Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Writing Lessons, Revisited

This week I finished the grading for the news and PR writing class I taught this semester at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with a group of such talented young people. And I hope the advice I doled out helps them in their careers and in their lives. 

What I shared with them was the advice I’d been given by past professors at Newhouse and read in my favorite writing book, "On Writing Well." And, while I hope the advice helps them, I know passing it on helped me – as a writer and otherwise. These are the lessons all professional writers need to be reminded of as often as possible.  Yet, we often get so caught up in the daily grind of writing, churning out press releases, speeches and talking points, that we forget the basics.   

First, write simply and clearly. In a world where too many professions create their own complex words and obscure vocabulary to communicate concepts, writers need to remember that the best writing avoids both. As my former professor Charles Salzberg often advised, write like you speak. Do not elevate your language to impress. Break it down to communicate your ideas. If you see a phrase like “best practices for long-term profitability” or “improved healthcare outcomes” dismantle and rebuild. The best professional writers translate complex ideas into words and examples we all understand: simple and clear.  

Follow a logical path. This one always takes me back to grammar school, where the nuns would make us outline our work before we began. It was an exercise in path making. And it worked. While I never made my students write an outline, I told them that good writers guide their readers along the path. It was the lesson most needed among a generation that usually writes in 140 characters or less. I told them to use their words, sentences and paragraphs like steps on a path. Once you master that ability, you can add complexity. But if you don’t follow a path, the readers won’t follow you.  

Everyone who writes professionally
should read this every year. Just saying.
Use strong verbs. This sage advice has been the hallmark of every writing instructor from Strunk and White to Roy Peter Clark. Professor Bill Glavin forced the lesson of strong verbs on my generation of Newhouse students. He made us write a few paragraphs without using any forms of the verb “to be.” It is hard. That’s not to say strong verbs need to be long and complex - far from it. Think of how the verb to breathe evokes a basic emotion. Strong verb convey meaning, motion and emotion. Make them work for you.  

Show, don’t tell. Often stated, but easily forgotten, this lesson separates the strongest writing from the rest. To make the point, I told a story. A few years ago, I went to see former President Clinton speak. He covered a wide range of topics and societal problems in need of fixing. When he spoke on health care, he told the story of a woman who had approached him on the rope-line after a speech in Georgia. She had two jobs and two children – one of whom was quite sick, a pre-existing condition -- and she worried about her family’s healthcare coverage. These years later, I don’t remember any of the policies covered. But I remember the story, and how it stirred the crowd. Stories, quotes, specific images, supporting facts, these are the writer’s best tools. It’s how we show, not tell.  

Thinking about the fundamentals of strong writing again, I revisited lessons I’d too long ago forgotten – or at least forgotten to remember. And I realized that, in my career, I had often strayed from this basic advice. I'd written too many press releases that read like policy briefs, speeches without stories and talking points devoid of facts. Rhetorical marvels all, but crappy examples of writing.   

So, my final piece of advice to the students was to revisit these simple rules of strong writing as often as possible. I'm sure glad I did.


Jack said...

I haven't had a chance to read the book but on your recommendation I just placed an order on Amazon.

Cort Ruddy said...

You won't be disappointed -- I hope.