On 18th May I was lucky enough to attend a one-off “Write Well … Think Better” workshop at Southampton University, led by James McConnachie (journalist, TV presenter, writer of Rough Guides to Paris, Nepal, Conspiracy Theories and Sex, and author of acclaimed Book of Love.)
In his two hour interactive workshop, James helpfully and humorously advised students on how to improve their writing and communication skills. The workshop promised to help participants write better essays, ‘learn to move from blank page to stylish, finished work’, and ‘get professional tips on what makes writing sing.’
Though soon to graduate, and thus leave the realm of essay-writing, I thought the workshop might give me some tips on how to become a more effective PR practitioner.
THE PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE
A writer for over 15 years, James describes his job as the ‘pursuit of excellence’, emphasising the agonising hours writers spend looking for a better word or a tighter way of saying something [“Every writer I know has trouble writing” Joseph Heller]. For James, writing is a constant process of self-improvement, a sense of which he believes is vital in conscientious creative writers [“Only bad writers think that their work is really good” Anne Enright].
He describes bad writing as akin to wearing tracksuit bottoms or pyjamas in public, as it affects the way we are seen and judged by our audience. Familiar with writing articles, reviews, and books, ranging wildly in length, James describes the challenges inherent in all writing publications.
CREATIVITY – ANTI AUTO-PILOT
Think carefully about what you want to say and convey, James warns. According to James, ‘auto-pilot stuff’ is ‘terrible’, and he stresses the importance of individual word choice; one word can convey a whole new meaning.
James warns of relying too heavily on over-used clichés [“Avoid clichés like the plague” William Safire], and of applying clichés to the wrong situations. He quotes an occasion for example, when a journalist refers to Gordon Brown ‘jumping over the last hurdle’ of his political campaign.
Unless intended to poke fun at the unlikely event of Gordon Brown jumping over hurdles, the metaphor conjures conflicting mental associations which detract from the main message of the article.
In addition to this, James highlights the difference in impact ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing can have on a reader’s reactions and emotions. We all admired the creativity of P.G. Wodehouse who, when describing an overweight man, wrote – he was a “tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when!’”, instead of, ‘he was fat’.
Make it FRESH
In Travel Writing, as indeed in many cases of Consumer PR, the challenge is to make something which is considered mundane or everyday appear ‘fresh’, in other words to ‘recapture the excitement’ that the building/venue/object once had. James stresses that it is vital that writers (and PR practitioners) present this ‘fresh’ stance from the very first sentence if they are to capture the reader.
As a writer of Travel Guides, James is familiar with how the written word can physically influence human behaviour (as PR aims to do), encouraging people to visit particular museums or eat at certain restaurants. Because of this affect, James admits to feeling a sense of responsibility, also required of PR practitioners, to give the reader reliable and honest information.
CUT DOWN (Think Soup)
As a writer of book reviews for the Sunday Times, James is familiar with meeting demanding word counts; each review must be limited in length to around 400 words. To write in this space effectively, James stresses the importance of constantly cutting sections of work.
He uses a friend’s analogy of soup-making: Chefs must ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’ their soup to get rid of the excess water if they are to concentrate the flavours, as desired.
James also refers to the challenge of Twitter which is even more demanding; all tweet content must be condensed to only 140 characters – a pretty tough task for those with a lot to say.
He also points out the effectiveness of precise sentences and so promotes the cutting of needless words to make shorter, snappier statements [“Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words.” Strunk & White].
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Whilst long words are often used to sound impressive, they are frequently less effective than clear, simple language and can alienate the reader [‘Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do” William Safire]. In a similar way, unless you purposefully want the style to stand out, James shares Somerset Maugham’s view that “the best style is the style you don’t notice.”
MAKE A POINT
According to James, good writing should make a point, give an opinion, and lead readers in a particular direction [“The passive voice should never be used” William Safire]. James refers to one of Winston Churchill’s famous rhetorical quotes as an example:
“Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” Job done.
In all writing, but especially in Press Release writing, it is important to target a particular audience so that the content and style is suitable for the intended reader. James relates this to TV presenting, stating that, though presenting to a camera, you must not act like you are talking to an inanimate object (as you are), but imagine instead the ideal audience member sitting inside the lens who you are directly addressing.
‘Dead donkey’ refers to a leaden style that leads nowhere, whereas a ‘migrating goose’ generates a sense of movement and progression which, in turn, generates the reader’s curiosity and pleasure. It is best to be a migrating goose.
With heaps of authority-figures, writers and critics out there, it is sometimes tempting to simply repeat something that someone else has said. However, it is important not to plagiarise. James recommends using others’ thoughts to create new ones of your own:
“The bees pillage the flowers here and there but they make honey of them which is all their own…” Montaigne
So in conclusion, when re-reading your work, consider:
- Is it cliché?
- Is it important?
- Who cares?
- Does it sound too pompous?
- Is it too wordy, or too knotty?
Many thanks to James McConnachie for granting me permission to write this post. To find out more about James, and to read what critics say about him, visit his blog: www.mcconnachie.tumblr.com. Comments welcome.
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