Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Five questions that may make you a better writer.

I read somewhere a long time ago that in the 100-meter sprint in the Olympics, the difference between winning gold and winning bronze comes down to being about one-percent faster. In other words, a little bit goes a long way.

That's why I think a lot about writing and how to be better at what I do. If I can be one-percent funnier, or different-er, or smarter, or faster than the people I compete against, I could well be a copywriter-monopolist on the order of a Huntington Hartford, Andrew Carnegie or Henry Clay Frick. 

Today, there’s a lot of folderol floating about in the cosmos about the importance of story-telling. And it seems to me you can hardly spit without hitting some self-proclaimed celebrity teaching a course on writing. 

We also hear the word authenticity often enough to our ears practically vomit blood. My guess is the people who use the word and its ugly companion, transparency, most often are the ones who are the biggest liars. My two cents say we believe in authenticity until it costs us something. At that point we believe wholeheartedly in prevarication and double-talk.

But back to writing about writing. 

There's nothing you can learn about writing--from anyone or from anywhere--that is as important as asking yourself a simple question or five.

Ask yourself these questions as you pick up your pencil or tap on your keys. They can't hurt. And they might help.

1. Are you writing to impart useful information to people or are you writing to show how smart you are?

A lot of writing I see uses big words and ridiculously long sentences. It doesn't explain anything.

2. Are you writing to clarify things or to confuse issues? Are you writing to simplify or complicate?

So much of what we read uses jargon and cliches. It's obvious to me that not even the writer knows what they're trying to communicate. Or they're being purposefully deceptive for nefarious purposes.

3. Are you writing lies or have you decided to tell the truth? That is are you writing honestly, or dishonestly?

I often bump into writing that is as circuitous as the roads in a gated community. If you respect the reader, you get to the point. Don't lead them into cul-de-sacs or dead ends.

4. Are you trying to reach people or bully them?

About 85% of the VOs I hear on television is an announcer yelling at viewers. Much of writing also feels more like berating. Is someone channeling my mother?

5. Do you want people to read what you've written or just see that you have written?

A lot of writing starts out with cliches and buzzwords and stock-phrases that indicate to the reader that the writer has put no thought and even less-candor into what they've sent out. This is writing that allows Authority to say they've done the right thing while doing the wrong thing.

I suppose you can reduce all these questions to one. Will the reader trust (and like) the writer--even if they're told something harsh--or will they feel after reading that they've been hosed-down with bullshit and the smell is lingering? 

Unfortunately, most writing--corporate memos, ads, emails, political statements, including apologies, are so rife with weasel words and duplicity, that they are all but meaningless to the careful reader.

Somehow I'm reminded of some beauty by Robert Frost:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Or my sorry version re-writ for the Modren ad agency:

Before I write a note I'd ask to know
What I was lying about or lying for,
And to whom I was like to give offense,

If you can spare two minutes and thirty-two seconds and you still have a brain that can work through metaphor, give yourself a treat and listen to Mr. Frost himself.

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