10 Tabloid Tips to Better Writing

Sure, tabloids are a fun read. But how can they actually make you a better writer? Peter Reilly has the answer!
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Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.

Shocking! Incredible! Amazing! Reading the supermarket tabloids can actually make you a better writer.

Some mainstream journalists and writers look down their noses at The National Enquirer, Star and Globe. But they shouldn't.

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These publications, owned by American Media, sell 3 million copies a week. The New York Times and ABC's Ted Koppel are among the mainstream news organizations and commentators who have praised the tabloids. So we must be doing something right—and I can tell you what that is because I've worked at all three publications, and I've trained more than a dozen people in the tabloid style.

Rather than write long and windy pieces to win awards, we write short and sensational stories to win readers!

Here are my 10 tabloid tips. The points I make can jazz up any type of writing.

1. Never Be Boring

Boring is the cardinal sin of tabloids. Take this noncelebrity story from The Enquirer about a man who constructed a canine house of worship. Rather than do it straight, the author wrote:

Cats may have nine lives—but dogs go to heaven! Just ask Stephen Huneck, who spent $200,000 building a church for dogs ...

This is your basic tabloid lead. You start your story with the commonly known statement about cats having nine lives, then set up tension with the dash and finish with the kicker that dogs go to heaven, a play on the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven. This statement then leads you into what the story is about.

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2. Find the "Hey Martha"

It's the amazing amount of money spent or the incredible feat accomplished that makes the reader turn to his wife and say, "Hey, Martha, get a load of this." It's not just that Huneck built a church for dogs; it's that he spent $200,000 to do it.

3. Use Your Best Shot

Tabloids tell the whole story in the lead. Lots of writers want to save the most fascinating aspect of a story as a payoff, but most readers are not going to wait around that long. The Globe began a review of Kirk Douglas' autobiography, My Stroke of Luck, like this:

Kirk Douglas put a pistol in his mouth determined to kill himself and only an accident of fate prevented him from pulling the trigger.

That's the most shocking element of the book and that's why the Globe started the story with it. The scene immediately engages the reader and makes him want to find out how Douglas got to that point of desperation.

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4. Make a Long Story Short

That is the essence of tabloid writing—to take 10 pages of notes and distill them into one page of copy packed with fascinating details, illuminating background, and hard-hitting action. Check out this pithy description of Queen Elizabeth for a Star story about feuding among the royals:

The Queen, 75, has been on the throne for 50 years and married to a grumpy husband for 54. Even palace insiders admit she shows more affection to her beloved pet corgis than to her dysfunctional family. Personal fortune of $2 billion has not bought her happiness.

5. Use Effective Transitions

When you write tightly, the transitions that take the reader from one aspect of a story to another are crucial.

Here's a moving transition from a story about the heroes of the Sept. 11 tragedies on Flight 93. After Todd Beamer said, "Let's roll!" and Jeremy Glick and others rushed the terrorists in the cockpit of the doomed aircraft, the Star used the transition, "Glick and the other heroes stormed from their seats and into history."

6. Pace Yourself

Vary your story with longer and shorter sentences to avoid monotony. For the most part, your paragraphs should be short and so should your sentences—three type-written lines for a sentence is the max. This creates the breathless feel of an exciting read.

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7. Keep it Simple

Write to express first, impress second. Write simply and directly. The reader shouldn't have to work to understand what you are saying.

8. Use Active Verbs

It's more exciting to write (and read), "Cops busted Robert Downey Jr. for drugs," than "Robert Downey Jr. was taken into custody by police for the possession of an illegal substance."

9. Have Fun with Puns

Journalism doesn't have to be deadly serious. In entertainment and offbeat news stories, it's OK to have a little fun. In a story about 60-year-old actor Harrison Ford dating a much younger woman, Star referred to him as "Raider of the Lost Cradle."

10. Give it a Top and Tail

This tip comes from the Globe's veteran tabloid man and editor in chief, Tony Frost. And what he means by it is that the story should be almost circular in construction, returning to the lead at the end of the story. Many newspapers use an inverted pyramid structure and cut to fit from the bottom. But a story shouldn't just trail off at the end.

In a story about Survivor IV contestant Gina Crews, Star began by saying she was already a survivor for having endured a terrifying bout with a stalker. And a friend was quoted who said that ability would serve her well on the show. After describing her ordeal, the piece came back to that thought at the end. "She's pretty good at seeing a situation and finding a way to deal with it," said the friend. "I think TV viewers will be impressed with her."

And readers will be impressed with you if you write tightly, brightly, and pump up your stories with exciting details. As the tabloids have proven time and time again—enquiring minds REALLY do want to know!

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