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by Paula LaRocque on October 2nd, 2010

[I was pleased to be asked to write something for the back page of the 2010 Mayborn Conference’s magazine. The acclaimed Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference celebrates narrative journalism and has showcased such speakers as Ira Glass, Paul Theroux, Joyce Carol Oates, Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, Mary Karr, Mark Bowden, Gary Smith—to name a handful. The conference is the creation of the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, University of North Texas.  Below is my piece, reproduced with permission from Mayborn, and URLs for further information about the conference.]

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When Paula was introduced recently at a speaking engagement as “America’s

foremost writing coach,” she  responded, “Who says?”

The guy answered, “Everybody.”

Paula was one of the country’s first  newspaper writing coaches, serving as coach at The  Dallas Morning  News from 1981 to 2001.  As a columnist,  author,  educator and communications consultant, she  has  worked at bettering  the written word for decades.

Here’s some practical counsel from the woman who—literally—wrote The Book on Writing.

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In a few words, what constitutes good writing?

Accuracy. Clarity. Brevity.

It’s that simple?

It’s that complex. Accuracy is simple enough. No decent writer questions the need for accuracy; one just commits to truth in content and standard English in form. Nor do folks balk at the need for clarity and brevity – in someone else’s work.

Not in their own?

The weaker the writer, the more willful the resistance. We can liken it to the ol’ granny who cried Amen! to the preacher’s censure of others’ sins. But when he touched on her sins, she spat in disgust: “Now he done stopped his preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!”

Why would anyone resist such worthy ideals as clarity and brevity?

Those ideals often take hard, slogging work. As educator Jacques Barzun said: “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue.” And when was Blather 101 part of the curriculum? Consider the CEO who wrote: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” I suggested this phrasing instead: “We had to cut costs,” and he accused me of changing his style. Is mumbo-jumbo a “style?” If so, I think it’s a style we needn’t cultivate.

Let’s have a crash course in Blather 101.

Trying to impress rather than to communicate. Wordiness. Empty, showy, pretentious, abstract, timid, tentative, uncertain, overqualified, euphemistic phrasing. Hiding one’s slippery grasp of the subject in gobbledygook . . . I’m remembering a thoughtful reporter who remarked when we’d rewritten some of his stories: “If I’m going to be that clear, I’d better also be that right.”

How about Writing Tips 101?

Write as you speak when you speak well. Know there’s a difference between simplicity and the simple, and put away forever the notion that clarity dumbs anything down. Write below the tenth-grade reading level as calculated by your computer’s software (studies show that even the most highly educated readers prefer to read at or below that level). And remember that the more difficult the subject, the lower the grade level should be. Prefer short sentences and short words. Prune prepositions and numbers. Lose qualifiers such as very, really, completely, rather, quite, etc., and use instead precise words that need no qualification. Oh, and have no faith in your computer’s grammar checker.

So we’ve gone full circle—back to accuracy.

Yep. Done stopped my meddlin’ now and gone to preachin’.

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