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Different words, same message

Ubiquity, Volume 2022 Issue September, September 2022 | BY Philip Yaffe

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Volume 2022, Number September (2022), Pages 1-10

Communication Corner: Different words, same message
Philip Yaffe
DOI: 10.1145/3557050

Each "Communication Corner" essay is self-contained; however, they build on each other. For best results, before reading this essay and doing the exercise, go to the first essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," then read each succeeding essay.

All good writers (and by extension public speakers) who stop to reflect on what makes them so good generally come to the same conclusions. However, the way they express these common conclusions can be quite different. One formulation of a key idea may strike a responsive chord with one reader but not with another. To improve one's writing and speaking skills, it is therefore useful, in fact imperative, to seek out and evaluate the advice of at least two or more professionals.

Have you had someone explain something to you but which you didn't really understand? Then someone else explained the same thing and it was crystal clear? This sort of thing probably happens more often than we imagine. But why does it happen?

I think it is because we are all different, with different backgrounds, interests, levels of education, etc. So the first time something is explained, it may run into unrecognized roadblocks; however, the second time it is explained in a different way by someone else, the roadblocks disappear.

This is why as a professional writer trying to convey the fundamentals of effective writing (and by extension effective public speaking), I am constantly on the lookout for new and perhaps better ways of expressing these fundamentals.

Recently, while surfing the Net; I came across an article titled "33 Writing Tips: Expert Advice for Non-fiction Authors." I was stunned by a list of 33 items, which initially seemed as if it would be unwieldy and therefore likely to be of little value. However, I recognized the name of the author, so I decided to take a look at it. I am happy I did because it contains a lot of extremely good advice in an extremely readable form.

The list is aimed at writers who want to publish non-fiction books, so much of what it says is irrelevant to the purposes of "Communication Corner." However, a lot of it deals with the fundamentals of good expository (non-fiction) writing in general but expressed somewhat differently from the way I have expressed the same ideas in these "Communication Corner" essays. I have selected and edited a few for your contemplation, extended and reinforced by occasional comments of my own (shown indented and in italics).

Cultural Note

You will find a number of quotations in this article, many of which come from a bygone era. Thus, you will see the words "man" or "him," which at the time they were written the author probably actually did mean man or him. I have left them as is. However, today these sexually discriminatory words should be interpreted to mean "people" and "them."

Excerpted and edited from Tucker Max's "33 Writing Tips: Expert Advice for Nonfiction Authors."

As a general rule, I don't write writing advice lists, and I dislike posts with "writing tips." The problem is that young writers and authors study those lists instead of the fundamentals. However that being said, there's always a place for learning new tips and tricks that you can add on top of the fundamentals and help you become a better writer.

Some of these are things I came up with myself. Most of them didn't originate with me. They're quotes I got from various writers and authors—some famous, some not-—that have helped me in my career.

1. Clarity is the mark of genius.

"Creativity that blurs clarity is pretentious. Creativity that sharpens clarity is genius"—Roy H. Williams

"A genius is a man who says a complex thing in a simple way."—Charles Bukowski

I put clarity first because it's the most important tip you can take from this list. If you do nothing more than write clearly, you're going to be in the top 10 percent of all writers.

Don't try to sound impressive, just try to be clear. Don't obsess over your writing style, just try to be clear. Don't try to be anything other than clear, and you'll be good.

This is excellent advice, but to my mind incomplete. When you write something, of course it is clear to you because you wrote it. But how can you know it will be clear to others? What is needed is a functional definition of clarity, an algorithm if you will, for testing if what you write is likely to be clear to others. Some years ago I created such an algorithm. It's not perfect, but it is extremely helpful. You can find it in my Communication Corner essay "The Three Acid Tests of Persuasive Writing."

2. Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft.

Write a bad first draft as fast as you can, a so-called "vomit draft." The point is not to edit or even read anything that you are writing as you do your first draft. Of course you will go back to it later and edit, but not on the first pass.

The ONLY goal of the first pass is to get it done. This is because one of the biggest obstacles between the desire to write and an actual finished piece is overcoming your own self-doubt. Doing a poor first draft is a great way to get momentum and start moving.

What Tucker Max calls a "vomit draft" is somewhat similar to what I call a pre-first draft. I developed the technique when I was suddenly elevated to editorial editor on the newspaper I was working for in Los Angeles.

I didn't think I could be an editorial columnist because I didn't think I had enough opinions. So what I did to fill the void was to pick a topic that appeared to be of some relevance to my readers, then started writing about it almost without thinking. Each sentence I wrote seemed to give rise to another one, then another one, and then another one.

In most cases the sentences were filled with question marks, because the more I wrote the more I realized how much I still needed to learn in order to say something interesting and cogent. So I regularly went to the library (this was before the internet) and did the necessary research.

The technique stood me in good stead then. It still does so today some five decades later.

3. Expect writing to be hard.

I wish I had a fun quote here about this, but writing is hard work. If it were easy, everyone would be good at it.

The key here is to go in knowing this. Expect it to be hard, tiring, confusing, overwhelming, and painful. I know this sounds obvious, but most people have a fantasy in their heads about writing that misses the crappy parts.

Embrace the crappy parts. That's the only way to actually get it done.

4. It doesn't matter that it's been said; say it again.

Being totally original in writing is not only (virtually) impossible, it's also not a great strategy. To be totally original, you have to be so far away from the mainstream as to be irrelevant.

To add value to the world through writing, you are far better off sharing what you know in a way that people get.

Great example: There are millions of weight loss books. Everyone wants to lose weight. What's the disconnect? It's not information. It's the way the information is being presented.

Every field has a contradiction like that. Find it and solve it.

5. Most "writing" is actually editing; good editing hurts your ego.

"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."—Mark Twain

This is obvious to experienced writers, but for some reason, newer writers find this shocking. If you do your first draft properly, it will come out fast and be bad writing. Then you start editing, and that's when the serious writing starts.

But be careful. Good editing crushes your ego.

This is the most painful truth of writing. You will fall in love with something that doesn't work, and the only solution is to cut it. What you do then determines the quality of your writing. Until you have cut something that you loved but no one else does, you are not writing.

"In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness."—Antoine de Saint Exupery

6. Cut everything unnecessary.

The question "What can I cut out?" is the most important one to ask in writing. The more you cut without losing meaning, the better.

A short, good argument will always beat a long, good argument. Always. There is NEVER a reason to write a single word more than necessary.

Do not mistake clarity with brevity (conciseness). Both are important, but they are different.

Indeed they are. However, clarity and conciseness are not unconnected. As with clarity, what is needed is a functional definition of brevity, an algorithm if you will, for testing if what you write is likely to be as brief as possible without sacrificing clarity in the process. For an algorithm to test for brevity, I once again direct you to "The Three Acid Tests of Persuasive Writing."

7. Read your writing out loud.

This is not the only way to edit, but it's the best.

When I was writing my first bestseller, I had teams of proofreaders working through the book. First, I proofread it, then I had the help of editor friends, and finally the publishing company had their people do their copy edits. I did not think that a single mistake would sneak by, and happily locked in the manuscript.

A few months later I recorded my audiobook, and as I read through the manuscript out loud, I was horrified. There were 100 tiny little word choice mistakes and changes I only heard once I said them out loud. It drove me nuts.

Don't make the mistake I made. Read your manuscript out loud, hear the mistakes, and change as you go. If the words roll off your tongue, they'll also flow smoothly in readers' heads. Learn from my mistake—read your manuscript out loud and make your changes before you start the publishing process. If it's something you would say out loud, then it reads clearly on the page. If it's something you would never say to another person, it won't read as clearly.

8. No one cares about your book, they care only about what your book gets them.

So many people want to write because they unconsciously see it as a way to express emotions or do therapy that they otherwise don't or won't do.

If you are writing for that reason, that's cool—but understand that manuscript is called a diary. You don't need to publish that. If you are writing something you want to publish, then you are writing for the reader. Even if the text is about you.

I am the perfect example. I wrote three bestselling books about my life … and every single one is focused on entertaining the reader, not me. I know, it sounds very counterintuitive, but it's the truth.

9. Grammar rules are made-up [non-sense].

This is one of those facts that most writers never stop to think about. There is no such thing as a hard and fast grammar "rule." There are multiple different books that claim to be the one truth, but none of them are. You can do anything you want—as long as it works for the reader.

For some practical help to implement this tip, here are two Communication Corner essays that explore this concept in some depth: "The Purpose of Punctuation" and "Don't Let Good Grammar Spoil Good Writing."

10. When necessary, learn the proper rules.

I know I said that all grammar rules are BS. They are. But the fact is, there are times and places that breaking the rules will make you look bad in a way that doesn't help you.

Make sure you know all the big rules so that you can know when it makes sense to break them or to abide by them.

"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."—Pablo Picasso. Expressed more directly, you have to know the rules in order to profitably break them.

11. Great writing is great storytelling.

"If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn't matter a damn how you write."—W. Somerset Maugham

This is a very important tip that so many writers fail to understand—no one cares about your fancy words or perfect sentences. That's like a chef who is obsessed with spices but doesn't spend time on the main dish.

Your reader cares about the story. That doesn't mean your writing can be bad. But writing is just a vehicle to tell a story, not an end in itself. Don't be the writer who forgets the point: Teach your reader something valuable through story.

12. Write for the reader who won't read as carefully as you write.

Remember, your reader is distracted and selfish. They are not going to read with the care you put into writing. Don't fret about that, just account for it and write so that they can't misunderstand or get lost.

This is the same reason that pop songs are designed to sound good on earbuds. By designing for the hardest environment, you ensure your writing works in all environments. And it usually makes it better.

At one time I used to write technical articles for the professional customer newsletter of an international paint manufacturer. I was one of several writers for the publication. One day when I was delivering a text to the company's European marking communication manager, she said, "You know, I can recognize your articles without ever seeing you name them. I have very little technical background, but when I read your articles, I understand every word. With other writers, I often have to read their articles two or three times to be certain I truly understand what they are talking about. How do you do it?"

The answer, of course, is that I wrote them for the reader who won't read as carefully as you write. I also went a step further. I wrote them for a reader who didn't know as much as I did. Whatever you write and whatever the intended audience, this is almost always the case. For a discussion of this often overlooked fundamental of good writing, see "Why Clear Communication Means Aiming for the Lowest Common Denominator—and Then Some."

13. Great stories create emotion and meaning.

"Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them. So if your story doesn't change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will really care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten. We want characters in stories that take on the myriad challenges of changing their lives and somehow make it through, with invaluable experience. Stories give us the courage to act when we face confusing circumstances that require decisiveness."—Shawn Coyne

When you read that, do you think Shawn is talking about fiction? He's not. He's talking about all writing.

Fiction or non-fiction, you are still telling a story and for that story to work, it has to hit the emotional core of people. Help them find meaning, purpose, truth, or whatever it is they are searching for.

14. The only absolute rule in writing is "do what works."

All of these tips have worked for me, but it doesn't mean that they'll work for you. Some will, some will not.

Here's the point: The only absolute rule is that there are no rules, and all you have to do is do what works.

If it works, it's right. If it doesn't, it's not. This is because writing isn't about the words and sentences. It's not even about the story. Writing is about the impact the writing has. What works is what matters, that's it.

I remember when I was a young reporter with The Wall Street Journal. I wrote an article on a particularly difficult subject. I gave it to my editor. After reading it, he turned to me and said, "If I had written this article, I would have done it very differently." My heart dropped; I thought he was about to tell me that it was bad and that I would have to do it all over again. He continued. "Yes, I would have done it very differently. But this is great. It needs a few tweaks, but it is great. Let's go with it." This was someone who knew about writing, and more importantly, about editing.

To put all of this in a nutshell, I can think of two quotations that I dearly love and always try my best to put into practice.

"Don't write so that you can be understood; write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood," is attributed to both U.S. President William Howard Taft and novelist/essayist Robert Louis Stevenson. When I first read this quote many years ago, it literally turned my world upside down and has dramatically altered the way I approach writing and public speaking ever since.

"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think"—Edwin Schlossberg. If you aren't doing this, then you aren't doing anything.


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA's daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is the author of more than 30 books, which can be found easily in Amazon Kindle.

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