Thursday, February 14, 2019

Tips for Aspiring Writers. (Repurposing Bret Stephens.)

Not long ago I stumbled upon an excellent article by Bret Stephens of “The New York Times,” on how to write an op-ed. It’s called “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers” and you can find it here.

In advertising, we don’t write op-eds. The fact is, even if you’re a writer, you hardly write at all anymore. It seems everyone has bought into the spurious idea that no one can read, or no one does read ads, or everyone is too impatient to read. You get the idea.

That being said, Stephens’ tips for writers work for our business, too. They work for people who aren’t writers—they work for art directors talking to photographers. They work for account people selling a campaign to a client. They work for planners making a presentation to cynical and impatient creatives.

They work for anyone who has to be clear, succinct and who has to make a point. They work for anyone who can lose an audience if she’s boring. Because all of us can lose audiences.

I’m taking the liberty of editing Stephens, choosing the parts that are, I think, most germane to our business. They’re Stephens’ thoughts, though. I’m just tightening things up a turn.

1) A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?
Good writers like, say, Charles Dickens, rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
This is a page from his manuscript of "Great Expectations."
As an old boss used to tell me, leave no word unturned.
2) Avoid the passive voice. Write declarative sentences. Delete useless or weasel words such as “apparently,” “understandable” or “indeed.” Project a tone of confidence, which is the middle course between diffidence and bombast.

3) Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for “anticipation.” That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance. Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.

4) Sweat the small stuff. Read over each sentence — read it aloud — and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the president of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich Berdymukhammedov. But, believe me, nothing’s worse than having to run a correction.

5) You’re not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.

6) Kill the clichés. If you want to give the reader an outside the box perspective on how to solve a problem from hell by reimagining the policy toolbox to include stakeholder voices — well, stop right there. Editors notice these sorts of expressions the way French chefs notice slices of Velveeta cheese: repulsive in themselves, and indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.

7) If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.
One useful tip for aspiring writers comes from the film “A River Runs Through It,” in which the character played by Tom Skerritt, a Presbyterian minister with a literary bent, receives essays from his children and instructs them to make each successive draft “half as long.” If you want to write a successful 700-word op-ed, start with a longer draft, then cut and cut again. “The art of writing,” believed the minister, “lay in thrift.”

8) The editor [client] is always right. She’s especially right when she axes the sentences or paragraphs of which you’re most proud. Treat your editor with respect by not second-guessing her judgment, belaboring her with requests for publication decisions or submitting sloppy work in the expectation that she will whip it into shape.


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