For my first couple of years of college I was a journalism major. I really enjoyed it, but ended up changing my major after the former award-winning editor of the big school newspaper returned to give a much-anticipated Career Day speech. He shuffled to the front of the class, leaned on a chalk board, and began his speech with, “It’s worse than you think.” As soon as he wrapped up the last story of nearly starving to death after months on end of unemployment, low pay, and terrible hours, I ran over to the administration building to change my major.
I’m really glad I spent two years in that major, however, since it prepared me well for blogging (and that’s what counts, right?) The intense focus on brevity and clarity — and writing on tight deadlines — has served me well in my 3+ years of having various blogs. Not that I’m a great writer, but the school of thought of “cut, then cut some more” has served me well in distilling and organizing my thoughts as I put them to paper (or to screen, as the case may be). It’s helped me to think more clearly, and hopefully to write more clearly.
When I think back on what I learned in all those classes, one article we read in Journalism 101 always stands out. It concisely summarized all the key points I took away from my journalism training. I thought I had lost it years ago, so I was excited when I discovered it this morning among some newly unpacked books.
I think advice is really helpful, especially for bloggers who write for short-attention-span web surfers, so I’m going to type up some highlights for anyone else who might be interested. Enjoy!
How to write clearly
by Edward T. Thompson (former editor of Reader’s Digest)
If you are afraid to write, don’t be. If you think you’ve got to string together big fancy words and high-flying phrases, forget it. To write well, unless you aspire to be a professional poet or novelist, you only need to get your ideas across simply and clearly. […]
If, while you’re writing for clarity, some lovely, dramatic or inspired phrases or sentences come to you, fine. Put them in. But then with cold, objective eyes and mind ask yourself: “Do they detract from clarity?” If they do, grit your teeth and cut the frills.
SOME BASIC GUIDELINES
Start where your readers are
How much do they know about the subject? Don’t write to a level higher than your readers’ knowledge of it.
Caution: Forget the old — and wrong — advice about writing to a 12-year-old mentality. That’s insulting. But do remember that your prime purpose is to explain something, not prove that you’re smarter than your readers.
Use familiar word combinations
A speech writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society.” F.D.R. changed it to, “We’re going to make a country in which no one is left out.”
Use “first-degree” words
These words immediately bring an image to your mind. Other words must be “translated” through the first-degree word before you see the image. Those are second/third degree words. Some examples:
- face ==> visage, countenance
- stay ==> abide, remain, reside
- book ==> volume, tome, publication
First-degree words are usually the most precise words, too.
Be as brief as possible
Whatever you write, shortening — condensing — almost always makes it tighter, straighter, easier to read and understand. Condensing…is in large part artistry. But it involves techniques that anyone can learn and use.
- Present your points in logical ABC order: …To write in a straight line is to say something clearly in the fewest possible words.
- Don’t waste words telling people what they already know: Notice how we edited this: “Have you ever wondered how banks rate you as a credit risk?
Many banks have a scoring system…” You know, of course, that it’s some combination of facts about your income, your job, and so on, but actually
- Cut out excess evidence and avoid unnecessary anecdotes: Usually, one fact or example (at most, two) will support a point. More just belabor it. And while writing about something that may remind you of a good story, ask yourself, “Does it really help to tell the story, or does it slow me down?”
- Look for the most common word wasters: Some examples:
at the present time ==> now
in the event of ==> if
in the majority of instances ==> usually
- Look for passive verbs you can make active: Invariably, this produces a shorter sentence. “The cherry tree was chopped down by George Washington.” (Passive verb and nine words.) “George Washington chopped down the cherry tree.” (Active verb and seven words.)
- Look for positive/negative sections from which you can cut the negative: See how we did it here: “The answer
is having enough people to do the job.” does not rest with carelessness or incompetence. It lies largely in
- Finally, to write more clearly by saying it in fewer words: When you’ve finished, stop.
Just thought I’d share in case there are any fellow writing nerds out there. 🙂
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