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I MADE THE WRITING MORE SIMPLE
A reporter’s copy would occasionally be slow and heavy, where reading it would feel a bit like wading through quicksand. To make the story punchier, I would simplify the writing in several different ways. I might strike out redundant words, rewrite needlessly convoluted sentences and replace various stuffy words—such as “commence,” “occupation” and “utilise”—with breezier, more casual expressions such as “start,” “job” and “use,” which would instantly make the writing feel less sluggish. The act of simplifying a reporter’s copy almost always led to airier prose that flew off the page rather than sinking to the floor.
I MADE THE WRITING MORE CLEAR
With few exceptions, good writing is abundantly clear, which is to say that its meaning shines through immediately and brilliantly. As an editor, however, I’d sometimes encounter vague, abstract, imprecise or incoherent sentences which, if allowed to remain in the text, would leave readers feeling baffled or uncertain. If bad grammar wasn’t to blame, the problem often was lazy writing, where the author simply hadn’t taken the trouble to deliver their meaning crisply. Ambiguous sentences of the type, “James challenged Mike to a fight to test his strength,” were surprisingly common. So too was hazy terminology—such as “stakeholders,” “medium-term” and “value-added services”—that were harder to picture than, say, “staff and customers,” “in the next five years” and “24-hour technical support.”
I MADE THE WRITING MORE ELEGANT
Writing may be simple and clear enough, and yet still read badly because it lacks elegance—or doesn’t flow well. Inelegant prose has two main causes: bad organisation and poor rhythm. An amateur writer dumps ideas onto a page in no special order and is happy to rely on the information alone to provide value. An elite writer weaves an elegant narrative, packaging their points neatly into gracefully flowing sections. A good writer, too, becomes sensitive to the “music” of their prose and strives to create a better rhythm by tweaking, for instance, the length and structure of sentences, or by manipulating the subtle stops, starts and pauses inherent in punctuation such as commas, semicolons, dashes and periods.
I MADE THE WRITING MORE EVOCATIVE
Evocativeness is the quality that gives writing its spark—which is why any book, article, essay or email that ignores this vital component tends to be boring. As an editor, I discovered many ways to make a reporter’s article more stimulating. I’d shun, for instance, tired cliches such as “innovative service provider” and “think outside the box.” I’d limit the use of dreary passive sentences, like, “The teacher was asked by the caretaker to hand over the keys.” And I’d turn weary sentences—such as, “The authorities took strong measures to address the disorderly conduct of citizens assembled at last night’s violent protest”—into more intense, colourful passages like, “Mounted officers and police dogs battled into the night to contain dozens of angry, bottle-wielding protesters.”
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That day, I felt I had somehow uncovered the matrix that lies behind all truly great nonfiction writing. In other words, I understood that simplicity, clarity, elegance and evocativeness were, in fact, the fundamental design principles that made it possible for us to produce beautiful writing—just as the categories of light, space, colour and object enable interior decorators to design beautiful rooms, and in the same way that the abstract ideas of pitch, tempo, melody and rhythm empower a composer to craft beautiful music. Whether the best writers applied the four properties of exceptional writing consciously or not didn’t really matter. It was transparent enough to me that this was, indeed, the secret structure of all superior nonfiction writing.
Once you saw it, you could not unsee it—in your own or others’ writing. As an experiment, just try to thinking back to any piece of writing you really enjoyed reading. I’m sure that you’ll find it was simple, clear, elegant and evocative in abundance. Or if it lacked any one of those particular qualities, I’m more or less certain that would be because it had, for some good, reason been deliberately sacrificed for one of the others.
Now that I had cracked the hidden code of exceptional writing, I felt I could go ahead confidently and teach others how to write and edit better. All I needed to do was to reveal each and every tactic I knew for making a piece of writing optimally simple, clear, elegant and evocative. It wasn’t long, however, before the fuller implications of my discovery dawned on me. In possession of this mighty formula for writing well, not only would I now be able to quickly turn my fellow journalists into exceptional wordsmiths. I could potentially do the same for millions of book, blog and business writers everywhere.