Presenter gives tips on writing with a purpose

By Emma Snyder

Doug Cannon leading strategic writing workshop at RCC 2016.

Photo by George Conklin.

NEW YORK — On a sunny and unusually warm afternoon in New York, only a compelling workshop could keep you inside. Doug Cannon’s April 1 workshop on writing with purpose was one of them. In under an hour, he gave religion communicators a crash-course in strategic, effective writing.

What is writing? It falls somewhere between “linking symbols together to say something” and “communication using the written word.” In practice it involves frantically typing away while trying to meet deadlines. Good writing is essential to spreading your message in an increasingly crowded media environment.

Before beginning a piece, writers need to ask questions. Is its purpose to inform, entertain or influence? Who is the audience? Is their perspective on you hostile, favorable or indifferent? What is the medium of delivery? Is it print or online? Is it a video or blog post? Asking these questions shapes a story to fit your specific purpose.

The next step is to improve readability. Cannon said that the ABCs of effective writing are accuracy, brevity and clarity. For clear and powerful writing, value the simple over the complex and the active over the passive. He distilled this into 10 principles listed below:

  1. Use short, familiar words – use ‘huge,’ not ‘gargantuan’
  2. Use strong verbs – ‘he ran’ is better than ‘he was running’
  3. Drop excessive words – adverbs and adjectives need to go
  4. Use precise words – like Pushkin, make every word matter
  5. Short sentences – paragraph sentences are for academics
  6. Keep it simple
  7. Get to the point – remember, you only have around 400 words
  8. Restraint – try to be objective
  9. Human references – start stories with ‘You’
  10. Revise. Then revise again. And again.

Cannon closed the workshop with a challenge: to write a short blog post on what you learned in the workshop. It wouldn’t be a writing workshop without ending with a writing assignment!

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