One of the greatest gifts I ever received — the New Yorker magazine — came from my great-uncle Ollie.
I was only 12, and the New Yorker hooked me. I have been reading it ever since. Here’s the unique thing: Uncle Ollie did not buy me a subscription; no, he would read his own copy, then mail it to me every week from his home in New York to mine in Connecticut.
That is love.
Reading the New Yorker gave me a love for language, long before I came to appreciate the magazine’s rigorous fact-checking and lofty standards for clarity.
Clarity promotes success in business and in all of life. Confusion in all forms of written communication undermines investments of money, time and energy.
In coaching writers I offer this encouragement: “Make what you write ... say what you mean.”
To achieve that goal requires precision — the basis for concise, clear and compelling writing.
One of my most painful memories: a series on juvenile delinquency that I wrote as a rookie reporter for the Minneapolis Star. Revisiting it now, I do not hesitate to describe it as unreadable and interminable. It is filled with mind-numbing bureaucratic jargon. Not a single juvenile delinquent appears in the series, and, as a result, nothing human that a reader can connect with.
With experience and practice I got better. All of us can; we just have to keep trying.
At colleges where I have taught journalism, among them Yale, Columbia, the University of Minnesota and, for the past 22 years, Colorado College, I always open with a presentation on clear writing. I urge students not to write “writing,” but to write the way they talk. After all, they have no trouble talking about the highlight of their day to a college roommate, so why not write the way you talk?
It is a great way to start.
In this series of columns I will use anecdotes to illustrate principles of clear writing. Next time I will cover a key principle by telling a story from death row at the South Carolina State Prison. Stay tuned.
For now, here is a tip sheet on how to improve your writing:
1. Think about what you want to write.
2. Gather data.
3. Think about who will read what you write.
4. Create an OUTLINE of priorities. It will prove invaluable and will relieve stress.
5. Start writing. DO NOT EDIT as you write. Just pour it out.
6. Read aloud what you have written. If it doesn’t sound natural, change it.
7. Now edit and rewrite.
8. Read aloud AGAIN. If possible, read it to another person, and have another person read it to you. If necessary, REWRITE.
9. SEND IT.
Meanwhile, I want you to know what a thrill it is for me to be writing again for the newspaper where my career began.
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through www.writebetterwithgary.com