Write for those who move their lips when they read
by Steve Meissner
Write clear, simple sentences. As much as possible, follow the “subject-verb-object” format. Write short. Strip away words that don’t add value. (Case in point: What’s the difference between a woman who is “beautiful,” and one who is “very beautiful”? Of course there’s a hell of a difference between a woman who is pretty and one who can freeze traffic just by crossing the street.)
Avoid passive voice. When necessary, write in the past tense. Avoid past perfect, past plural, and all that junk. They add words and make your point mushy.
Some fellow writers find this offensive. It’s demeaning to readers, they insist. People who read are intelligent. They don’t need prose that is “dumbed down” to the level of literary oatmeal. To those writers, I say, “You’re missing the point.”
Think of a radio. A transmitter whose signal is clear and static-free conveys a strong, easy-to-understand message. A signal that is full of snowy noise is difficult to decipher. Music loses its nuance. The spoken word becomes indecipherable.
This came out of my own journalism training. In the days of dead-tree journalism, news space was a scarce commodity. The number of ads controls the number of column-inches in a daily newspaper. That’s why newspapers are skinny on Mondays and fat on Sundays.
It was a common nightmare for reporters back in my journalism days. You were telling a complex story that was full of conflict, context, and technical explanations. You needed 20 inches to do it justice. Your editor would give you only seven inches of column space. “Write tight,” they would say.
In these days of manipulating electrons instead of ink, the pressure to keep it short may be decreasing, but I’m sure you’ve seen tweets or texts that said tl;dr: “It’s too long. I didn’t read it.”
Getting this across to students was a challenge. In other courses, where 20-page essays and 100-page term papers were the norm, students were encouraged to be verbose. All fields have jargon, one or two words that are supposed to convey complexity. Instead of encouraging someone to be terse, however, they often encourage lengthy treatises, full of sound and fury that often signified … very little.
That’s why effective writers spend so much time paring away words that don’t add value: “Kill your darlings,” as they teach in writing classes.
Easy to say but tough to do. Haven’t we all stared at a choice phrase? It’s so profound it ought to be etched into marble, we think to ourselves. In fact, however, the words can be so empty of nourishment they couldn’t fertilize a mushroom. Put them out of their misery. Don’t use a scalpel; use a weed-whacker.
Or as I also told my students: Writing effectively is the art of pounding five pounds of crap into a one-pound bag (or words to that effect).
For more than three decades, Steve Meissner has watched the Arizona political scene as a journalist, lobbyist, bureaucrat, and even as a legislative staff member. For nearly 20 years he was a reporter, editor and columnist for several publications, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most of his newspaper career was spent at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a reporter, editor and columnist, and taught journalism for more than a decade as an adjunct at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. He is the author of Cactus Caucus, a novel about Arizona’s legislative politics, which is available in Kindle format. He is currently working on a second novel about Arizona politics.