Championship Writing: 50 Ways to Improve Your Writing

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9780966517637: Championship Writing: 50 Ways to Improve Your Writing

A fun-to-read guide that teaches writers how to construct graceful, concise sentences with flair.

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About the Author:

Paula LaRocque is best known for her regular columns on writing well in The Dallas Morning News, Quill magazine, APME News and other publications that reach a broad professional and consumer audience. She also spreads her writing knowledge through regular appearances on KDKA, the NPR affiliate radio station in Dallas, and other radio programs throughout North America. She is in high demand as a speaker at journalism and business writing events. She recently retired as the assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, where she had worked since 1981. She was a writing consultant for the Associated Press Washington Bureau from 1989 to 1993, and in 1993 she appeared in a PBS special, 'The Writing Coach: With Paula LaRocque'. She previously taught creative and journalistic writing at Western Michigan University, Texas A&M, Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Short and simple: Fuzzy writers force readers to do their work

Clarity is crucial to good writing of any kind. Whether the communication is a news story, press release, letter, memo or report, its merit rests on its understandability. If it’s unclear, it can only bewilder, annoy or mislead.

The two basic qualities of clear writing are comfortingly simple. The first is brevity, and the second is simplicity. Length is critical — whether of word, sentence, paragraph or finished piece. And while a simple and accessible subject might seem necessary to clear communication, it isn't. That's the whole point: Making the content simple and accessible is the writer's job. Clear writing is the product of thoughtful communicators who not only understand the subject, but know how to make others understand it, too.

For example, watch the story emerge in this newspaper writer's work. He rewrote his dense and uninviting lead after a workshop on clear writing. See how the story — the only thing that interests readers — is lost in the original but found in the clear and attractive revision.

Original: A major reassessment that could lead to big changes in Orange County's public transportation system is beginning, prompted in part by a new anti-smog law that is boosting business' demand for better service.

Revision: Local government leaders want to make it easier for Orange County residents to get around without their cars.

The difference between those two passages is the difference between unclear and clear writing. The rewritten version goes beyond a literal transcription of the original and is the product of fresh thinking about how to tell a story. To rewrite, the author asked himself:

· what was most interesting about the story

· how it might affect people

· how he would tell it if he were telling it.

Those questions helped him to write a clear, interesting story rather than a fuzzy, dull report.

Although the argument for clarity is too obvious and sound to reject, some writers still resist. They come close to suggesting that the work can't or even shouldn't be perfectly clear. Of course, they can't sensibly say they prefer muddy, pretentious, careless prose. So they say something more acceptable — that it isn't really weak or that it's weak for good reasons.

Or they criticize the clear version: That's an over-simplification. Or: Well, that dumbs it down a bit. Or: This muddy writing that the average intelligent person can't understand is actually clearer and more precise, if you know the specialized language.

All that is sophistry. Good, clear writing is neither dumb nor oversimple (unless it’s also written by the unintelligent). And unclear writing is self-indulgent if not arrogant.

The truth is that the best communicators are and have always been the clearest communicators — from Winston Churchill to Albert Einstein. They've learned that knowledge isn't worth much if we can't convey it to others. The same principle applies to creative writing as well. Authors who create work known for its purity and excellence also create work known for its simplicity. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald spring to mind. So do contemporary writers such as John McPhee or Joan Didion. Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It is admired for its restraint, clarity and plain language. Exceptions such as James Joyce or William Faulkner are known for innovation rather than clarity. But those authors were trying to create new forms and, face it, most readers of works such as Finnegan's Wake are reading it for a seminar — in other words, because they have to.

Even knowing all that, many writers still resist applying the principles of clarity to their work. They don't want to change. And they don't want to do the careful, thoughtful work that clear writing demands — they want the readers to do it. Here, from a press release, is the kind of writing that results:

To enhance the federal government's ability to address emerging issues and minimize conflict among goals for environmental quality, energy security, and economic strength, a task force of the Commission on Science, Technology, and Government has urged creation of a strong top-level institutional mechanism in the Executive Branch to provide policy analyses and policy direction to the president.

That writing is incomprehensible. Aside from the problems of length, density and arcane vocabulary, what is a "top-level institutional mechanism"? Is it a person, a committee, another agency? We don't know, and there's no way to tell without consulting the writer. To rewrite, let’s assume that a “top-level institutional mechanism” is a committee.

A government task force has asked the president to form an environmental committee to advise him on environmental issues. The committee, recommended by the Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, would also would seek to reduce conflict with other special interest groups.

This rewritten version shows that shorter, more conversational sentences promote clarity. It also suggests that when dealing with complex material, it’s usually better to begin with a general, clear statement and add specifics later paragraphs.

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