Christian Caryl, Muse Magazine Critic-in-Residence, shared some tips on good writing.
Speaking to a packed room during a lunchtime lecture at the JMSC, he distinguished between commentary, leaders or op ed pieces, as they are collectively known in the Anglo-Saxon world, and straight news stories:
“Commentary is informed opinion that gives you a privileged insight into an issue.”
Caryl laid down his four principles of good writing:
1. Have a point
“It’s shocking how often people start writing opinion without knowing what they want to say.”
Writing should be incisive and it should get to the point quickly, he said. Complexity is fine, as long as there’s a good strong hook and that comes near the top of the article. He gave the example of Anne Applebaum writing in the Washington Post.
Her article compares the financial status of America with that of Greece. Right from the opening we understand her point. She spells it out clearly and then expands on it.
2. Prioritise your ideas
“This applies even more when you are writing for the web.”
There should be no long-winded anecdotes or lengthy introduction. Time is precious, readers want the goods, so get to the point. The more important the idea, the higher up the piece it should be, Caryl insisted. He used the example of Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times.
Krugman argues with brutal clarity the undervaluing of the reminbi. He says there is a problem and that the world needs to confront it. Then, using clear reasoning, he runs through his thesis clearly and with priority.
“He’s not trying to be gentle or objective. It’s impassioned, inflammatory writing,” said Caryl. “He tells us what’s wrong, what’s at stake and then offers his opinion.”
3. Write vividly
Caryl used the example of biologist, Olivia Judson, writing in the New York Times to illustrate how it’s possible to write about highly complex scientific theories and evolutionary biology vividly and yet anchor it in reality.
He told the audience to favour the concrete over the abstract, avoid jargon and generalisations and keep writing specific and comprehensible. “Imagine yourself sitting at the kitchen table with your mum, or at a bar with a friend. How would you persuade them?”
Caryl suggested using active tenses rather then passive, positive comparisons not negative, and varying sentence length while also using words of different complexity and linguistic origin.
4. Write with feeling
Caryl urged the audience to write with feeling but not to rant and rave.
“Passion cannot take the place of a good argument, but, if you yoke passion to a strong intellectual argument, your readers will really care.”
Cold anger, a sense of optimism, humour and wit can help you create good prose, he opined. Passion can breath life into a piece. The example he used was Anthony Lewis’ article about the use of torture in America, published in 2008 in the New York Review of Books.
“Lewis uses very specific language and there is a clear hierarchy of ideas,” said Caryl. “It’s well organised and tough writing.”
He also cited George Will writing in the Washington Post about a linguistic slip made by Obama when he used the word ‘precipice‘ instead of ‘brink’.
“George Will, is a rhetorician. He seizes on a rhetorical chink in the President’s armour and exploits it. The writing works because underneath it all there is cold anger.”
Christian Caryl is at the JMSC for one semester teaching critical writing to Master of Journalism students. This lunchtime lecture gave a taste of the content of his course to a wider audience. For those interested in learning more, Christian will teach a public course over four weekends in April called The Art of the Commentary.
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