It was 1988 and I was working in my first journalism job; I was a staff writer at a small newspaper in Sheldon, Iowa.
The newspaper had a renowned sports section, and an Omaha native named Ken was the sports editor.
Every Friday night Ken would count the number of column inches he had written during the week. He’d then stand up, clear his throat, and announce the total to anybody who was in the newsroom.
The column-inch total always was more than 500, sometimes more than 600 — an astounding amount. It’s the equivalent of more than 35 articles, which means Ken cranked out at least seven pieces per day — more than twice the production of your average newspaper writer.
Ken’s production earned him a nickname, which he gave to himself: Robowriter.
Ken Thanked His Staff
Ken’s relationship with the newspaper’s publisher was strained. Low pay and ridiculous hours were the source of Ken’s discontent.
One day the publisher, while giving an advertiser a tour of the newspaper building, pointed out where the sports staff worked, giving the impression that there was more than one person who produced The REVIEW’s magnificent sports section.
The “staff” was Ken.
Ken overheard the “staff” boast, and he was spitting mad. Literally. He groused about the “staff” remark forever after, and his weekly column-inch announcement gained a new element: Ken caustically congratulating his “staff” for their work.
Ken was prolific, but here’s the amazing bit: nearly every paragraph he wrote was exceptional. I know because I was Ken’s copy editor. (We wore many hats at the newspaper.)
In state and national newspaper competitions, it was common for Ken to take first, second, and third place in the sportswriting categories. He had so many plaques, he used them as bookends and door stops, not unlike the rich man lighting a cigar with a Benjamin.
There was a secret to Ken’s writing, and it’s easy for anyone to use:
As he was writing, Ken read everything out loud.
It didn’t bother the newsroom staff, because Ken kept the volume low — one notch higher than speaking “under your breath.”
When reading out loud, Ken would find the run-on sentences, the awkward transitions, and the badly-chosen adjectives. He would rewrite and then read aloud again, until he was satisfied with how his writing sounded.
In my years as a newspaper editor, I encouraged my writers to use Robowriter’s secret; it always improved their writing.
If you read your writing out loud, you’ll immediately be a better writer. If you make reading out loud a habit, you could become a great writer.