If you ever took a journalism class, you know the basics of writing nonfiction for newspapers and magazines. However, these basic tools can also help you hone your fiction into tight, sharp writing that is both clear and complete.

The basics are: Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Every journalism student has to memorize those words. Usually in that order. Sometimes one or more can be left out, but it should be a conscious decision with a good reason. The other day, for example, our local newspaper had an article about making the city greener, and explained about an organization giving away free trees in a few days. They did the who—the name of the organization. The what–a giveaway of three trees to anyone who showed up, The when–the date, The why–to make the city green. And the how–go and get the trees. They left out one vital fact, however. The where. No address, no clue about the location of the giveaway. So, both the reporter and the editor missed something really important. Oddly enough, they reported on the event after it was over (I believe this is yearly and they always give away the trees in the same location), told how many trees were given away, and—you guessed it, the location where it all took place. In this case, NOT better late than never.

The reader of fiction almost always needs all these elements, too, for the story to make sense. Leave one vital part out, and you’ve lost her. A good rule of thumb is to be sure you have them all there when you are finished with all your edits. Because you may have put them all in when you wrote the piece (or you may not have), and you may take something out that was really needed, or miss that something was left out in the first place. But if you look one last time for each element, you should be fine.

Have you gone back over a story and found you left out something vital? Let us know in the comments.