A Quote on Writing from Richard Dawkins

I’m pretty obsessive and a perfectionist about what I write. Each page is read over, several dozens of times, and it changes every time, for the better I hope, by a sort of winnowing process that resembles natural selection—Darwinnowing I suppose we could call it.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and writer of The God Delusion and other nonfiction works, has more than once caused controversy with his writings about religion and creationism. Nevertheless, here his statement about how he writes points to a way many of us can improve our writing—by cutting out the weak words and sentences and leaving in the strong ones. The trick, of course, is knowing the difference between the weak and the strong.

This quote comes from a short piece on the office where Dawkins often writes; it was published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, August 25.

07/20/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five noteworthy communications stories from the past few days.

Sponsored Content: An Ethical Framework by Richard Edelman, on edelman.com, July 16.

In this article, Edelman writes about his agency’s newly released special report on PR agencies’ opportunity to develop an ethical framework for sponsored content—content written and produced by marketers, not the media outlets. He says that PR agencies must “have a different set of ethical standards than the media buyer or ad agency, because our profession relies primarily on its trusted relationship with earned media. Those principles fall into three broad categories: Disclosure, Quality and Process.”

He discusses those categories and provides a link for downloading the report: “Sponsored Content: A Broader Relationship with the U.S. News Media.”

Social Media Makes for Better Student Writing, Not Worse, Teachers Say by Joanna Stern on abcnews.go.com, July 16.

In this article, Stern provides anecdotal and study evidence showing that social media and digital technologies are having a positive—not negative, as many people would believe—effect on student writing. A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the National Writing Project, for example, shows that three-fourths of the teachers questioned believe digital technologies “encourage study creativity and personal expression,” Stern says.

This result, it seems, is due mainly to students wanting to improve the quality of their classroom writing because they are sharing it with a wider audience through blogs and other online outlets.

Three Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader in Your Industry by Louise Julig, on socialmediaexaminer, July 17.

This article on how Drillinginfo, a company serving the oil and gas industry, has used social media to become an industry thought leader and to become recognized by potential and current customers as a premier source of information in the industry. Specifically, Julig details the company’s efforts to blog with a plan, market its marketing, and network with influencers.

Others can learn from Drillinginfo’s successful content marketing work.

Presentation Skills Learned from ‘Mad Men’ by Danny Groner on ragan.com, July 18.

Groner offers five tips that will help PR professionals—and others who give presentations—succeed while showing “some Draper-like swagger that’ll keep people on the edge of their seats.” To see how it’s really done, watch the three videos embedded in the article.

Brands Look for Guide to Navigate New World of Native Advertising by Sarah Shearman, on prweekus.com, July 19.

The growing importance of native advertising is increasing the PR industry’s “need to create a set of standards to keep the line between editorial and advertising intact,” Shearman reports. If this line is blurred, she writes, reader trust will erode because native advertising “threatens to encroach on the line that editorial and readers hold sacred.”

One of the first steps in creating these standards would be for people in the media and in the PR and advertising industries to agree on a consistent definition of “native advertising,” which Shearman describes broadly as “brand-sponsored content on a media site that is housed with and closely aligned with editorial in subject matter, design, and style.” It is sometimes referred to as “sponsored content,” as Richard Edelman does in his article mentioned above.

Structuring a Piece of Writing

shutterstock_130726859Recently, I was on a conference call explaining to friends why I had suggested the changes I’d made to the article we were working on together, why I had moved some things around, re-written a few sections, and completely removed whole paragraphs.

I found myself talking about structure, about the overall structure of this article as if it were a building, using words like balance, flow, and parallel. And by the silence on the other end of the phone, I could tell my friends had no idea what I was talking about.

To be honest they are all pretty good writers; although, writing is just what they must do occasionally, not what they want to do or care much about. Sometimes they just have to communicate something in writing. So they attack it. They see a piece of writing as a container to be filled with many ideas—some coherent, some half thought through, and some still mostly jumbled.

They don’t approach it as a piece of writing having a visible and understandable form built on a set of rules and guiding principles aimed toward clarity and reader understanding. So my discussion of structure was rather useless. That’s why I seldom go there.

While it’s unusual for me to have a discussion about the structure of a piece of writing, it’s downright rare for the mainstream media to write about this subject. They may mention grammar or say a writer uses sentences that are too long (whatever that is) or too confusing.  But they almost never mention the structure of a whole piece of writing.

I’ve recently come across a few articles that, at least briefly, mention structure. Most recently was a Fast Company article on Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. Just before that was a New York Times piece on writer Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And before that was John McPhee’s long piece in The New Yorker about the structure of some of his many books and magazine pieces.

For two reasons, McPhee’s article stands out from the other two and from almost all others I’ve read: First, it is printed in The New Yorker, a magazine noted for its coverage of intellectual topics, not the tactics of writing. Second, the article doesn’t mention structure as an afterthought in a paragraph or two as the other articles do; instead the entire piece is about structure, so much so, in fact, that the word is used in the article’s title: “Structure: Beyond the Picnic-Table Crisis.”

McPhee’s article is about how he chose the structure for several pieces he has written over the years. Some structures were (strictly or variously) chronological, particularly for pieces like “Travels in Georgia.” Others, such as the one about his trip in an eighteen-wheeler from a truck stop in Georgia to Tacoma, Washington, worked better with thematic structures, structures that spiraled out from the center starting point. Whatever structure he chose, he did so after much thought and long preparation as he worked out the best way to tell his story so it would be clear to his reader.

McPhee says in the article that structure has preoccupied him in every project he has undertaken since his high school English teacher first taught him about structure in the late 1940s. And he has “hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching.” Driving home the importance of structure, he tells his students, “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in a way that causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”

It seems clear that the friends I was talking to about structure on my recent conference call had not learned McPhee’s important message, nor have many other people who think of themselves as PR or business writers or who, as part of their jobs, must occasionally turn out an article or blog post.

Photo: Shutterstock/Foxtrot101

Learning to Communicate Clearly—from Alan Alda

shutterstock_121137493Who would have thought that actor Alan Alda would have anything to say about unclear language, especially anything that we in PR and business communications might want to consider.

We all know that jargon is specialized language associated with a particular industry or group and that when used with our peers, it sounds meaningful. But how many of us notice the jargon we use routinely in our external communications? More important, how many know or care that more often than not, jargon creates a wall between us and our outside listeners and readers who can’t understand the words we use.

Alda knows. And he is concerned about the miscommunication that results when scientists use unclear language. He’s so concerned, in fact, that now as a visiting professor, he teaches a course at Stony Brook University’s newly named Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His goal is to help science students become better communicators, to teach them to speak clearly.

In his course, “He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience,” according to a recent Sunday Morning TV show, “so instead of speaking with what we might call gibberish (‘I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stakeholders’), we get this: ‘I study ways oceans are used.’”

On Sunday Morning, Alda gives an example of clear communication that he claims saved his life when he was on a Chilean mountain top and would have died from a strangled intestine without proper treatment. The doctor, according to Alda, said “in the clearest possible way, ‘Something’s gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’  I said, ‘That’s Great. Do it.’”

That’s the kind of direct, clear language Alda hopes to teach his students and the kind of language he would like to see other scientists adopt.

All of us in PR and corporate communications could learn from this approach, whether we’re giving a speech to shareholders, writing a white paper as a marketing piece, or tweeting about a new business product or service.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sam72

A Quote from William Zinsser

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

This quote comes from William Zinsser’s 1976 book “On Writing Well” and is mentioned in this week’s New York Times article on Zinsser who, besides having written this now-classic guide to writing, has been a teacher of writing for decades. At 90, he still teaches even though he is blind and has to listen to, rather than read, what his students have written. The quote underscores Zinsser’s call for cutting excessive words and eliminating jargon in an attempt to write simply and clearly.