I teach a required copywriting course at the Fashion Institute of Technology, so my classroom is filled with nineteen-year-olds who are there because they have to be. The first day of the semester, I go around the room and have them talk about themselves, including their feelings about writing. Approximately 75% tell me they don’t think they can write well. They say things like “I’m not a good writer,” or “I don’t know where to begin when I have to write something.”
It’s true, some young people do have an innate sense of how to write and a talent for creating copy that’s interesting and really flows. But for those who don’t have that particular talent hardwired into their DNA, I tell them a secret that’s helped me through the years: “Just start writing! Put down a few words and see where they lead you.”
While I believe that writing is an art – I also believe it can be taught and acquired through practice, patience, and a good instructor. Plus the following basic guidelines that will help students write more clearly:
1. Outline what you need to say.
You can’t write clearly until, before you begin, you know where you’ll stop. Do your outline in a way you’re most comfortable with: hand-written, typed on the computer, or simply jotted down on 3” x 5” cards. Write down the points you need to make, and arrange them in a logical, understandable sequence.
2. Start where your readers are.
Try to figure out how much they know about the subject. But always remember not to write to a higher level than your readers. And never write to a lower level – that can be insulting. Your main purpose is to explain something in an interesting way.
3. Don’t use jargon that’s specific to a particular profession or group.
Be careful not to use expressions or words only people with specific knowledge will know.
4. Use combinations of words that are easy to understand.
Sometimes less is more. Don’t over-complicate what you’re trying to say. If you’re not sure, read what you wrote out loud, putting yourself in the position of the reader. Did you give too much information? Not enough? Then take it from there.
5. Stick to the point
Your outline, which was more work in the beginning, now saves you time. Ask yourself if your copy relates to a point in your outline, and if it doesn’t, cut it!
6. Be as brief as possible
Editing and condensing almost always makes your writing tighter and easier to read. Avoid windy phrases, for example use “if” instead of “in the event of” or “now” instead of “at the present time.” And remember to look for passive verbs you can make active (“The class was led by Mr. Jones” could be rewritten as “Mr. Jones led the class”).
So if your child (or teen/young adult) is feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand, tell them to just start writing – even if it’s just a few words related to the material. Along with the above basic guidelines, it’s amazing how the rest will start to fall into place. Plus, a good thesaurus always comes in handy!
By Barry Gold, Private Tutor