A visit with your writing coach: 3 attributes of good writing

In the following Q & A, we ask author and educator Paula LaRocque about the basics of writing well.

Paula is one of the country’s foremost writing coaches. She’s taught thousands of professionals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. She served as writing coach for the Associated Press, the European Stars & Stripes, and the Drehscheibe Institute in Germany. She taught writing at Texas Christian, Southern Methodist, Texas A&M, and Western Michigan universities, and for 20 years was writing coach at The Dallas Morning News. She’s author of four books, and in 2001 received the Associated Press Managing Editors highest honor: the Meritorious Service Award for Exemplary Contribution to Journalism.

Q. Paula, thank you for being willing to speak with us about writing.

A. You’re welcome.

Q. We know you’ve developed specific guidelines for writing well. We also know that one of those guidelines is to get right to the point. So let’s get right to the point: In a few words, what constitutes good writing?

A. Accuracy. Clarity. Brevity.

Q. It’s that simple?

A. It’s that complex. Accuracy is simple enough. No decent writer questions the need for accuracy; you just commit to truth and fact in content, and to Standard English in form. Nor do writers balk at the need for clarity and brevity—in someone else’s work.

Q. Not in their own?

A. I’ve found that the weaker the writer, the stronger the resistance to clarity and brevity. We can liken that reaction to the mountain granny’s response to the preacher’s Sunday sermon. Every time the preacher condemned the sins of the other parishioners—moonshinin’, say—she’d cry Amen, brother! and spit tobacco juice emphatically into the spittoon. Or say he condemned lyin’ and thievin’. She’d cry Amen! Amen! and send saliva ringing against the spittoon. And when it came to coveting thy neighbor’s wife—well, it was Amen! Amen! Amen!

But! When the preacher mentioned the “sins” of chewin’ tobaccy and dippin’ snuff, the ol’ granny sat back in disgust and muttered: “Now he done stopped his preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!”

Q. [Laughter] I guess it depends upon whose ox is being gored. But why would anyone resist such worthy ideals as clarity and brevity in writing?

A. They are worthy ideals, but achieving them often takes hard, slogging work. After all, simple English is no one’s mother tongue. And the weakest writers are going to have to work the hardest, and to change the most. So it’s often easier to reject the idea that one’s writing is unclear than it is to clarify it.

And let me ask you: When are writers rewarded for the extra work of being clear and brief? Clarity and brevity are all but invisible. The readers know only that they’ve read quickly and understood well. It might not occur to them that being able to read quickly and understand well is to the writer’s credit. Literate readers will immediately understand when the writing is accurate, clear, and concise. I can add that the writing we love—the writing we call seamless or beautiful or compelling—is inevitably clear writing. Maybe we love without always knowing why.

Here’s another question: When are we taught to recognize the simple mechanical attributes of muddy writing—especially when the writing is our own? Put another way, when was Blather 101 part of the curriculum? Consider the CEO who wrote: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” When I suggested that he write instead: “We had to cut costs,” he accused me of changing his style. Here’s an educated professional who thinks mumbo-jumbo is a “style.” And worse, that it’s a style worth cultivating.

Q. Are there simple and recognizable mechanical attributes in poor writing?

A. Yes. And some are as easy and routine as the number of words in a sentence. Or the number of ideas in a sentence. Or the number of prepositions. Or numbers themselves.

A. OK, so let’s have a crash course in Blather 101.

A. Trying to impress rather than to communicate. Wordiness. Empty, showy, pretentious, abstract, timid, overqualified, euphemistic phrasing. Hiding one’s uncertain grasp of the subject in gobbledygook. Or hiding one’s fear of clarity in a veil of ambiguity . . . I’m remembering a reporter who remarked when we’d rewritten some of his stories: “If I’m going to be that clear, I’d better also be that right.”

Q. So how about a crash course in good writing—Writing Tips 101?

A. You’ve heard writing experts say to write as you speak. But that goes too far and yet not far enough. It’s more helpful to say that we should write as we speak when we speak well. Avoid the trite or hackneyed—journalese and media-speak, for example. Skip clichés and trendy talk and use your own fresh vocabulary.

Know there’s a difference between simplicity and the simple-minded, and put away forever the notion that clarity dumbs anything down. Write below the tenth-grade reading level as calculated by your computer’s software—because studies show that even the most highly educated readers prefer to read at or below that level. And remember that the more difficult the subject, the simpler the writing about that subject should be. I say this because some writers use the difficult subject as an excuse for a difficult style.

Prefer short sentences and short words. Prune prepositions and numbers. Lose qualifiers such as very, really, completely, rather, quite, etcetera, and use instead precise words that need no qualification.

Oh, and have little faith in your computer’s grammar checker. What the computer does well, it does very well. But it is a machine and therefore reacts in rote. But grammar and usage are not always rote. In short, artificial intelligence is wonderful, but sometimes we need the real thing.

Q. So we’ve gone full circle—back to accuracy and the importance of accuracy.

A. Yep. And I done stopped my meddlin’. . . . Let me just add that what we’ve said here is largely abstract. But in my writing tips to come, we’ll put some meat on these bones. We’ll look at concrete and simple techniques for making any writing better—as well as easier and faster.

Q. We’ll look forward to that. Thank you, Paula LaRocque.

A. You’re welcome.

By Paula LaRocque

Paula LaRocque, one of America's foremost writing coaches, is an author, editor, and communications consultant. She has conducted writing workshops for hundreds of media, government, academic, and business groups across the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has also been a writing consultant for the Associated Press, the Drehscheibe Institute in Bonn, and the European Stars & Stripes in Germany.

She has been a columnist for the Society of Professional Journalists' Quill magazine for more than 20 years. Her commentaries air regularly on National Public Radio in Dallas. She is also the author of three books on writing.

Since leaving The Dallas Morning News in 2001, Paula has been writing fiction and has completed the first two of a mystery novel series. Currently, she's a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Inc., and the Dallas-Fort Worth Writers Workshop.