Passed Down: Bill Glavin's Writing Tips

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. 

I stand on the shoulders of Charles Anzalone, who nurtured the seeds of my journalism career at the University at Buffalo.

Anzalone stands on the shoulders of Bill Glavin of Syracuse University's Newhouse College. Glavin died of cancer in 2010, after spending 38 years teaching students "the wizardry of telling a true story."

I never met Bill Glavin, but I felt the avalanche force of his teaching through an editing class I took with Anzalone, who gave us an extraordinary document of Glavin's make. It looked to be printed in Courier, possibly a photocopy of a photocopy of a typewritten document from who knows when. The document contains 34 tips (though No. 24 is missing), some riffing on Strunk and White, some on standard journalism adages of yore.

A few quick searches reveals its nonexistence on the Internet. That's a shame. A shame I'll correct.

Here are Bill Glavin's writing tips.

(If anyone can provide a source, I'm happy to link/remove this post.)


  1. Never write anything you would be ashamed to say aloud. This rule is most commonly broken by sportswriters, who revel in the use of terms like "two-bagger," "hoopster," and "charity stripe." Such persons are to be pitied.
  2. Use strong, active verbs. Avoid forms of the verb "to be."
  3. Use strong, short words. If the film had been called "Vocalizin' in the Precipation," it would have flopped, and Gene Kelly might have drowned.
  4. Use active voice. Passive voice deadens prose.
  5. Write with nouns and verbs. Avoid modifiers.
  6. Avoid the words "not" and "very."
  7. Avoid repeating yourself. Make a point, prove it, and move on.
  8. Never confuse your readers, or bore them. Readers are under no obligation to read your piece, and would probably rather be watching "Wheel of Fortune." Give them no excuse to do so.
  9. Remember that the reader must know what you mean because of what you have written and not in spite of what you have written. Clarifying complex concepts is the writer's job. If the writer fails to do so, the reader will leave the piece.
  10. Avoid questions, rhetorical or otherwise. Your job is to answer them, not to ask them.
  11. Start most sentences with a subject. Sentences that begin with modifying elements slow down prose. Use them sparingly. And be careful when using them. When a sports announcer says, "For those of you who just joined us, the score is four to two," he is implying clearly that for persons who have been watching the game, the score is different.
  12. Place the point, and the punch, at the end of the sentence.
  13. Keep yourself out of the piece unless you are the main character, because once you enter the piece, you become the main character.
  14. Never tell the reader how difficult your job is. The fact that a source kept you waiting for 20 minutes is unlikely to elicit much interest, or sympathy, from a reader who has spent his day unloading sides of beef from a freight car.
  15. Write about people. The demand for articles about penguins is limited.
  16. Avoid using dull quotes. Paraphrase to make the point more clearly. If you cannot write more clearly than most people speak, your future may be in accounting.
  17. Become a good observer. Of all the research methods, observation is the least used, and the most effective.
  18. Show, don't tell.
  19. Use anecdotes that make points. Write them simply and clearly. Avoid telling them in someone else's words.
  20. Start anecdotes with a time and place. A reader should always know where he is and what time it is. One Billy Pilgrim is enough.
  21. Use symbols, but remember that the article must be understandable to the reader who sees only those used by drummers.
  22. Be sure that you know what you want to say before you start saying it. If you cannot state your theme in 15 or fewer words, you have no theme.
  23. Place attributions within, or after, quotations. Attribution before quotations should be limited to radio and television, despite the fact that Time has decided that such placement works well. Time has been wrong before. (An exception might exist if you are running consecutive quotes from different sources.)
  24. ---
  25. Avoid newspaper non-sequiturs, like the following:
    1. "Born in Minneapolis, he was a pilot for 25 years."
    2. "The pert 75-year-old grandmother spoke of her college days at Radcliffe."
  26. Make certain that each sentence makes one point.
  27. Make certain that each paragraph makes one point.
  28. Use topic sentences.
  29. Be certain that the first and last sentences in each paragraph are strong. If they are, the reader will read the whole piece, and may even enjoy the experience.
  30. Avoid jargon. If interpersonal communication is communication between (or among) persons, is personal communication talking to oneself?
  31. Suspect yourself of wordiness whenever you start a sentence with the phrase, "there is," or "there are."
  32. Tell stories in the past tense.
  33. Look for your writing style is within yourself. Writers develop styles by writing as simply and clearly as they can. If you strive for simplicity and clarity, your style will develop.
  34. Remember that bad writers think that writing is easy; good writers think writing is hard, and I think there is a lesson in there somewhere. 
  35. Stop when you are finished.