If at first you don’t succeed, start again

wastebasketNot everything you write is worth your reader’s reading.

Most writers, having toiled over a piece of prose, are reluctant to admit that, sometimes, what they have written is simply not good enough.  Perhaps it doesn’t say what they need it to say.  Or perhaps it doesn’t say it very clearly or concisely.

But the writer has already invested time and effort in this piece of sub-standard communication.  She has written it; she has reviewed it; she has tweaked it (often several times); and now time is running out.  The deadline that had once seemed comfortably distant is now scarily close.

What to do?

In my experience there are only two things worth trying.  The first is to get someone who hasn’t been involved in the writing or tweaking to review it.  Sometime a fresh pair of eyes will be able to quickly spot what’s right and what’s wrong.  And, hopefully, what’s wrong can be quickly put right.

The second option is to start again with a clean sheet of paper.  Unfortunately, many writers are reluctant to consider this second option.  But, in my experience, the sooner you start again the better.  And it does need to be a clean sheet of paper.  Don’t try and work over the old version.  Don’t try to save what you thought were ‘the good bits’.  That’ll just take you back into the unsuccessful past.

Sometimes, as Isaac Bashevis once observed: ‘the wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.’

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Polished wibble

AcademiaI have spent my working life in the communication business.

I have written for print media.  I have written for radio.  I have written for film and TV.  And, for a good part of the past 20 years, I have written (or edited) reports designed to inform or influence decision-makers.

In the early days, the people with whom I worked were often marketers or market researchers.  Latterly, I seem to have worked with more and more academics.

The marketers were often one step away from being snake oil salesmen.  As one of my former clients was wont to say: ‘It’s all about promise writ large.  Forget the sausage.  A sausage is just a sausage.  Sell the sizzle.’

And the market researchers were often unhelpfully cautious.  On the one hand this; on the other hand that.  ‘Oh, I would so like to meet a one-handed market researcher,’ a client once told me.

But the shortcomings of both the marketers and the market researchers pale in comparison with those of many academics.  The marketers may often have overstated their case.  And the market researchers may sometimes have been reluctant to get off the fence.  But at least they generally said what they said reasonably clearly.  Too many academics employ several thousand words – many of them long, esoteric words – to say, well, who knows what?

As one of my colleagues observed, the language of academia is often ‘polished wibble.  It looks impressive.  But it says very little.’

He also observed that many general readers think that if they can’t understand what an academic has written it must be because they are not brainy enough.  But that’s seldom true.  If the general reader can’t understand what the academic has written, it is probably because the academic has not written it very well.

More than 50 years ago, Rudolf Flesch devised a Reading Ease formula.  (You will find it included in many word processing programs.)  A score of 60 or more suggests writing that most general readers will easily understand.

But the majority of academic writing that has crossed my desk over the past couple of years has struggled to score 20.  One memorable piece scored a miserable 2.3.  That’s not effective communication.  That’s just wibble.

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The advantage of getting it down on paper

write it downA year or two back, we were approached by a fast-talking (literally) businessman with a bunch of almost totally unrelated ideas and sentences that he wanted us to assemble into ‘a key document’.

‘What’s the key message of this key document?’ we asked.

‘The key message?’

‘Yes.  What do you want the reader to take away?’

‘What I’ve just told you,’ he said.  ‘Oh, and there are a couple of diagrams that you need to include.  They’re really important.  I’ll email them.’

The more that we thought about his ‘notes’ and ‘thoughts’, the more clear it became that he really had no idea of what he wanted to say.  He had some glib phrases and some almost-impressive sound bites.  But he had no real message.  He had no clear objective.

He had given us 30 or so plausible-sounding sentences.  But, taken as a whole, they didn’t say anything that made sense.  Tossed off at a dinner party, some of them may have sounded vaguely interesting.  A couple may even have sounded slightly impressive.  But, written down, they added up to ‘So what?’

And that’s why writing it down can be so useful.

As the American cartoonist and commentator Dick Guindon once said: ‘Writing is nature’s way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.’

If you think you have a great idea – or something important to say – write it down, carefully, in the simplest language that you can muster.  And then put it aside for an hour or a day before reading it back.  Does it in fact say what you want it to say?  Does it say something worthy of your reader’s attention?

Unfortunately, not everything that trips off the tongue says something worth saying.

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Speak your truth quietly and clearly

desiderataBack in my student days, it seemed that almost every one of my contemporaries owned a copy of Desiderata.  It was usually displayed in poster form – alongside the mandatory posters of Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Che Guevara.

More often than not, the poem was credited to Anonymous and was described as having been found in an old church – sometimes named as Old St Paul’s – in 1692.  In fact the poem was written much later.  In 1927.  By a chap named Max Ehrmann.  But why let a few facts get in the way of a good story?

With a particularly acrimonious election campaign now underway, I recently found myself recalling snatches of Desiderata.  In particular, I found myself recalling the part that advises:

‘Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.’

Also, the further suggestion:

‘Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.’

What is it about politics that makes so many people – politicians, journalists, and entrenched supporters of one side or the other (but, regrettably, mainly from the left) – feel that they need to shout?  What is it that makes them feel that they need to be loud and aggressive?

Trust me: if you have something worth saying, you may speak your truth quietly and clearly and I will be only too happy to listen.  But if you persist in shouting, I will simply attend to more measured voices.

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For whom are you writing?

ZinsserMany years ago, when I worked in advertising, it used to be said that there were three legs to the successful copywriting stool.

The first was: Who are you writing for?  The second was: What is the single most important thing you have to tell this person?  And the third was: Why should they believe you?

Get one of those things wrong (we were told) and the stool would fall over.

I remember the ad agencies – especially the bigger ones – spending a lot of time and effort defining the target audience.  Who was this person?  How old were they?  Where did they live?  Where had they gone to school?  Where did they shop?  What did they buy?  What did they believe?

And then later, when I started writing for magazines, I remember the editor of a sailing magazine telling me that the magazine’s typical reader was ‘a sea dreamer’: someone who loved the idea of offshore cruising – even though they would probably never get to sail out of sight of land.

The editor of a business magazine told me that his magazine’s typical reader was a mid-level manager looking for a fast track to the top.  ‘They don’t want to be told that it’s a long road to a C-level job.  They want a story with a moral, and a few buzzwords that they can trot out tomorrow.’

And so, for 20 years or so, I tried to write what I thought the reader wanted to read.  Sometimes, the feedback suggested that I got it spot on.  At other times, the lack of feedback suggested that perhaps I didn’t.

And then I read William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well.

In Chapter 5, The Audience, Mr Zinsser convinced me that, even with the best will in the world, you can’t really second guess the reader – or even the editor.  And, in his opinion, the best strategy is always to write for yourself.  If your reader likes what you have to say – and how you say it – you’ve achieved your objective.  And, as Mr Zinsser so cheerfully puts it: ‘If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.’

If you’re still reading at this point, then you know that Mr Zinsser was not altogether wrong.  And if you’ve already stopped reading … well, what can I say?

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Quelle surprise!

ProduceMany years ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty polished piece about the opening of a new hardware store.  I handed my copy into my editor and, 15 minutes later, she was standing by my desk.

‘I read the first couple of sentences,’ she said, ‘and I knew exactly what was coming next.’

‘Is that good?’ I asked.

She shook her head.  ‘What you’ve written is “dog bites postman”.  Readers want to be surprised, informed, entertained.  They want to read about the postman who bites a dog.’

I was about to protest that my piece had nothing to do with dogs or postmen, but I could see what she meant.  My report was predictable and it was heavy with clichés.

Christine has long-since retired.  But some of her successors would do well to remember that readers still want to be surprised, informed, and entertained.

Here’s the opening of a piece I came across earlier today.  It started by saying that a certain person ‘is passionate about healthy and delicious food that is quick, simple and easy to prepare.’

She is a cook, for goodness sake.  A celebrity cook.  She’s trying to sell cookbooks and attract viewers to her TV show.  Of course she’s passionate about healthy and delicious food.

We are then invited to ‘Follow her as she takes off on a culinary journey … celebrating the abundance of fine food along the way.’

Cliché upon cliché.

Finally we are told that this celebrity cook ‘will put to use the best local ingredients she can find to create her own delicious dishes which are guaranteed to make your mouth water!’

Well, we certainly don’t expect her to be using the worst local ingredients she can find.  And make my mouth water?  Hmm, perhaps.  But isn’t that up to me to decide – even without the unnecessary exclamation point?

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Memo: Re those emails

MemoI began my working life during the era of the memorandum.  Back then, memos came in many flavours.  Some were written to inform the reader; but, as Dean Acheson famously quipped, many many more were written simply to protect the writer.

And don’t think that just because they were laborious to produce – drafting, typing, amending, adjusting, retyping (often more than once), and then delivering them by hand or by snail-mail – that they were few and far between.  Despite many of them having little relevance to the recipient, they tumbled into our physical inboxes almost as frequently as emails now tumble into our virtual inboxes.  How often they got read … well, that’s another matter.

But there were exceptions.

For a while, I worked for an organisation headed by a man whose memos had an almost poetic quality to them.  They were generally quite short – a paragraph or two at most – beautifully crafted, and, like any good poem, they were almost always rewarding to read.

After three or four years, our paths diverged: I moved off to another organisation, and, soon after, the chairman-poet moved into semi-retirement.  But then, a few years later, I ran into him – quite by accident – and we ended up having a meal together.

During the course of the meal, I told him how much I had admired his memos.  Was there a secret?  I asked.

He confessed that it often took him as long as 20 minutes or half an hour to compose one of his compact communiques.  But he consoled himself with the knowledge that if he dashed something off in three or four minutes, and then nobody read it, that was three or four minutes totally wasted.

He also said that he tried to never use a word or phrase in a memo that he wouldn’t be comfortable using in a casual face-to-face conversation.  ‘I’m just not a “moreover” kind of bloke.  And I think if I was to use “moreover” in a memo, the reader would think that either a) I hadn’t written it, or b) I was being pompous.  Neither of which would help my cause.’  He was answering my question rather than offering advice; but I took it as advice anyway.

Emails have, of course, taken over from memos.  But I think the same rules apply.

A friend of mine is famous for her emails.  I’m sure that many people think that she just pumps them out.  But I have seen her at work.  She really toils over them.  As she says, the test is not of what she puts in, but of what the reader takes out

Are you someone who would say ‘moreover’ in the course of a pub conversation?  If the answer is no, then maybe you shouldn’t use such words in your writing either.  And next time you are tempted to rattle out an email in three or four minutes, remember, if your reader doesn’t take out what you wanted them to take out, you have wasted those three or four minutes – and possibly a whole lot more.

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Writing is hard work

WritingI was doing a bit of ‘housekeeping’ recently and I came across a draft of a document that a client had sent us to tidy up.

It was Grade A gobbledygook.  But its author, a senior manager in a technology firm, thought that it was ‘pretty near perfect’.  Unfortunately (for him), his boss didn’t agree.

The author was a man with both vision and energy.  He had an impressive CV.  And his persistence was legendary.  But, on paper, he was barely literate.  As we worked through his draft document – cutting and polishing and rewriting whole chunks – the reason for his poor writing skills became clear: he thought that writing was easy.  Really easy.

‘Anyone can write well,’ he said.  (Although, clearly, he couldn’t.)

This man had spent many, many hours – years even – thinking about ‘hard stuff’ like technical solutions and business processes.  But writing?  What was there to think about?  You just did it.

Over the years, we have encountered many poor writers who, nevertheless, have thought that they were pretty good.  Many of them have been business people, but more than a few have been academics or public servants.  Most have worked long and hard at their ‘day job’.  But writing is something to which they have seldom given a second thought.  Writing is something you just do.

Becoming a good writer requires the same degree of effort and dedication as it takes to become a good accountant or a good administrator or a good engineer.  In the words of William Zinsser: ‘Writing is hard work.  A clear sentence is no accident.  Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.’

If you find it easy to write well, there’s a very good possibility that you’re not trying hard enough.  And if you find it hard work, that’s simply because it is.  It really is.

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To finish well, first start well

Sydney-Hobart‘Many races are won on the start line.  To finish well, it’s usually vital to start well.’

That was the opinion of one of the most successful sailing coaches I ever had the opportunity to work with.  But it’s also good advice for writers.  Capture your reader’s attention early; and keep them engaged right to the end.

From where I sit, too many writers of business documents begin by ‘warming their engines’.  Rather that coming right out and saying: ‘Here’s what we can do for you,’ they waffle on for two or three pages – sometimes more – about ‘the changing dynamics of the market space’ or some such high-sounding twaddle.

Recently, a client sent me a draft of her company’s response to an RFP.  ‘What do you think?’ she asked.

I phoned her with my own question: ‘Why did you wait until page nine to offer a solution?’

For a moment or two, she said nothing.  I could picture her frowning at the other end of the phone.  And then she said: ‘Well, you know, I thought that we should establish our credentials.  I thought that we should demonstrate that we understand the sector, where it is at, how it got there, where it might be headed.’

‘And do you think your prospective client would have sent you the RFP if they thought that you did not understand the sector?’

‘Umm … no.  I guess not,’ she said.

Between the two of us, we cut and pasted and polished the draft, offering up the solution in the very first paragraph.  We also crafted a final paragraph designed to leave the prospect in no doubt about what they needed to do next.  Of course, that perfectly-crafted final paragraph would have been a total waste of time and effort if we failed to hook the readers in the first paragraph and then keep them reading right to the end.

In the words of the distinguished author, editor, and publisher Sol Stein: ‘A terrific ending will never be experienced by a reader put off by a poor beginning.’

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What do you want to say?

keysWhen I was just starting out in the writing business, I had an editor who insisted that good writing was largely a matter of thinking carefully about what you wanted to say; saying it as simply as possible; and then making sure that you had, indeed, said what you intended to say.

It was good advice.  But I soon discovered that the hardest part is usually the first part: deciding what you want to say.

Among my more-experienced colleagues, there seemed to be two main approaches to this potential difficulty.

The first was what I came to think of as ‘the Ernie approach.’  Ernie was one of the most-respected senior writers on the team.  His approach was to spend great chunks of time pacing the corridors with his eyes on some far distant horizon before suddenly ducking back into his cubbyhole and banging out a thousand or so words of near-perfect prose.

The second approach was what I came to think of as ‘the David approach’.  David didn’t bother with any of the corridor pacing.  He just sat down at his typewriter and started pounding away.  Once he had covered ten or 15 pages, he put them in a stack, face down, on his desk, and wandered off to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee.

Fortified with a shot of caffeine, he would then take up a blue pencil and quickly read through what he had written, circling a sentence here and a sentence there, highlighting a word here and a word there.  And then, when he had worked his way through all ten or 15 pages, he would put a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter and start saying what he really wanted to say.  As he said, the first part of the process was just to clarify his thoughts and canvass some possibilities.

Over the years, I’ve used both the Ernie approach and the David approach.  They both work.  But, increasingly, I find myself leaning towards the David approach.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  As another editor said: Most writers become writers in order to discover what they think.  Or was that Joan Didion who said that?

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