Thursday, May 3, 2012

Write Right (And Thank Me Later)

I was a strange journalist. I made it my business to communicate with every division within our newspaper - circulation, marketing, editing, pagination, photography, press room - in an effort to see if there was anything I could do to make the newspaper better. These folks could also provide me with guidance; story leads and ideas; help me write stories which mattered to my community, because they were a part of my community.

(Most journalists focus solely on writing stories-and even then find it difficult to keep up the pace.)

It was during one of my first visits with the copy editors at a new paper I was working for that I asked a simple question: Is there anything I can do for you?

One of the copy editors, a woman who had worked at the paper for nearly 30 years, smiled at me and said, "Well, nobody has ever asked that before, but since you have, here." Then she handed me a copy of "Warriner's English Grammar And Composition. Second Edition."

Now, I hadn't written a single story for this newspaper yet, so she wasn't telling me something about my writing. She was telling me something about her experiences with writers. About the time the copy editors spend correcting poor grammar and making stories readable. I didn't take offense at her suggestion I brush up on my grammar, I took it as a sign that if I really wanted to help her and all the other copy editors (there were about a dozen) I would make certain the stories I handed in were as well-written as I could make them.

I still have that book on my bookshelf. I am holding it in my hand as I write these words (which is difficult.)

And that brings me to my point today: How well written is your copy? How's your grammar? Punctuation? Composition? If your copy isn't readable how can you expect someone to read it?

Spell check is free, folks, but don't stop there. Writing is not actually writing, it's re-writing. Read through your stories, your manuscripts, your poems and plays. Be certain that your point comes across clearly not just to YOU but to anyone who might happen across your story. Don't be vague or wishy-washy; be strong and assertive with your prose. But most of all, be clear and concise.

There is no secret to being a great writer other than practice, practice, practice. But it certainly helps if you have a strong grasp of the language in which you are writing and a clear idea of the message you are trying to impart.

Doing anything less just makes the job harder for everyone involved.

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