Lessons from the National Writers Workshop
The Secrets of Good Writing
By PAULA LaROCQUE
Writing coach and assistant managing editor, Dallas Morning News
Re-used with kind permission by Poynter.org
Synopsis by KIMBERLY KINDY
This presentation was given as the keynote address at the National Writers Workshop in Irvine, Calif., hosted by the Orange County Register on April 28-29, 2001.
Simplicity is clear. Simplicity is direct. Simplicity makes for better reading and writing.
That was the message Paula LaRocque brought to the National Writers Workshop in her opening keynote speech.
As a teacher and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News, LaRocque has seen her share of good and bad copy. She urges writers to shorten their sentences and get to the point –- right away.
"I believe that anything that is perfectly clear is also perfectly interesting," she said.
Rather than orate behind a lofty podium, LaRocque used an overhead and a portable microphone to illustrate her points. Her speech was more of a coaching session than a philosophical treatise on the finer points of journalism. With humor and expertise, she showed examples of cluttered copy and clear writing. And she presented several tips for writers.
Here are some of them:
Keep sentences short. Shorter sentences are easier to read. One should not exceed 23 to 25 words per sentence.
Keep to one idea per sentence. Keep in mind that the "unsayable" is also the unreadable. LaRocque suggests that writers should read their copy aloud before submitting it to editors.
The lead, or opening sentence, should give the reader a clue. Don’t talk about banana muffins if the story is not about banana muffins. Avoid unreadable, nonsensical and silly leads.
Avoid backing into the lead. A college professor might take a while before getting to the point. We don’t have that luxury. If we lose a reader’s attention, we’ve lost our chance.
"Packing a lead is like packing a suitcase," LaRocque said. "You just put what you need in it. If you pack too much in it, the back will break."
Prefer subject-verb-object structure. Our brains prefer this structure. We don’t say, "Following an altercation, I was separated from my funds because of a thief." We say, "Somebody just mugged me."
Choose simple, strong active verbs over a handful of weaker verbs. Watch out for "have," "make," "give," "taken." Use "investigate," "consider," "need," "buy," "finish."
Avoid jargon, journalese and formula. We never use words like "amid" and "bespectacled" when we’re talking. We don’t need them in our writing. LaRocque asked two volunteers to read a conversational skit, which contained funny examples of how journalists tend to write. The skit contained phrases such as "in a surprise move," "in a bizarre twist," and "amid allegations of wrongdoing."
Avoid having more than three prepositional phrases in one sentence.
Avoid having more than three numbers in one sentence.
Avoid vague qualifiers and choose the right word. Don’t use "very," "really," "extremely," "somewhat," "truly," "actually."
Choose the concrete rather than the abstract. Communicate with rather than impress. Keep it conversational. LaRocque read examples of good writing: gems by William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, and a 14-year-old girl who, in an assignment, could only use monosyllabic words. LaRocque said she’s never seen an example of bad writing that focused on single-syllable words.
"At worst, it’s good; at best, it’s brilliant," she said. "Everything memorable is simple in the language."