Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 18, 2013

RAY MOSCOWITZ: Writing skills catching flak; here's some help

These tips could help you win the job you want.


MC Weekly

---- — Almost 60 years after Rudolph Flesch wrote a best-selling book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It,” CNBC recently posted a story with this headline: “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad.”

In more than one survey, according to CNBC, employers expressed displeasure over job candidates’ inability to speak and write clearly.

Flesch’s book in 1955 advocated the use of phonics, which had given way to the look-say method to teach reading. The book sent shock waves through the country.

Before writing “Johnny,” Flesch had written books on how to communicate clearly and effectively. “The Art of Plain Talk” in 1946 had received acclaim.

Flesch was not alone. In 1944, Robert Gunning had established a business that provided something called “readability counseling.” Gunning worked with hundreds of writers, and in 1952 he copyrighted “The Technique of Clear Writing.” The opening chapter is titled “The Fight Against Fog.”

CNBC’s story hit home with me.

During my years as a newspaperman, I saw a serious deficiency in writing — not from reporters, but from the general public. Some letters to the editor were almost impossible to comprehend and were replete with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Business letters were better written, but they, too, often contained major errors. Copy provided by advertisers was frequently in the same vein.

In 1980, the Hoosier State Press Association asked me to conduct a session on writing at its annual newsroom seminar and awards program. I did a 90-minute presentation that I called “Organizing the Chaos.” Since then I have made that presentation to several newspapers and non-newspaper groups.

Here are some pointers from “Organizing the Chaos” that can help you improve your writing.

• You cannot write well if you don’t gather/research essential facts and information. Substance trumps style. Context — background and meaning — is a must.

• Once you have the information you need, it’s critical that you organize it in an orderly way. It’s essential that you quickly and clearly state the focus of your piece — the main point, the central issue, the core argument. In newspapering we call that the "lead" or the "nut graph" that tells the writer what the story is about.

• Once you state the focus, proceed logically and orderly from point to point. Generally, start with the most important and/or interesting information. Do not move from one point to another point and then back to the previous point. That’s called “hopscotching.”

• Clarity is the mother’s milk of all writing. Clarity starts with clear thinking. If Sentence B doesn’t logically follow Sentence A, clear thinking is missing.

• Use words correctly to ensure clarity. The right word in the right place makes a significant difference. If you aren’t sure of what a word means, check it out. There are several dictionaries available on the Internet.

• Sentence length is a major factor in determining clarity. If a sentence runs on for 50 words and contains five ideas or thoughts, comprehension is compromised. Periods don’t cost anything.

• Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs when your material is complicated or a bit esoteric.

• Use compound sentences to add rhythm and pace to your writing.

• Wordiness is a bane for all of us. Use common sense and you’ll see redundancies. Don’t accentuate the obvious. For example, if you are reporting on Mayor Jim Walker giving a State of the City speech, don’t write, “He stressed the need for tourism in the city of Peru.”

• Writing often needs attribution — a source — to provide credibility for things that involve a statement of fact, or a questionable assertion. If you think a fact or statement is going to be disputed or challenged, attribute it.

• Have a solid understanding of the eight parts of speech — noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, conjunction, preposition, interjection. Internet grammar sites can improve your ability.

• A common writing error is the run-on sentence, also known as a comma splice error. It occurs when a comma is used improperly to splice two complete sentences together. For example: “Joe is going to Purdue, he’s studying electrical engineering.” A semi-colon or period is needed after “Purdue.”

Back to Robert Gunning … He and others created the Fog Index, which determines the clarity of a piece of writing. Here’s how it works.

1. Jot down the number of words in successive sentences. If the piece is long, you may wish to take several samples of 100 words each, spaced evenly through it.

2. Divide the number of words by the number of sentences. This gives you the average sentence length of the passage.

3. Count the number of words of three syllables or more per 100 words. Don’t count the words that are capitalized; are combinations of short, easy words, such as “bookkeeper”; and are verb forms made three syllables by adding ed, such as “created.” This gives you the percentage of hard words in the passages.

4. To get the Fog Index, total the two factors just counted and multiply by 0.4.

If your prose tests 13 or more, you are in danger of losing your audience; your writing will be too difficult for the average reader.

A score of 13 is writing for college-level audiences. Surveys conducted decades ago showed the average reader has a reading level of about ninth grade (high school freshman). I suspect that hasn’t changed much, if at all. The reading for most comics is about the third grade.

Reading teachers say that by the eighth grade, a person should be functionally literate.

In his book, Gunning reported he found the writing by the famous Hoosier war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, was on the sixth- or seventh-grade level.

The pointers I have provided skim the surface. But if you can master them, they will help make you a competent writer. And they may help you get the job you want.

Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at r.mosco@comcast.net.