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Home > Publications > Quill > Words and Language Toolbox



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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Words and Language Toolbox

Keeping it conversational

Paula LaRocque

We talk a lot in this column about the three most basic and necessary attributes of good writing: accuracy, clarity and brevity. But if we added a fourth, what might that attribute be? I think it would be interest, which is broader and harder to measure than accuracy, clarity or brevity.

One notable characteristic of interesting writing is that it is conversational. In conversation, we are natural organizers for drama, directness and simplicity. We don’t — at least we try not to — bore, bewilder and annoy our listeners with lackluster and wordy approaches. Therefore, whatever the story, it will be more immediate and interesting if it is conversational — if we wrote it as we would say it. That doesn’t mean using the exact phrasing of speech. Rather, it means following the template of speech — the details we choose and how we organize and present them — rather than some threadbare newswriting template.

Whether the writing is conversational is a criterion that catches the subtleties of weak writing. Editors tend to look for holes, inconsistencies, errors ... but they may forget to ask themselves if a story is interesting. Maybe it seems too much to ask! In any case, dull and formulaic stories are routine in media writing, in print, online and in broadcasting.

Consider this news article’s innocuous beginning:

1) Facing the likelihood of tight budgets for years, the Army and the Defense Department may not have much money anytime soon to develop helicopter technology.

2) That’s not stopping Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. from forging ahead and spending tens of millions of dollars to try to reinvent the helicopter for the military.

3) President Jeff Pino says Sikorsky is committed to investing its own funds to build flying prototypes of the S-97 Raider, a demonstration aircraft incorporating the company’s high-speed X2 Technology, to show the military what’s possible.

4) In a recent interview, Pino says he’s very confident Sikorsky can develop the technology and high-performance aircraft quickly and less expensively without government direction, money and oversight.

Is this an awful article? No. Is it typical? Yes. And how interesting do you find it? You’re probably saying: Well, mildly interesting. Or, not very. Or even, in a burst of honesty: Not at all.

Yet there’s interesting material here. As with so many news stories, however, it gets lost in verbiage. What is the interesting material? It’s this: An aircraft company will use its own money to do what the government usually does, and says it will do it better. Those two provocative and storytelling points are captured in Pino’s claim that Sikorsky will “show the military what’s possible.”

Why is that interesting? Because it’s dramatic. It sets up a challenge, a break with tradition, and competition. Result: Conflict, the holy grail of storytelling.

Let’s say I wanted to relate to you Pino’s claims, would I begin: “Facing the likelihood of tight budgets for years ...”?

Nope.

Would I intone that the “Army and the Defense Department may not have much money anytime soon”?

No. At least not to start with. How do small things hurt this lead?

Graph 1: The article backs in with an unanchored phrase that delays the sentence’s action or main point. Also, “anytime soon” is journalese — as tired as “amid,” “sources on the ground” or “at the end of the day.”

Graph 2: To properly appreciate how wordy this sentence is, read it aloud. Your voice will be snagged by chaff and prepositional phrase. Not stopping! Forging ahead! Tens of millions of dollars! Trying to reinvent! All of that is meant to infuse drama into the story. Instead, it’s just hot air.

Graph 3: Fails to highlight its interesting material in a storytelling way.

Graph 4: “In a recent interview”: Yes, we assume both that it was recent and that the reporter interviewed Pino, since he quotes him. Also: “very confident.” Doesn’t just “confident” say it? Skip vague qualifiers that add nothing.

Beyond these observations, this last passage contains the most interesting material. So should it be in the fourth paragraph, or the first?

Here’s a more conversational and interesting suggested opening:

Jeff Pino, president of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., says his company will “show the military what’s possible” by using its own money to develop helicopter technology the government usually has subsidized. And, says Pino, it will do it quicker and cheaper without government direction, money and oversight.

In short, the easiest way to get to more direct and interesting writing is to read our words aloud and let our natural storytelling instincts judge them. If a passage feels comfortable and conversational, if we think we might actually say it that way, we can be sure that it will be at least clear and readable.

And it could be great! Happens all the time.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” was published by Marion Street Press in September 2011. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Website: paulalarocque.com