Sage Writing Advice from William Zinsser

I saw this on Twitter the other day via AdviceToWriters, and who am I to argue with the legendary William Zinsser?

I’d say Zinsser’s four basic premises apply to all varieties of writing. Here they are:

1. Clarity
2. Brevity
3. Simplicity
4. Humanity

No. 4 might be the toughest to achieve. With no humanity, writing is lifeless and fails to connect. All four tenets require effort and are worth striving for.

Check out Zinsser here. For daily quotes and inspiration, see AdviceToWriters.com.

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Writing Encompasses Many Tasks

I was reminded yet again last week that writing encompasses many tasks. I often feel that if I’m not actually producing words I’m not really working. I know that is untrue even though it’s not unusual for me to measure progress by word count. Yes, the end product is always words in some fixed form. But there’s so much more that goes into getting the words out and adequately arranged.

Last week I set aside the book manuscript I’m working on to travel to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to conduct in-depth interviews and have long conversations with the central character of the story. I’ve anticipated this trip for nearly three years. I wasn’t sure how it would go or what it would yield. I just knew it could be an important step in the process.

I was not disappointed. It was fruitful in two main ways. First, I collected additional and more-detailed information on a number of topics. Second, it was good for the relationship, an opportunity to increase understanding and trust. Being in the same room and having 60 or 90 minutes at a time to talk allow one to go much deeper. And in between talks, hanging out, sharing meals and doing other mundane activities together have a bonding effect.

Writing is writing. But before or even during the actual writing part, there’s thinking, researching, talking, thinking, eating, sleeping, thinking, interviewing and, for me last week, traveling. I realize I did some meaningful work on the book even though I didn’t add a single word to the manuscript.

Padding

Have you ever wondered how you were going to reach the word-count goal on a particular writing assignment? I have, whether it’s as few as 1,000 words for a trade article or as many as 80,000 words for a book manuscript.

The subject came up today in a teleconference with a client. Even though the company had been asked to submit an article to a trade publication (and is glad to get the visibility), the topic is a sensitive one. We’re wondering how we’ll be able to give you enough information to meet the word count, the company reps told me. We can’t reveal much about what we’re doing in this area. It may take some creativity. I’m used to that, I replied.

They answered my pre-submitted questions, and they were right. A 40-minute conversation yielded mostly generalities. This is where “padding” may come in, doing what I can to write a serviceable article that fulfills the word count with few specifics and concrete examples. Padding might be a dirty word to some, but most wordsmiths have had to inflate their work. Editors, especially of print publications, have word-count requirements because they have pages to fill. Of course, they don’t want to fill them with junk, but fill them they must.

Here’s how I do it. I collect all my information. I write some notes, bullets, or a simple outline. Then I start writing. I’ll probably get there, sort of like when the gas tank is on empty but you can drive farther than you thought was possible. One thousand words is only about four double-spaced pages. It might turn out to be fairly easy.

There are two other things that can help fill space: large photos with captions and sidebars. Both add value to the editorial. I imagine one or both might be added to the article I write next week.

Steve Slaunwhite’s 3 Tips for Writing Faster

Steve Slaunwhite is an accomplished copywriter, author and speaker. He is a B2B specialist who sends out a monthly email that always has solid nuggets about copywriting and related topics.

Following are three tips Steve recently shared about how to write faster. It’s simple but powerful advice for novices and veterans.

1. Schedule writing time.

“I find that putting writing into my daily schedule, like an appointment, works best for me,” Steve says. I agree. This is also a must for me. It includes ignoring all other distractions.

2. Plan what you’re going to say before you say it.

“Some writers create a detailed outline,” Steve says. “Others make a simple list of bullets. I prefer mind-mapping ….” My plan varies, depending on what I’m writing. Longer, more complex pieces might necessitate an outline. For short pieces, a list or informal notes and scribbles can do.

3. Ask the editor to leave the room.

Again, Steve scores a bull’s-eye. Nothing can kill the spirit of a writer like the fussy editor (that’s you, of course) who is dissatisfied with first efforts. It’s paralyzing. In fact, you might have to tell (instead of ask) the editor to leave the room. Walk him or her to the door, if necessary.

Transcription Is a Worthwhile Writing Task

The idea of transcribing a recording is often a turnoff for me. It can be a tedious and time-consuming exercise. But it’s also necessary work for some writing projects, and it’s often rewarding, too. The time spent transcribing can cut down on writing time. It aids understanding of the material and can help create a structure for a first draft.

This was the case for me on a recent project. My assignment was to ghost write a year-in-review article for a company president. My source material was an online town-hall meeting during which the president gave a state-of-the-company presentation. I also had his PowerPoint slides, as well as other background material.

I decided to transcribe his talk, which lasted about 35 minutes, a rough transcription instead of word-for-word. His presentation created a built-in outline for the article. Once I completed the transcription, I had a very raw draft of the article. I cut and polished his words, added an opening and ending, and set it aside. Later I refined the article and turned it in. My client liked it.

As it turned out, the transcription and other prep to write the article took much longer than the actual writing and editing. For the most part, the article wrote itself, a case when a full transcription was well worth the time.

Good Radio Is Good Writing

If you want a lesson in good writing, just listen to well-produced radio programs such as those on NPR. I listen to NPR as a news source but also for background music that doesn’t clash with my writing efforts as I work in my home office.

In thinking about what makes radio stories such a good illustration of solid writing that can apply to B2B copywriting, PR writing, or journalism, I came up with the following attributes.

Get to the point. Radio stories are usually short in duration—even on NPR—so they must immediately establish the story’s focus.

Clarity. I just read an email from a B2B marketer on the subject of clarity. Clarity reigns. It’s the basis of all successful communication. Good radio excels because it’s clear.

Simple words. This is especially true in radio. Listen closely and you’ll notice simple language. No fancy adjectives or crazy verbs. Radio words are easy to comprehend quickly.

Quotes. A well-selected and well-placed quote adds color to a radio story or other form of communication. Bland quotes, however, add no value and can actually detract from the core message.

Here’s a story NPR did last year on the Bank of Floyd, the hometown bank in my little town. It’s an interview format:

Amid Financial Turmoil, Small Banks Thrive

John Steinbeck and ‘East of Eden’

I have never read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I have made feeble attempts. This time I think I’ll do it. I’m about 100 pages into it.

I picked up East of Eden this past weekend. It was sitting on the book shelf, one of my wife’s book club books. I’ve always been a Steinbeck fan. I read him in my youth—The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, The Winter of Our Discontent, to name a few.

I like his stories. But I also like to read Steinbeck for his writing. I believe there is something to be gleaned from reading good writing. I’m convinced that it helps my own writing in some way. Good writing is good writing, whether fiction, non-fiction, direct mail, a blog, a newsletter article, a fundraising letter, or an ad.

I like to read as widely as possible for my enrichment and enjoyment. Steinbeck is a welcome diversion.

The last book I read was Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. And my next book (if I get through East of Eden) might be a biography about Amelia Earhart. My curiosity is piqued after seeing the Amelia film last Friday with my daughter.