Writing Better

Photo: Tonie AuerBy Tonie Auer
DFW Chapter President and National Blog Chairwoman

While trying to relax last week, I went to my bookshelf to find something new to read. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to start a new book when I have so many tasks ahead of me to tackle. So, I decided to grab The Book on Writing by Paula LaRocque. It really is a good read and you can do it a chapter and a time and still benefit from it.

The DFW Chapter was fortunate enough to have LaRocque speak at one of our meetings last fall. The author, writing coach and former Dallas Morning News editor had some great tips (many of which are in her book). I have already found myself paying more attention to her advice

Here are some of the highlights listed from LaRocque’s presentation:

  • Make your text clear. Readers don’t want to study and dissect the sentence to understand it.
  • Ditch your concept of formal writing. Write as you speak, when you speak well.
  • The unsellable is unreadable. Read your work aloud and note the language and flow. Does it read well? Simple subject, verb, object sentences are understandable. She also cautioned against long sentences. Using active voice was another tip.
  • Another common mistake is trying to impress instead of communicate.
  • If telling a story, begin as you would tell the story to a friend.
  • Use a road map with a beginning, middle and end. Write quickly without interruptions. If you edit as you write, you lose the spontaneity and your good ideas.
  • Write your piece before you have to write it. She admonished (gently) journalists as procrastinators and characterized writing best on deadline as an excuse. *I think I resemble this remark.*
  • She recommended building time into your assignment to write and then leave the story alone. Then, return to it with your editor’s hat on.
  • Edit first for wordiness, which gets in the way. Once you make it tighter, then read it aloud and send it to the editor after that.
  • Keep sentences short. Have an average sentence length of 25 words or less and have a variety of lengths for your sentences.
  • Keep one idea per sentence.
  • Try not to back-end your sentences. Avoid using words like “amid” at the beginning of a sentence, for example.
  • Change long difficult words to simple ones with the same meaning.
  • Prune your sentences and try to use single syllable words, when possible.
  • Make sure your words are accurate. The word is lectern, not podium; check to see if you should use gauntlet or gantlet; comprise of is wrong – compose of is right.
  • Avoid redundancy: sum total, potential promise, blue in color, tall in height.
  • Watch vague qualifiers: totally, really, very, quite, somewhat, rather.

Probably one of the best lines from LaRocque’s book – from where I’m at right now in reading it – is her admonition of “we must stop trying to impress and try instead to communicate.” I like that. There have been many times when I’ve had to re-read a passage because someone has tried to sound smarter than the rest of us. All it does is convolute the true meaning of the sentence in an effort to make something sound important.

Good stuff. I recommend it to improve your writing.

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