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Tom Durkin: How to write to be read

What’s the point of writing if nobody’s going to read it?

In these days of time-pressured information overload, your nonfiction writing must be easy to read, look easy to read — and be short as possible.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing,” said Maya Angelou, a legend among American writers.



Odds are, however, she didn’t say it quite so elegantly or succinctly the first time she had that thought.

She probably had to reread, rethink and rewrite it.




ONE-PASS FAILS

Many amateurs and nonprofessionals operate under the delusion they can write something in one pass. It can be done, and often is, but the result is rarely easy reading, much less skillful writing. As a consequence, a one-pass piece is not likely to get read. Or published.

Only idiot savants and geniuses can write perfect prose in one draft. A one-pass wonder may be easier to write, but it’s useless if nobody reads it or likes it.

The commitment to rewriting is one of the distinguishing characteristics that separates the pros from the amateurs. You must reread and rewrite if only to find your mistakes, but please don’t stop there.

CUT IT OUT

A large part of rewriting is editing. First drafts are usually too long, and so are the sentences.

The rewrite process must involve cutting out irrelevant information, self-indulgent prose, repetitive statements, and breaking up overlong sentences.

Even if a sentence is technically correct, an overwritten sentence that stops the reader is an anathema. The idea is for your audience to read your piece without having to stop to try to comprehend what you’re saying.

READABILITY

It’s not good enough to be easy to read. Your writing must also look easy to read.

Looking easy to read means short paragraphs and well-placed subheads. Bullet points (where appropriate) can also make a document look and be easier to read.

Even so, being easy to read and looking easy to read still isn’t enough. You can’t afford to waste words, lest your work gets written off as TLTR (too long to read).

One rewriting/editing attitude to adopt is to cut out all the good stuff so all you have left is the great stuff. Rewriting with the aim of cutting the length of an article almost invariably improves it.

LEADING LINES

You must find your lead sentence (aka “lede” in journalism parlance). Your lead might be buried somewhere in what you wrote in your first draft. Look for it.

Your first sentence or paragraph is critical because that’s the decision point for many readers as to whether they read the rest of the story.

For me, my lead sets the tone for the whole article. Often, until I have my lead, I just don’t know where my work is going.

Consider:

The South County Ladies Garden Club is holding its annual Kids in the Garden Day this Saturday … (yawn).

Plant your kids in the dirt and watch them grow!

Which of these leads makes you want to read the rest of the press release?

REST OF THE STORY

What about the middle of your piece? Does it have a logical progression? Does each paragraph lead to the next paragraph? If it doesn’t, that might indicate you need to insert a new subhead for a new idea.

Do you have a checklist or, better yet, an outline to make sure you’ve said everything that needs to be said? Spending a few minutes on a checklist or outline will save you hours of work trying to figure out what you’re trying to say.

STORYBOOK ENDINGS

How does your work end? Are you coming to a conclusion that you set up in the beginning? Does it pay off so the readers are glad they read the whole story?

Easy reading is definitely hard writing — but it’s worth it. People will write to you or come up to you and tell you how much they enjoyed what you wrote.

They’ll say things like, “I read it all the way to end,” “You really made me think,” “I shared it with friends,” or “I’m going to do what you suggested” (donate, join, protest or otherwise respond to whatever your piece of work was about).

So, do you want your writing to end up in the figurative bottom of somebody’s bird cage? Or would you prefer to be bookmarked, shared, talked about — and maybe even paid?

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County.


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