by Brad Nelson 10/18/15
I’ll grant that there is a bit of presumption in the following. I’m no great writer (certainly not notorious). But just as a great marriage counselor need not necessarily be married, one can make general observations on good writing without being Shakespeare. And quite often, those who do something at a high level make lousy teachers.
That said (with the entire purpose to open your mind an not have anyone dig in defensively), here are my suggestions (not requirements) for writing a sterling article. This is in the spirit of Rush’s “Caller Seminars” that he occasionally has in order to (in his case) improve his audience.
And I’ll put this (or try to put this) more in terms of what you should do rather than a bunch of “thou shalt nots.” I think that is more helpful, although by doing it in this form and soft-peddling, many in our home audience are likely to nod their head and think “Oh, yeah…I do that too…I’m good at that.”
Tips for Writing a Good Article
+ Unless you’re writing a mystery novel, tell people what your point or premise is in the first paragraph, then elaborate from there. Do not (oops…broke my commandment) wait until you are four or five paragraphs in before getting to the point.
+ Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is general guide in reporting to “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.”
+ Throwing spaghetti at a wall to see if something sticks is not the way to engage your reader. If your article bounces from topic to topic, this is what you are most likely doing. Pick a subject and stick with it. If there are related sub-topics, fine, but beware of throwing spaghetti.
+ Personal anecdotes are far better than remote analysis and intellectualizing. You may change the names to protect the ignorant, but it is very useful to cite real-world examples when making a point.
+ Split your paragraphs into digestible chunks.
+ Get out of your head and re-read your words as if you were another person reading them for the first time. This is a very difficult skill to develop but a necessary one. Very often two-fifths of what you think you are saying you are simply hearing inside your own head and are not contained in the actual words that you have written. It’s easy to fill in the blanks wordlessly because you already know (or should know) what you’re trying to say. Re-read your material and see if it makes complete sense to an outsider. I can’t stress this point enough.
+ Do not be Charles Krauthammer and adopt a super-serious and erudite persona. Let Charles me Charles and let you be you. Let some personality show through. And adopt a more conversational style as if you were actually talking to someone. Don’t go into “formal” mode. It’s too easy to sound like a robot or to intellectualize from afar. And that makes for boring reading. You want to be read, right?
+ Use humor. Don’t be so serious all the time.
+ Read good writers and then emulate them. Think about why they are good writers. In the same token, stay the hell away from Facebook and other intellectual and linguistic quagmires.
+ Take chances. Don’t play safe all the time. Dare to make a bad simile or metaphor. Strive to artfully use the English language to better and better effect. (Affect?…I never can keep these two straight.) But easy does it. By all means, use a two-dollar word instead of trying to cram a ten-dollar word down our throats. It’s a judgment call. Stretch your abilities without traveling too far from your home turf.
+ Clarity over length. They say that size matters, but not over clarity. No one here is under pressure to provide a weekly word count, so you don’t have that problem. But sometimes the desire to stretch things out tends to muddle things up when what we have to say is very simple and direct. If you must add length then use part of that length to cite examples. Making one solid point is better than a half dozen soft-baked ones.
+ If you do have a long article, or necessarily must engage related subtopics, then consider breaking your article into sections with a subhead in bold when you start a new section. This makes it easier for the reader to follow your argument. And adopting this device can help you make sure that you are organized and clear to begin with.
+ I write because I like to write. But at the end of the day, if you don’t escape your own head and have the reader in mind to some extent, then this can lead to mental masturbation. We must ask ourselves, “Who would want to read this?” And if the answer is “Only me” then fine. I’ve certainly written my share of that. Even so, it is a good exercise to have an audience in mind. But not in order to play to them, per se. It is so that you keep foremost in your mind that your job is to communicate. And that, ultimately, is the purpose of good writing.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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