Thursday, March 27, 2008

SOME TIPS ON WRITING

Talk to English students, Westfield Sports High School
March 27, 2008


I have to tell you that I’ve talked to economics students more times than I can remember and talked to journalism students occasionally, but this is the first time I’ve spoken to English students. I used to struggle with English when I was at school. I actually failed it at what you’d call the School Certificate, though I managed to pull up by the time I got to the HSC.

I’ve been a journalist on the Herald for 34 years and before that I was a chartered accountant. Journalism is much better. Journalism is quite creative. You start with a blank screen and you write something that’s interesting and informative and maybe even a little entertaining. Every piece you write is different and how good what you write is depends on how skilled you are and how hard you try. It’s maybe not as creative as painting pictures, but it’s very create compared with accounting and most of the things people do in offices. Journalism is quite well paid; not as well paid as being a lawyer or a medical specialist, but better paid than being a teacher or university lecturer or an economist.

One thing that makes journalism a quite exciting job is that you’re always dealing with important or famous people - people who are far more important or famous than you are. You’re not necessarily dealing with celebrities, but you are dealing with powerful politicians, public servants and the bosses of big companies. When I was at high school years ago we had the minister for education come to the school one day. The principal and all the teachers were in a tizz for about a week before he came. Lots of things were painted and fixed up. They found all these pot plants which they put along the corridors. The school was cleaned from top to bottom and, on the day he was coming, no one was allowed inside the school in case we got it dirty. Now, if you were a young journalist working in the press gallery in State Parliament in Macquarie Street, you’d probably know the minister for education and his/her staff quite well. You wouldn’t be in the least awe of him, and you’d probably know he was a bit of a pisspot.

Another thing that makes journalism a quite exciting job is that you’re never far from the centre of the action. When you’re in a newsroom you’re in touch with all the interesting and important things happening that day in Sydney, in Australia and a fair bit of the world. You won’t be covering every interesting thing, but you will be covering one interesting thing and the people around you will be covering the others. When something big is happening, newsrooms develop a real buzz. There’s a lot of adrenalin pumping.

The trouble is, journalism is exceptionally hard to get in to. Far more young people want to be journalists than the media need to hire. This year the Herald hired only four new trainees despite the hundreds who applied. So how do you get in? It helps to be able to show that you’ve already been doing journalism as an amateur - writing for the school newspaper or the university paper, or church newsletter or the local rag or whatever. In every job interview, young people are asked why they want to be a journalist. Most of them say: because I love to write. Wrong answer. It may be true, but the people who hire journalists have heard it too many times before and aren’t impressed. It’s better to be able to prove you love to write - by producing examples of what you’ve written - than just saying you love to write.

But let me tell you the perfect answer to the question of why you want to be a journalist: because I’m a sticky beak and a gossip. Why’s that the perfect answer? Because that’s what journalists are and what they do. They stick their nose into other people’s affairs, finding out new and interesting things about them, then they broadcast what they’ve just found out to as many people as possible. It’s called reporting. Another way to put it is that journalists are pushy people and curious people. They’re pushy because they’re always asking people questions about things those people would often prefer not to talk about. But that won’t stop the journalists. Journalists will ring important people at home in the middle of Easter, spend the first 10 seconds apologising for disturbing them, then spend the next half an hour or an hour asking them questions.

Journalists are curious. They are interested in a lot of things, and, because they’re so interested, they’ve acquired a lot of knowledge about a lot of things over the years. They know about everything from TV stars and pop stars to archbishops and politicians. Do you know when the second world war ended? When someone asked the woman who does all the hiring of journalists for News Ltd what kind of person she was looking for, she replied that she wanted someone who knew when the second world war ended. Don’t take that literally. What she meant was, someone who had a good general knowledge. And one of the ways we at the Herald whittle down the hundreds of mainly uni graduates who apply for a journalist’s job is to give them all a test of their knowledge of current affairs.

Journalism is so hard to get into that sometimes the only way to do it is to get a job working for a suburban paper or a country paper, then work your way up to the big city jobs.

But now I want to talk about how to write like a journalist. I have to warn you that, in doing so, I may not be doing you a favour. Journalists don’t write great literature. And I’m not sure the way they write would impress the people who mark the HSC English paper.

A journalist’s aim is to produce ‘a good read’. A good read is a piece of writing people will enjoy reading because it’s interesting, but also because it’s an ‘easy read’. An easy read is something people can read - get the sense of - quickly and easily. People read newspapers in a great hurry and often without applying their full attention. They are volunteers - they’re reading for pleasure not duty - and if they discover they’re wading through porridge they’ll stop reading and turn the page.

The first key to producing a good read is to start by thinking about your audience. What are they interested in, what do they want you to talk about? How much do they already know about the subject? You have to pitch it at the audience’s level, and never assume they know as much about the subject as you do. (The marker knows more about the subject than you do, but their object is to find out how much you know.) The school equivalent of thinking about what your audience is interested in is: Read the question. A good read always takes the reader’s point of view into account. That doesn’t mean telling the reader what she wants to hear, but it does mean answering the questions the reader is interested in and tackling the subject from the reader’s perspective. It means putting yourself into the reader’s shoes.

The second key to producing a good read is to write in a simple, unaffected way, as though you were having a conversation with one other person. It’s wrong to think you write in a different, far more formal, stilted way to the way you speak. You’re trying to communicate with the reader, not impress her with your erudition. So write the way people speak and address yourself to the reader, as you would in a conversation.

Third, keep your writing simple and straight forward. Don’t try to impress people with big words, but as much as possible write using short, simple words. That means avoiding Latinate words and preferring Anglo-Saxon words. For instance, intercourse is a Latinate word - it comes from Latin or French - whereas the Anglo-Saxon word is a short, four-letter word that starts with F. No, I’m not really saying you should use potentially offensive words in your essays. Try this: the Latinate word is employment, the Anglo-Saxon words are work, or job.

Fourth, use short, mainly simple sentences. Don’t think that to impress people you have to have long, complex sentences. If a sentence is getting to long, break it up. Insert a full stop and start again. And don’t buy the notion that a sentence can’t start with but or and.

Fifth, the way to make your writing more vigorous and striking is use stronger verbs and nouns, not stronger adverbs and adjectives. Don’t say going when you could say running or strolling. They’re strong, more descriptive, more colourful verbs. Be sparing in your use of weak strengtheners, such as very or really. All of us have two vocabularies, one much bigger than the other. The big one is the list of words whose meaning you know; the small one is the list of words you use regularly. Good writers work to reduce the gap between the two. They strive to use more words the meaning of which everyone knows, but which aren’t used all that often. This makes their writing fresh and striking rather than dull and clich├ęd. It also makes their writing more precise - they strive for exactly the right word to describe an action or a thing.

Another trick to make your writing simpler, stronger and more vigorous is to almost always write in the active voice rather than the passive voice. The active voice means writing a sentence with the structure: subject, verb, object ie the person who’s doing whatever is being done to the thing it’s being done to. The passive voice uses the reverse structure: object, verb, subject ie what’s having something done to it by the person who’s doing it. Active: the cat sat on the mat. Passive: the mat was sat on by the cat. Which form is simpler and stronger? The passive voice is less personal, which is why it’s often used in bureaucratic and academic writing and why journalists try to avoid using it. There will be times, however, when you want to stick with the passive because it’s the object in the sentence that you’re wanting to highlight, not the subject.

Sixth, keep you writing readable by searching for potential ambiguities in any sentence you write - any way someone could take a different meaning from the sentence than the one you intended - and removing it. You recast the sentence - or maybe break it up - so it’s no long ambiguous. Another aid to readability is to signal to the reader every time you change direction. If you switch from giving arguments in favour of something to giving arguments against it, make sure you warn the reader that’s what you’re doing. You can do that as simply as starting the opposing thought with the word, however. When you change from discussing one aspect of an issue to discussing another aspect you should signal it. I’m doing that in this talk by the simple and inelegant but effective device of numbering my points. The reason for signalling every change of direction is to stop the reader getting lost, to help her follow the argument you’re developing. When people get lost they stop reading. If you give them enough sign posts to stop them getting lost, they say what a great writer you are.

If these tips are of any use to you it will probably be in your creative writing, not in essays arguing a point. But journalists do only non-fiction writing. Often - and particularly in economic journalism - we’re writing about concepts: inflation, unemployment, gross domestic product or whatever. Trouble is, people are far more interested in reading about people than about concepts. People are interesting; concepts are dry and hard to follow. So we try to get as much about people in while we’re discussing concepts - even if the people available are only the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. And whenever we’re explaining airy-fairy concepts, we try to quickly give a concrete example of the concept. People learn a lot more from concrete examples than explanations of concepts.

Finally, you want to write pieces that make an impact on the marker. They’re wading through a pile of essays on the same subject, but you want yours to stand out from the rest. You want them to be able to read it quickly and even enjoyably because, if they do, they’ll give you a higher mark. This is why I think it may help you to try a few of my tips on producing a ‘good read’. Most HSC essays are far from being a good read. I’m sure you know the standard essay-writing formula of introduction, body, conclusion. In the intro you tell them what you’re going to tell them; in the body of the essay you tell them then, in the conclusion, you tell them what you’ve told them. This formula has survived because it works, it’s effective. But, particularly in any creative writing, you want to do better - be less predictable and obvious. Start with an introduction that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading. Journalists put a lot more time into their first few sentences than into all the sentences that follow, and I think it’s worth your while to do the same.

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