A visit with your writing coach: Writing with clarity and simplicity


Recently, I spoke to a group of professional communicators about the hazards of pretentious mumbo jumbo in workplace writing. We talked about what happens when we use fuzzy but important-sounding language, or seek to impress rather than to communicate clearly and simply.

Afterwards, a troubled professional who writes corporate publications — annual reports and the like — asked what she could do to “keep a foot in both camps.” She meant one foot in clarity and simplicity and the other in bafflegab.

“Why would you want to?” I asked.

“Well, to keep our credibility with our more intelligent readers. We have to write for ma and pa on the farm, and we also have to please a highly educated audience.”

What could I say? She misunderstands the nature of simplicity. But so do a lot of people. When I was teaching university writing, one of my students declared another professor to be “brilliant” because that professor so seldom said anything the student understood.

Let’s put aside the notion that ma and pa won’t understand anything very “intelligent”—the fact is there isn’t anything very intelligent about pretentious writing. To the contrary, one characteristic of intelligence is the ability to simplify, to make the complex easy to understand. Anyone can be unclear.

The way to credibility is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads. And the way to lose credibility is to veil the message in showy blather. Did Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg complain about the simplicity of his two-minute speech — a speech that still stands as a model of clarity and elegance?

Was Winston Churchill too clear when he said: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills”? That’s ma-and-pa writing, to be sure. But would Churchill’s more intelligent listeners have preferred “We shall engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?

Or does it turn out that what pleases ma and pa pleases us all?

Despite the beauty and superiority of simplicity, dense and opaque phrasing flourishes everywhere. It’s a particular problem in specialized fields—business, science, medicine, education, government, and so forth. Paradoxically, the more challenging the subject, the weaker the writing usually is. But that’s the very time we must be at greater pains to simplify and clarify.

Listen to this CEO: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” What would that CEO say if he were trying to communicate instead of impress?

The company had to cut costs.

Pretentious writing causes misunderstanding. When the message is obscured by verbal smog, the readers don’t, in fact, get the message. They misread and they misunderstand. The wasted time and effort as well as the cost of correcting mistakes make fuzzy writing an expensive habit.

Given its liabilities, what explains the appeal of bloated, pretentious language? (Or should I ask: “What elucidates the proliferation of indecipherable terminology and superfluous syllables”?) How does “he left his car and ran” become “the perpetrator exited his vehicle and fled on foot”? How does a banana become an “elongated yellow fruit”?

We could doubtless do a dissertation on the answers. But it’s enough to say that in trying to sound learned, to elevate our diction, we instead merely inflate it. Maybe we confuse simplicity with the over-simple. Maybe we think simplicity means “Run Dick Run.” But simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively, interestingly clear.

Should we avoid all long words and abstractions? No. It wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. A long word is the right word if it’s the best word. What damages clarity is piling up long and abstract words when short and concrete words are available. It’s writing “utilization” instead of use. Or “pursuant to” instead of concerning or regarding. Or “indicate” instead of say, show, or suggest. It’s “initiate” and “terminate” instead of begin and end, or “contingent upon” instead of depends on, “personal visitation” instead of visit, “telephonic communication” instead of phone call. It’s “financial wherewithal” for money, “funding” instead of funds, “programming” instead of programs.

How can we sidestep the snare of the pretension? As writers, we must stop mimicking meaningless language and buzz phrases. We must stop trying to impress and try instead to communicate—heaven knows that’s hard enough. In part, that means disabusing ourselves of the notion that big words “sound” better—more intelligent, more professional, more serious. In fact, short, familiar words promote communication, whether written or oral. Short words are small, strong, and suited to concrete story telling, while long words are bulky, weak, and suited to abstract report writing.

Would a good storyteller say: “He manifested displeasure as he gained access to his domicile”? No, the storyteller would say: “He scowled as he opened his door.” And, as we’ve seen, small words are not just for storytellers. They also benefit the complex and specialized worlds of informational writing. We should trust them more.


A visit with your writing coach: The perils of the anecdotal lead


When I discuss news writing on talk shows, listeners usually call in to complain about the anecdotal lead. Not that they know what to call it, but they do know how to describe it. Their complaints go something like this:

“I hate beginnings that don’t have any news in them. I hate beginnings that bore me with someone I don’t know who is doing something I’m not interested in. I hate to plow through all that stuff before I get to the news.”

If I ask for an example, they say: “All you have to do is look in today’s paper.” So I look in today’s paper, and this is the first lead I read:

“Dee Drake put down the rag she had been using to wipe the counter, put her hands on her hips and exhaled a small, exasperated sigh. It was another day of government gridlock, and the news out of Washington, playing on the television set above the bar, called for more of the same . . . . “My husband’s on Social Security and Medicare,” said Ms. Drake, the bartender at Alonzo’s Station Tavern, and resumed her wiping.”

Who would guess that this story is a report on the economy?

It’s hard to understand the media’s attachment to anecdotal leads. Most such leads are attempts to humanize stories. We begin with one person—a microcosm intended to represent macrocosm. When it works, fine. But it usually doesn’t work because most anecdotes are less interesting than the article itself and are therefore merely tedious impediments that delay the story. Check out the following anecdotal leads:

  • “It wasn’t gossip but good news that sent Georgine Farrill scrambling Saturday afternoon to call neighbor Charlotte Smith.”
  • “Aimee and Mark SooSoo owed so much money on their credit cards that the minimum payments alone added up to $2,000 a month.”
  • “It’s a sign of our changing times that LaRue Templeton showed up for the interview wearing a jump suit.”

The first thing we ask when reading such leads is “WHO?” Then our minds wander to other imponderables: So gossip sends Georgine Farrill scrambling? Is the SooSoo surname spelled correctly on their credit cards? How does LaRue’s jumpsuit signal “our changing times”?

To see how wrong-headed this approach is, consider that you and I meet not on the printed page or computer screen, but face to face. Would I begin our conversation by telling you that Georgine Farrill, whom you don’t know, phoned Charlotte Smith, whom you also don’t know? Or that the SooSoos, who live near Detroit and whom you’ve never met, are in debt? Or that LaRue Templeton, whoever he is, wears a jump suit that proves times are a-changin’?

Of course not. Such face-to-face approaches would be as bewildering and annoying as they are boring. So why the media’s blithe assumption that they would work in writing?

Such leads proliferate in part because some editors insist that writers get a human being in the lead—as if that were some journalistic Holy Grail. But just being human isn’t intriguing, and where did we get the idea it was? If the people in the lead are both unknown and dull, how could that capture our interest?

Consider an inherently interesting story—the closing of a hospital. In this case, Capitol Hill Hospital in Washington, D.C. Now, how do you close a hospital? What happens to all that equipment? You can’t just unplug it. What happens to the staff? What happens to the patients? Are they and their tubes wheeled to the exit on gurneys and stuffed into a U-Haul? See how fascinating this is?

Yet here’s the actual lead on the closing of Capitol Hill Hospital: “Rosalie Hansen placed her last patient yesterday.”

In focusing on one unknown employee and her uninteresting task, this humdrum lead ignores everything that could fascinate.

When you ask reporters or editors about anecdotal leads, they say they don’t usually find them interesting, either—but the readers do. Really? Who said? The readers themselves say they don’t find them interesting. We’re just not listening.

So we read: “Larry Nix and his wife, Linda, celebrate their birthdays, as well as their wedding anniversary, in May.” Now there’s a riveting piece of information. Or we read: “The tall fence, small cells, and prison scrubs are familiar to Yvette Jones, a Richland Hills Resident who said she used to work at a Texas prison.”

These are stories about (surprise!) a gift certificate scam and a protest against detaining immigrant families—both inherently interesting because of their news value. Their leads should have, but did not, reflect that news.

That’s not to say all anecdotal leads are bad. Some work well—forming a seamless and natural segue from anecdote to story. But when they work, it’s because of one vital factor: Both subject and anecdote capture our interest.


How to put together an ad sales pitch book

In this struggling economy, what strategies might you consider to enhance your likelihood for successful face-to-face meetings with advertisers? What should you bring along in addition to a copy of your newspaper and your newspaper’s website stats? Where would you turn? How would you gather the necessary information? Whom should you ask? What is available, both easily accessible and inexpensive?

Many of us have asked ourselves these questions during our selling and sales management careers. In my case, it was during my tenure at a small northern Illinois daily just after college. For you it might be the daily r, weekly where you work.  No matter what the circulation size or frequency of your newspaper, having an out-of-date, inadequate, or nonexistent pitch book can be both frustrating and discouraging to your sales efforts.

What’s a pitch book? 

 It is all the necessary information you need to help potential advertisers visualize why they should invest ad dollars (… new and additional revenue!) in your newspaper or website.

A pitch book is not a rate card.  It is more than that!  A pitch book ideally is a binder that contains information on your market, your newspaper, your competition, plus additional data you need to tell and sell your newspaper's story.

Developing a pitch book, even the most fundamental one, does not have to be a formidable, time consuming or expensive task.  It is possible even if you are at a newspaper that has limited research resources, both human and financial.

Let's consider for a moment building your own bare bones pitch book.  It may be bare bones initially, but as you use it, adding to and subtracting from, it will become a well-used and trusted ally in your progress toward sales success.

How, you ask, will you be able to develop a pitch book with limited or no research resources?  It's easy, and it can be fun.  It will teach you more about your market, your newspaper, and your competition.

First, you will need to refocus those selling skills and do a little bit of investigative work. Ask lots of questions.

But what are we going to investigate?  Available, and in some cases free, resources to develop more facts, data, and information about your market, your newspaper, and your competition in order to create, build, and refine your pitch book.

What resources?  Where?  Right there, in front of you.  Consider the following everyday sources of information:

For Market Information — The first, and possibly the best, resource may be your own newspaper.  Don't overlook any departments or personnel (advertising, editorial,circulation, newsroom, and senior management). Begin a reference file featuring photocopies of news stories about your market (its growth, changes, population, schools, new retailers/employers, demographics). Don't forget to tag each story with the newspaper's name and date of story. In addition, keep an eye out for feature stories about your market in other area newspapers, regional business journals, and even your competition!

Another resource is Realtors, both commercial and residential; Banks; Savings & Loans; Credit Unions — all of these businesses track their customer base and how it relates to your market and their business. Ask them if they will share the information with you, volunteer to share your information, and give appropriate credit for the information. New housing starts, average home price, new payroll dollars, growth in retail sales, available/spend able income dollars are all important to your potential advertisers and help sell your market, and your paper.

Also, local college/university/branch campus, libraries, and government sources, both national (Small Business Administration) and local (Chamber of Commerce, Grange, County Economic Development Council) — these are great sources for economic (Censusstatistics, population, age, income, educational information) and historical (your local town origin, county origin, reasons behind largest town social/economic event) data.  All of this information helps you paint the picture about your market and the people your newspaper serves.

Do not overlook checking and reviewing any and all of your local market’s websites, including your newspaper’s, your competitor’s (radio, television, yellow pages, direct mail, billboards) and other print niche publications.

For Newspaper Information— As with your search for market information, your first resources may be your newspaper and your newspaper’s website. Talk to everyone within your newspaper organization and search out any information regarding your newspaper's history, goals and mission, readership, unique visitors, and circulation. Strategically plan how you will use this information to tell your story to your potential advertisers. Begin writing your story, by using individual facts and data, demonstrating how your newspaper and your newspaper’s web site will bring your audience (the buyers) and your advertiser (the seller) together.

If your newspaper sources are limited and incomplete, reach out and ask your state press association for assistance. They are a wealth of information, perhaps not as much on your market, but on the state overall and the newspaper industry in particular.  Your state press association will have lots of resources available.  Whether it's current circulation trends, average readers per copy, who is reading newspapers, who visits newspaper websites, how well newspapers and their websites work or the emerging technology questions regarding the Internet — your newspaper association can help you.

In addition to your local press association, the Newspaper Association of America  and the National Newspaper Associationare repositories for the newspaper industry and related areas (couponing, retail sales trends, population shifts, newspaper readership, and new technologies). In Texas, the Centeris an easily accessible resource for you. Last but not least, network with other newspapers in your region or state to discuss what's new, what's available, what's working.

For Competitive Information— just ask.  To learn about your competition and what they are doing in your market, ask those advertisers, both existing and new, if they would share their competitive strategy (and information) with you. Call your competition, ask some questions, and request a rate card or media kit. You do not have to identify yourself, and if you are not asked you do not need to tell them who you are or why you are calling. Then again, if your competitor asks, and you identify yourself, what is the worst they can say?  No.

To learn about a particular medium (cable, radio, direct mail) call an out-of-market competitor, who will probably give you specific information on their station or mailing and broad based information on the media, radio or direct mail, which you can use.

Keep looking for new resources.  Keep updating your pitch book.  It's your pitch book.  Make it work for you.  It will help you become the resource your advertisers turn to first when they need information and, in the process, build your confidence and belief in yourself, newspapers, your newspaper and its website.

Have fun and good luck!


Series explores Texas criminal justice issues

The Texas Center for Community Journalism at Texas Christian University is embarking on a statewide initiative to investigate the fairness of in the Texas criminal justice system, especially in cases that deal with indigent defense. The project is being underwritten by the Hood County News.

Kathy Cruz, staff writer for the News and a consultant in investigative reporter for the Center, is writing the series about the quality of legal services in Texas and the impact of the justice system on those who are accused of crimes, as well as the impact on their families.

The stories are being provided to community newspapers throughout the state free of charge, and papers will be encouraged to investigate the quality of legal services within their own counties.

“I cannot think of a more important project,” said Jerry Tidwell, publisher of the News. “Community newspapers typically do not have the staff and the resources to take in-depth looks at statewide issues. This is a way to help them and, in the process, provide a service to the people of Texas.”

Tommy Thomason, director of the Center, said he hopes that Texas community newspapers will use the series as a starting point to look at issues relating to the court system in their city and county.

“We see this series as a starting place for many other investigations around Texas,” Thomason said. “We all have a tremendous stake in the fairness of the criminal justice system, and newspapers have a responsibility to the public to be watchdogs on that system. If newspapers don’t do it, who will?”

To download one of the files below, just click on the file name. The images will open in your Web browser and you can use File > Save to save the image to your computer. The text files will open in your computer's default text-editing program. For a description of the various images that are part of the project, see the file "justice for all photos.docx". For the series logo you see on the right, see the file JusticeTCCJSeriesLogo.pdf.