3 great writing tips that transform my students

October 25, 2011 · 16 comments

in Journalism how-to's

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My goal with students is very simple. Under my watch, they MUST become confident, competent writers. Their ability to clearly express themselves changes their lives.

To help them, I beat three specific lessons into their heads. These concepts are actually fairly intuitive. If you relax and don’t fight them, they can even become part of you quite easily…

And these drills work! My students have gone on to tremendous careers all around the world. They are writers, editors, playwrights, business folks, actors, activists, artists, scientists and yes, even teachers.

I originally blogged about each of these lessons so that students could learn on my website instead of buying an expensive book — $90 for a paperback college text, can you believe it?! But plenty of non-students have responded favorably to the material. So pulling stuff together here provides a strategic overview of the writing process:

 

1) Write conversationally.

Most students start off in love with long, twisted sentences. They seem to believe that the more they load up on commas, the more intelligent they sound. They also believe that short sentences are too simple. But the reality is that simple sentences are how we actually talk.

If this is true, then a simple sentence is not an act of dumbing down content. By the way, achieving conversational simplicity is far from simple. Hey, just try creating a paragraph built on short sentences. It requires an extremely sharp mind because each line must logically lead to the next one. There’s no way to hide behind windy words that say blah blah blah.

There’s a powerful tool for organizing conversational writing. The device has an odd name. To learn about the nut graf, click here.

 

2) Know the difference between using “it” and “they.”

Okay, this is a biggie. Getting this right might seem subtle. But knowing how to use “it” versus “they” is an instant game changer…Are you perceived as a talented person with writing potential? Or are you known as a polished writer with a meticulous passion for your craft?

To find the answer, read this:

I love that diner. They serve the best coffee.

Did that look fine to you? If so, ooops! Because this is how it should read:

I love that diner. It serves the best coffee.

To understand the difference between using “it” and “they,” go here.

 

3) Punctuation defines your writing.

People can be very careless with punctuation. After all, it’s just a bunch of dots and squiggles, right? Nope.

Once I explain the importance of commas, periods and dashes, students are quite shocked. Apparently, no one ever told them that punctuation is a marvelous vehicle for self-expression.

Here’s an example. Punctuate the following sentence:

Woman without her man is nothing

It can be tidied up like this:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Or maybe you prefer this:

Woman — without her, man is nothing.

Care to read more on this fascinating topic? Here’s the link.

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I think this is a good time to be posting practical advice. There are papers to write, memos to email, job applications to send out, letters to send. Sure would be nice if you came across as a lean, mean writing machine.  :)

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mary October 25, 2011 at 7:49 am

Betty,

Simple advice but oh-so-hard for students to learn! In most non-journalism classes, they are rewarded for laden-with -words sentences. Journalism is about getting to the basics of simple, clean writing and you are a master at teaching them how to do that.

The nut graf example is brilliant!

2 Mary Anne Davis October 25, 2011 at 9:14 am

Who knew your writing tips would become my prevailing passion? I am developing a daily writing practice, both as a student and as an artist seeking to clarify my thoughts about my work. These tips are just what I need. Thank you, Betty!

3 Betty October 25, 2011 at 9:34 am

the two marys…thanks for checking in. :)

i just finished taking the dog on our morning walk. gave me time to think about how the practice is the same in writing and on the canvas. for me, it’s all about stripping down the point to its cleanest, clearest essentials.

now i want to do that with my daily routine. can i get through the noise and focus on things that really matter?

4 Ivan October 25, 2011 at 9:55 am

These tips definitely have taken me far. Too few editors remember the first part.

5 Laura Madden October 25, 2011 at 9:59 am

One of my favorite exercises was starting off in your class with low lights and a brief meditation, complete with bells.

6 Jenni Stone October 25, 2011 at 10:05 am

You changed the way I write.

Thanks Betty. Bravo for explaining it so succinctly.

7 Betty October 25, 2011 at 10:17 am

thanks, ivan! you done good in your career.

oh jenni, thank you for the feedback too. i am thrilled. you must come back when your book is published so that we can cheer you on!

and laura, i still mess around with the meditation and chimes. last week, i was kinda mean…in one of my classes, i had the students read their work out loud. in their attempts to write simply, some of them kept repeating the same words and phrases over and over.

so with one poor student, i starting banging on the chimes every time she was repetitive. well, that room was ringing with bells. everyone laughed. she did too. and we all got the point. i actually might try this trick again in this week’s classes.

8 Toby October 25, 2011 at 11:14 am

Betty: I hope you won’t mind if I cut & paste this writing advice into an email to all the writers for Out In Jersey magazine. As an editor, I must say it is excellent counsel !

9 Betty October 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

toby, i would love for you to share it! and if they can come back to “like” it or share it themselves via the actual link, that would be great. you know for bloggers, it’s all about readership and direct traffic. thanks! :)

10 Amantha Tsaros October 25, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Betty, I am going to have to send you a check for $90 to cover the valuable “it” and “they” lesson!

11 Betty October 25, 2011 at 8:25 pm

amantha! how wonderful that you got “it.” haha! you don’t need to pay me. just take the money to hire a babysitter so that you can go out with your honey. :)

12 Karen October 26, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Wonderful tips!! I’m going to send to my Girls Write Now mentee who is writing college admissions essays today. Thanks, Betty!!

13 Kineta H. November 1, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Thanks Betty! I’ve heard before about the importance of conversational writing before (only as of this year) lol. But your spin on the punctuation in the second example was new to me, and very helpful!

14 Kineta H. November 1, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Whoops! I meant the 3rd : )

15 Betty November 1, 2011 at 9:34 pm

kineta! so glad that the material was useful. isn’t punctuation amazing?! :)

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