word, it might be in how long you spent rewriting the draft, or how much you invested in making the article pleasing to the eyes.

By going the easy route, you risk reflexively settling for cliches (or even plagiarising). This is because the brain is obsessed with shortcuts. So, if you have this idea in your mind that you want to convey, it’ll use those building blocks it is already familiar with. Often, there are other blocks out there that will do a better job of conveying that idea and will leave a more long-lasting impression on the reader. You just have to strain yourself and reach for them.

So think, think. Have you considered all the options?

“Most writers — poets in especial — prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought — at the true purposes seized only at the last moment — at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view — at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable — at the cautious selections and rejections — at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels and pinions — the tackle for scene-shifting — the step-ladders, and demon-traps — the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.”

𑁋 Edgar Allan Poe, The Philosophy of Composition (1846)

Everybody admires Albert Einstein for cracking some of the most fundamental puzzles in our understanding of the world. You know what his secret was according to the man himself?

“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer … If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Adopt the same strategy as a writer. Do not rush thoughtlessly into an inked page. The more time you spend thinking about a writing task, the more the world of ideas opens up to you. And the more you do this, the easier it gets. Don’t take all week, though. Your editor’s patience can only run so thin.

This is what famed author and Nobel laureate William Faulkner had to say when he was asked what the formula was for being a good novelist:

“Ninety-nine percent talent … ninety-nine percent discipline … ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.”

Be your own editor and critic. Do not do a half-baked job. Let the article be perfect in your eyes before you share it with others. Or at least, try. One of the greatest compliments I’ve received as a writer is from editors who say whenever I file my copies and they’re exhausted from a long day’s work, they trust me enough to publish them without reading or after only scanning through.

Read the reader’s mind

One thing that has worked for me since I dabbled in this writing business is to transpose myself to the other side and imagine myself as the reader.

If I write for a contest, I imagine myself as the juror. I imagine they have dozens or hundreds of other essays to read on the same topic. I imagine those other entrants would write in a certain way and emphasise certain points because those are the low-hanging fruits. Then, I would force myself to be different. I would pay special attention to the introduction because many jurors make up their minds about a piece based on the first few paragraphs — and that’s if they even read to the end. I would spend a great deal of time crafting the conclusion just in case. I would avoid typos. I would use a good font and justify the margins. I would have a fine cover page. And so forth and so on.

So, as a writer, you must also see yourself as the first consumer. You must conduct a product feedback survey starting with yourself. If you do not enjoy reading your own work, there’s a good chance not many others would. But for this to work, you must also have considerably high tastes.

What would most people do? This is exactly what the reader is expecting.

Avoid long quotes

Lengthy quotes are boring. Even worse when you leave two lengthy quotes next to each other. It is a sign that you prefer delegating the task of storytelling to your sources. You might as well just file a transcript of the interviews and not bother writing anything original.

I do not have proof, but it feels like people who dump long quotes in their articles are the same people who would copy verbatim from other articles to add context to their work. They couldn’t bother to digest the information and narrate it in their own words.

What you should do instead is to take your time. You are the architect of this story. Your duty is not only to accurately reproduce your interviews but to capture reality as truthfully and deeply as possible. Use quotes sparingly. They should only serve to spice up your report — words that cannot be better said by you or words that are better heard directly from the source, perhaps because they vibrate with sentiment or could spark controversy. (More on this later.)

Another mistake people make is to say something using their own voice and then follow that with a quote providing exactly the same information. Don’t do that.

Always keep in mind that you are the one telling the story. All those people you interviewed are just assisting you to do that. It is their story. But it is also your story. So don’t just jumble all the voices together without having yours shining through to guide the reader’s steps. Doing that is like cooking without water. It’s going to be clunky and ugly. Your voice is the water. Don’t add too much. Don’t add too little. As you cook, you add at intervals to ensure a good balance.

You don’t need that many ‘alsos’

When I edit, this is one of the things I’m on the lookout for. If your sentence is perfectly fine without the ‘also’, then you do not need it.

Other words writers recklessly sprinkle are however and meanwhile. ‘However’ has suffered. Half the time, it is not even used correctly.

The same word can be a flower or a weed, depending on the frequency of use. Even when you use the word only a few times, it helps to space it the same way you would evenly distribute salt in your food.

Don’t ‘said’ the story to death

I know you want to be absolutely clear that these are not your words, and you want to absolve yourself of responsibility in case they turn out to be untrue. So, every step of the way, you add a little disclaimer using the word “said”. When you write, “Mr D said he was 45 years old and was born in Ikeja, Lagos,” what you are implying is that you don’t trust Mr D to tell the truth, even about his age and birthplace. And it says a lot about your instincts as a journalist. Either that or it screams trust issues!

There are four kinds of statements you can get from interview subjects.

One, there are those you can narrate directly and matter-of-factly, like the one above. Obvious claims whose truths need not be questioned. When a source has no apparent motivation to lie about something, you can narrate what they said like an omniscient author.

Second, there are those you have to tie back to the source using variants of “said” or “according to” because the statements are exclusive to them, because they are more sentimental, or because they are slightly less believable and you have no way of confirming.

Third, there are those you must wrap in quotation marks either because they are so controversial the reader must know exactly how they were originally phrased or because they are poetic.

The fourth kind is statements you must omit entirely, usually because they are outrageous and would taint the credibility of your report unless verified.

Similar to this, perhaps, is that you do not need to know a hundred different ways to write “said”. Don’t go looking for a dozen synonyms of the word and throwing them all over the place like darts because you want to sound like a human lexicon. Always use words in their appropriate contexts. “Said” is one of those words the brain has become accustomed to (like the eyes have grown used to the bridge of the nose); it only leads to noise when ridiculously overused.


Yes, we hear it all the time. George Orwell said it in his Politics and the English Language. William Zinsser echoed it in On Writing Well. Paul Graham recently reminded us in his own way (hashtag: delve-gate). The reason, though, is simple. Words that come in smaller bites are better not only because most people are familiar with what they mean but also because they paint a picture in your mind or stir up an emotion in your chest when you read them.

‘Sun’ shows you something that ‘solar contraption’ does not. ‘Red with anger’ makes you feel something that ‘vexed’ or ‘exasperated’ probably doesn’t.

Meanwhile, writing simply is not just about the choice of words. It is also about not using more words than necessary. It is about crisp language. It is about using the active voice. It is about avoiding redundancy and noise. It is about technique. The lecturers we remember fondly were those with the best techniques. They knew how to illustrate ideas, how to place them in packages their audiences could easily grab. This could be through making the class interactive or using diagrams, case studies, and humour. The excellent writer must also be devoted to technique. You know what you have to say, but do you know how it should be said?

Structure, structure

Storytelling is like bricklaying. The order has to be deliberate. Decide what you want to say and how it should be arranged. Then, fill in the gaps.

What do you need to draw the reader in and whet their appetite? What should they learn afterwards? Perhaps a summary of the report? What should come next? What information should you add to simplify the information you just shared or make it more believable? This is how you should think about writing. It is a jigsaw puzzle; you can’t just throw the pieces on a table and hope for the best.

Well-structured reports may have other blunders, but they are usually an editor’s delight because they are easy to understand and work on. It all just falls into place like a self-assembling bridge.

One key thing to take note of when thinking about structure is that your story is not a chain of profiles or a timeline of events. Your job is not to introduce us to Mr A, tell us everything about Mr A, and then move on to Mr B with no further mention of Mr A. If you interviewed ten people, you mustn’t feel obligated to tell us the stories of all ten of them. Your article must not only be coherent; it must be concise.

Picture your story as a train with multiple carriages. Nobody should have a monopoly on one carriage except in exceptional cases, so the sign on the door does not say, Carriage Belonging to Mr A. If the whole train is called Maternal Mortality In Rural Nigeria, the carriages must carry names and elements that help us understand where the train is headed. You enter carriage one (called Intro), and you find Ms C, who shares how she almost lost her life when she delivered her baby because of a dysfunctional healthcare facility in her community. Beside her is the author. When she’s done, the author talks briefly about the routes the train is passing through and maybe shows you a page from a study demonstrating that Ms C’s experience is rampant across Nigeria. You move on to the second carriage (called Causes), and again, you find Ms C, and again, you find the author. You might find one or two other new characters. They all talk about the same thing: the causes of maternal mortality. You proceed to the third carriage, which is dedicated to another topic, with some of the old characters and maybe some new ones. It goes on like this until you reach the tail end. You find the author in nearly all the carriages, explaining things to you. He is both the pilot and the conductor. You find some characters in multiple carriages, some in only one carriage, and some are absent but are referenced by the author. If you just assign different carriages exclusively to different people, the passenger would hear the same background story over and over and become fatigued with boredom.

Anyone passing through your train must be able to tell what each carriage is about, whether or not there is a sign on the door, based on their interaction with the people in it. The division of your train must be based on issues rather than people.

When you are asked what the purpose is for any carriage and what the traveller must take away from it, you must have a clear answer.

Each coach must be integral to the rest of the story.

Be interesting

As a writer, your job is like that of a salesperson. You are meant to make people care about a thing, a person, or a topic, whatever it is. There’s no topic so boring that you cannot find a way to make it captivating. You only need the right voices, the right angle, and sometimes the right medium.

Do not hide the gist

Your writing is not a treasure map; your readers are not explorers. It is a trail of breadcrumbs, each one giving them a reason to anticipate the next. You have to make sure the first crumb is the most delicious. If it leaves a bad impression, it affects how the other crumbs are perceived.

Always put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Why should you care about the story? Why should you continue reading? Most people are attracted to the headline or the feature image. Some of them stay because of the introduction. You have to pass the most important message as quickly as you can while you have them. You also need to give everyone a reason to read to the end.

Let Google be tired of you

Confirm everything. The correct names of places. The correct spelling of a person’s name. The correct usage of a word. A more appropriate synonym. The appropriate context. The accurate statistic.

You are contributing to the first draft of history. Trust me, you don’t want to be wrong.

Read more

It is said so often because it is true. But it doesn’t mean reading just anything. You have to read so much good material that good writing starts sounding cliché to you. It is only when you get to this level that you can graduate from writing that is simply decent to something extraordinary. But reading isn’t limited to text. It can come in all sorts of ways. You read when you watch a good advert. When you listen to a riveting podcast. When you hear a great speech. When you experience fine poetry.

Just make sure you pay attention not only to the message but how it is presented. Why is it so effective?

Only then can you become extraordinary.

Avoid obese sentences

Don’t cram too much information into one sentence. You will leave your reader breathless. Break up those lines. Let the sentences be uneven in length, like Morse code.

Much ado about word count

Word counts were only truly useful during the print publication era when papers needed to pigeonhole articles into predetermined spaces. Now that we’ve gone digital, we do not need to be so obsessed with the thing. An article can be short and devastatingly horrible. Yet, it can be lengthy and refreshing. Besides, with how much technology has advanced, we can always have AI summarise long articles for readers who are in haste, providing them with multiple options.

When you write, do not be one of those people who count their words as though they are picking apart grains of rice. One of my most annoying recent experiences was commissioning someone to write an article under a contract that says the deliverable should be a minimum of 2,500 words, and then when it was filed, it was almost exactly 2,500 words. If all you care about is meeting the technical barest minimum, your writing will be shitty. You will dump long quotes and redundancies and academic jargon in your soup and end up making it watery.

Instead, be guided by quality. Work with the resources available. If what you can deliver is a 1,000-word banger, do that. If you think your piece has to be a long read for it to work, don’t clip its wings.

That article calls you father. Do not bear a hand in its death.

Avoid repetition and redundancy

For example, “about 50 in number”.

Every word in a sentence should have a purpose. If a piece of information can easily be implied from what you have already written, you don’t have to hammer on it. Be kind to your reader; do not assume the worst of their intelligence.

Also, if something has been stated in a quote, you don’t have to state it again outside quotes. The quotes are only there to elaborate on what has been said, not to reecho them — and vice versa.

Where you place pictures matters

Pictures are like punctuations. You can’t just put them anywhere.

Leave an impression

Your article should be one organic, orchestrated experience — especially if it is a feature. People who are patient enough to read to the end should leave with a reward, a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment and catharsis. Like we often said at the University of Ibadan literary and debating societies: when you strut away from the stage, you must leave behind you a smoke of ideas and leave the audience in a daze as they take their time to digest your words and recover.

And so, you must put as much thought into how you conclude your piece as you did into the introduction. Leave a strong impression.

Last September, I read Jennifer Senior’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article, What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind, and believe there’s a section that is relevant here.

Excerpt from an article published by The Atlantic in 2021. Author: Jennifer Senior.

At the end of the day, there’s no one way to write. It is one field where the saying ‘the end justifies the means’ truly can be applied. If you achieve your aim — whatever your aim is — you have done a good job. If your aim is to confuse people and your writing makes them absolutely dizzy, then you deserve praise and not condemnation. If your aim is to target a particular kind of audience, no one could fault your writing style for being esoteric. If your aim, however, is to connect with the minds of a wide range of people, you must aspire towards clarity and crispness of language. The only inexcusable sin is to write without purpose.

I leave you with the words of Faulkner, again from the interview with The Paris Review:

“There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error … The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

In writing, there are no rules. Only templates.

Ps. Forgive me. This was supposed to be a short listicle, but words are like vines; given enough nourishment, they just keep growing. Give yourself a pat on the head if you read all the way to the end. Also, please drop a comment if you’re so moved.



'Kúnlé Adébàjò

An arcless half-a-wise-guy who happens to write. All you need to know is at: