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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

The write stuff

I'm always on the lookout for good writing tips, both to improve my own work and to pass along to others who want to do likewise. Here's a good piece with six tips from Harvard's Steven Pinker. Two are expecially worth mentioning here.

The first is "Don't bury the lead":

 Readers always have to fill in the background, read between the lines, connect the dots. And that means that they’re applying their background knowledge to understanding the text in question. If they don’t know which background knowledge to apply, any passage of writing will be so sketchy and elliptical, that it’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s why journalists say, “Don’t bury the lead.” Basically, a writer has to make it clear to the reader what the topic of the passage is and what the point of the passage is. That is, the writer has to have something to talk about and the writer has to have something to say.

That rule is especially important in opinion writing. If you get clever with me and gently ease into your point, I'm gone before you get there. Tell me what you hope to convince me of in the very first sentence, then spend the rest of the piece backing up your claim.  Quickly getting to the point has become an even more urgent necessity in this age of Twitter. With people zinging us every day with 140-character pithiness, novelette-length disquisitions are going to remain largely unread.

The other one is: "Good writing means revising":

Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, And after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.

I'm afraid that's the rule I break the most, or at least I bend it some. It's especially hard to revise a lot while writing under daily deadline pressure, but I do try to save enough time to give an editorial one last read-through before setting it on the page. I almost always find at least a better word to use here and there or an awkaward sentence that can be smoothed out and simplified. And when I'm writing a column, I try to write it at least a couple of days before it has to go to press so I have plenty of time to read it over.

Oh, and back to "Don't bury the lead," here's one of my tips. Usually when I find myself really struggling with a piece, it's because I started it out wrong. When I fix the beginning and get the lead right, the rest of the piece starts flowing.


Wed, 11/12/2014 - 1:22pm

I like both of your points, especially the revising one.

"Don't bury the lead" at first meant something different to me.  Don't be angry enough to break the pencil lead while writing.  The News-Sentinel saw fit not to print some of my letters from years ago and it helped me to find a gentler way even if the grrrr is still present.  I'm still working on that.

Leo Morris
Wed, 11/12/2014 - 2:41pm

One of the things I've learned is to adapt my writing style to account for when I'm "preaching to the choir" and when I'm trying to change people's minds who might be persuaded to agree with me. When I'm addressing the faithful, I feel freer to thunder and rattle the rafters -- to let my "grrr" out. When I'm trying to win converts, I try to keep to a kinder and gentler tone.