Top Takeaways from an Ann Wylie Writing Workshop

by RCC member Amy Shelton (DC chapter)

First – sign up for Ann Wylie’s e-newsletter at, buy into the premium version if you can. If you have the resources and time, take the master class.

Second – The class lasted two full days. Here are the things I learned in the class that a year later still have an impact on my writing and design:

Do NOT use the inverted pyramid. Instead, use feature-style stories.

After the course, a student asked to have an announcement placed in our weekly announcements. It gave the facts about when and where to vote. It even listed some reason why vote. I took this announcement and rewrote it. I found an example of a seminarian who died fighting for voting rights in the South in the 60s and used that as my lead. I put the date and times for voting in the next-to-last sentence.

Here’s the story template Ann recommended – make the story more interesting by moving the problem to the top.

  • Introduction – explode it [the problem/challenge/opportunities] and run it throughout the piece
  • Lead with the most provocative moment of the problem
  • Offer a solution
  • Explain the result
  • Go with: Problem, Solution, Results, then introduction/background throughout

“When you advertise fire extinguishers, open with the fire.” ~David Olgivy

Keep your sentences to fewer than 21 words. The Wall Street Journal does this. So can you. I use the word-count feature in Word every single article I write.

Always use active voice. Who can give an example of passive voice?

Keep your paragraphs to two sentences or one. That’s it. No more.

Keep the number of syllables to one or two per word, if at all possible.

You don’t have to use job titles (or academic titles) in first reference and you can break them up into multiple references.

Don’t ask questions – especially in the headlines.

You will have three types of readers. Wylie calls this the 30/3/30 rule, which she’s adapted to the 10/1/10 rule for online reading.

  • Present your message as if a 1/3 of your audience will give you 30 minutes, (now expect only 10 minutes). One third of your audience will give you 3 minutes, (now expect 1 minute or less). One third of your audience will give you 30 seconds, (now more like 10 seconds or less for online).
  • Write for each audience. With the 30/10 second group, be sure to write really inviting and informative headlines and subheadings. The BBC News web site is fantastic at this. They tell the thesis of the story in five words.
  • With the three-minute group, be sure to use call-outs and italics (and other design techniques) to emphasize your main points.

Use the ladder of abstraction

  • At the top is extremely unclear, big ideas
  • At the bottom is an extremely concrete minute detail
  • For example, wealth is a broad concept. Next on the ladder comes ownership, then property, then farm, then cattle farm, then dairy cattle, all the way down to Bessie the three-year-old brown cow.
  • Organizations LOVE the middle, but readers only care about the two ends of the ladder.
  • “Tell me a concept. Then give me an example.”
  • Read the Washington Post and New York Times for examples of how to do this.
  • Get the name of the dog – and use details like that to help the reader see, smell, taste, hear and feel the scene.
  • Make messages vivid. Vivid information moves people to act.

Make your materials (both print and electronic) more inviting

  • Use the dollar-bill test – no blocks of text larger than a dollar bill. Instead break up the copy with images, bold call-outs, sidebars, subheadings, etc.
  • For online materials and web pages, the test shrinks from the size of a bill to the size of your palm.
  • Many people skim – without reading the full story. Be sure your copy makes it easy for skimmers to understand your main points easily.
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