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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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To improve your writing, read (and copy) good writers

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



As writers have known for centuries, the best way to learn to write well is to apprentice yourself to an accomplished writer.

Learning to write is like developing any other skill. You begin by imitating, point by point, someone who has mastered the basic techniques of the form. At first your style may sound derivative, but over time, as you experiment with applying those techniques, your own distinct voice emerges.

I remember the time the critic and editor Malcolm Cowley visited our creative writing class at Vanderbilt. After telling us with stories about Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Hemingway, he offered this advice: The next time you read something that you find compelling, a passage whose language seems extraordinarily well crafted, mark the passage, come back to it, and study it. Read it out loud. Copy or type it over word for word. Try to write something like it. In other words, do whatever you can to get as close as possible to the language that moved you.

In this way, he told us, you discover a writer’s secrets and you make them your own.

A few years ago, when reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I came across a passage that sent chills down my spine. It began, "The stove didn’t shudder as it adjusted to its heat." Before I realized what was happening, Seth’s haunted house was trembling and pitching, a table came rushing across the floor, and Paul D had grabbed it by its leg and was bashing it about, "wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house."

I have often marveled at Morrison’s uncanny ability to glide effortlessly between the natural and the supernatural worlds. How does she do it? I wanted to know.

I took Cowley’s advice and copied and studied the passage. I took it apart and wrote another passage like it. Although I may never write like Morrison, I did learn something from the exercise.

You can take the same approach to improving your business writing. Let’s give it a try.

We’ll use an obvious example: Thomas J. Watson’s famous 1970 memo to IBM managers castigating them for their use of "gobbledygook." His memo is a model of no-nonsense, forceful writing:

"A foreign language has been creeping into many of the presentations I hear and the memos I read. It adds nothing to a message but noise, and I want your help in stamping it out. It’s called gobbledygook.

"There’s no shortage of examples. Nothing seems to get finished anymore—it gets ‘finalized.’ Things don’t happen at the same time but ‘coincident with this action.’ Believe it or not, people will talk about taking a ‘commitment position’ and then because of the ‘volatility of schedule changes’ they will ‘decommit’ so that our ‘posture vis-a-vis some data base that needs a sizing will be able to enhance competitive positions.’

"That’s gobbledygook.

"It may be acceptable among bureaucrats but not in this company. IBM wasn’t built with fuzzy ideas and pretentious language. IBM was built with clear thinking and plain talk. Let’s keep it that way."

Let’s concentrate on four specific points worth imitating. The first is structural. Notice how Watson organizes his memo into a logical, three-part sequence: purpose statement, support, and proposed action.

The other three points all have to do with techniques for creating emphasis: Watson’s use of a one-sentence paragraph, the parallelism of the contrasting statements beginning with "IBM," and the short, punchy concluding sentence.

After you have copied or typed over his memo, write a memo on another topic that imitates, point by point, each of these attributes. Where Watson uses a one-sentence paragraph, you use a one-sentence paragraph. Where he uses parallel construction, you use parallel construction.

Remember, as Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

To which I might add, you can accomplish a lot just by doing.




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