by Philip Yaffe
Over the past 40-plus years as a journalist and marketing communication consultant, I have frequently been told that I am an exceptionally good writer by teachers, friends, colleagues, and clients. But I wasn’t always a good writer; in fact, I used be a very bad one.
So what happened to bring about this monumental change? Basically, university.
When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I was a very unusual kid. Like all youngsters in the 1950s, I loved surfing. But I also loved school more, even to the point of complaining about holidays because I would be deprived of the joy of going to class.
I was especially fond of math and science; I never really thought about writing. However, when I went from primary to secondary school, I quickly realized that writing would become increasingly important. So being the bizarre kid I was, I decided to teach myself how to do it.
I did two basic things. On my own, I studied English grammar to the point that I knew it backwards, forwards, and upside down. I could put together the most involved, convoluted, grammatically flawless sentences imaginable. I also studied vocabulary. Classically, I challenged myself to learn — and use — five new words a day. I very rapidly gained a vocabulary far above the norm for my age.
I then put the two things together and decided that the essence of good writing was intricate sentences liberally sprinkled with sophisticated vocabulary. This was how I wrote themes, essays, book reports, etc. As I expected, I always got top marks.
During my last year in secondary school, I submitted one of these arcane masterpieces, which came back with the traditional “A”. However, this time there was a note saying: “Philip, you have such interesting, original ideas. Why do you bury them under such complex, convoluted language? Next year when you go to university, I suggest that you take a one-term course in basic journalism to learn how to simplify your writing.”
I had no particular interest in journalism, or even in writing. However I did have particular respect for this teacher, so I decided to follow his advice. At university I enrolled in a first-term journalism class.
This was when everything changed.
At the end of the second week, the professor assigned us a short article to write. I confidently handed it in. But when it came back, instead of the traditional “A” grade, it had a “C”. I was severely shaken; this was the first “C” I had ever seen. I worked rather harder on the second assignment, which also came back with a “C”.
I told myself that this just didn’t make any sense, so for the third assignment I put my heart and soul into the work. This time it did not come back with a “C”. It came back with a “D”.
Now I was really shaken, and scared. I began actually listening to what the professor was saying. Finally I realized that writing clearly and concisely was much more difficult than the so-called “sophisticated” writing I had been doing.
Recognizing “simple” writing to be a challenge, I really concentrated on what I was doing, and my grades started to rise. Not just in journalism. Even better, I began getting complimentary notes from professors in other classes on how much they appreciated my new, crisp, clean writing style. In other words, what I was learning as basic journalism was generating positive results in my other academic pursuits.
For example, in a political science class I once turned in an essay that I knew went directly counter to the professor’s opinion. In an English literature class I turned in a review of one of the professor’s favorite books, which I trashed. In both cases the reaction was the same. I got an “A”. While neither professor was totally convinced, they both said that I had presented my arguments in such a clear, compelling manner, they simply couldn’t be dismissed.
Having discovered journalism, I subsequently joined the student newspaper, rose through the ranks, and in my final year became editor-in-chief. I also began tutoring in writing. In the mid-1960s, universities didn’t have writing centers to help foundering students. About the only way to resolve writing problems was through private tuition.
I remember one case in particular. A girl came to me with a note from a professor: “Young lady, I advise you either to drop my class immediately or prepare to fail it.” Obviously she was bright enough; after all she was a student at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). So where was the problem? I read a couple of her essays that had gotten such poor marks. There was no question that she had a lot of interesting things to say. Equally, there was no question that she was saying them very badly.
It very quickly became apparent where the problem lay. She simply was not fully using one of the fundamental principles of good writing, because she thought that consistently applying it was just too much trouble. It took a couple of sessions to convince her that it wasn’t too much trouble — in fact it was crucial. Her writing immediately began to improve. At the end of the term not only didn’t she fail the class, she had pulled her grade all the way up from a certain “F” to a solid “B”.
I am not saying that to be a good writer in general, you should study journalism first. However, because it was the antithesis of the poor writing I had been doing, journalism gave me a flying start. Over the past four decades I think I have added some insights into good writing (and speaking) that I didn’t learn from journalism. Or at least I have made explicit certain key ideas which previously were implicit, and therefore poorly applied. (If you wish to know more about these insights, you may enter “Fixing the flaws in the 10 principles of clear writing” into any search engine.)
Today, as when I was a student, my passion is still mathematics and science. My career path has taken me in a somewhat different direction. But I don’t regret it; it’s been quite a journey.
The moral of the story? There are in fact two of them:
Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. Now semi-retired, he teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. He is the author of The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org,email@example.com.