I assume that you spend a lot of time reading and maybe a lot of time writing too.
As someone who has done a lot of both, I have become sensitized to what I think is better or worse writing. I think it’s fair to say that there is much room for improvement. I notice it in my own writing as I clean up writing problems in the fifth, tenth, or later reading.
Comes now Jane Rosenzweig, the director of the Writing Center at Harvard, who gives an “A” to the whistleblower who wrote the memo about the Trump-Ukraine Story. She notes that the memo gets right to the point, and uses subheadings, strong topic sentences, and active verbs.
I would add that the memo is concise and the sentences are fairly short (often bulleted), making it easier to grasp the material. The memo contains the necessary substance without unnecessary detail. It also uses evocative language that quickly captures readers’ attention.
The purpose of all these techniques is for readers to “get” the story clearly and feel moved in some way, emotionally and/or intellectually. If writers – including ourselves and our students – would do these things, we would read and write better stuff (to use the technical term).
Good Legal Writing (and Not)
I don’t know if the whistleblower has had legal training, but his or her memo was a particularly good example of an effective legal document. It presents the facts clearly, identifies the evidence, and efficiently relates them to relevant legal authorities.
This memo has stimulated much more serious response by the Congress, media, and public than the Mueller Report. Obviously, there are many differences in these two situations that explain the different reactions. I think that a contributing factor may be that the whistleblower memo is a better piece of writing than the Mueller Report, which is full of linguistic contortions that make it hard to understand.
I don’t claim that the reaction to the Mueller Report would have been different if the authors wrote a better document. It’s noteworthy, however, that some Democrats hoped that Mr. Mueller’s live testimony would stimulate more support of their objectives because it would be like watching a movie instead of reading a book. In fact, because Mr. Mueller frequently referred to his report itself, his testimony was worse than reading a book – it was more like reading inserts in a statute book, with tidbits of language making sense only by reading some other technical document. Although the whistleblower memo isn’t exactly a cinematic screenplay, it packs a lot more dramatic punch than the Mueller Report.
In any case, these two documents present a fascinating contrast – and a valuable primer in good (and not so good) writing.
If you are planning to write a piece for the Theory of Change symposium, please take these writing tips to heart.