As communicators we are hired to tell clear and concise stories. Why do many of us fail?
Mine is a harsh assessment, but often communications professionals fail because they are fearful of the writing process, or don’t give adequate time to deliver a polished product. Our PR colleagues also may be struggling because few have experienced a great mentor.
Everyone needs a writing coach. Organizations should make it a priority to find one. Our diplomas may hang on the wall but it isn’t too late for remedial writing courses in the office. For instance, look at the glut of recently retired reporters available to serve as a coach.
The great mentor I remember is the late Wilma Morrison, whose last journalism job was in the 1960s-1970s. She coached young reporters at the Vanguard, Portland State University’s student newspaper.
Wilma was a legend before being asked to create PSU’s journalism department. She was a nationally recognized education reporter. She worked for The Oregonian from World War II – when newspapers allowed women into the newsroom because there weren’t enough men – until the day the Portland newspaper strike started in 1959.
Wilma had a tremendous professional discipline and high standards. More important was her great ability to “dope slap” you for disappointing performances.
A tiny example of her ability to break through the fog was when she inspired me to create a word to remind me of the basic principles of journalism. The word is ABFFOCCC – something like “Aflac” before geese did TV commercials. It stood for: Accuracy, balance, factual, fair, objective, clear, concise and correct.
Even more memorable was her weekly review of student stories.
Once printed, she’d affix the tabloid-sized Vanguard to a larger sheet of butcher paper. Then she’d mark it with comments written in green ink or the dreaded red marker. Points on good writing were scrawled on the paper, bruising egos in the process. Her comments could be applied to how you performed as a person as much as appreciated good writing tips.
“Mostly Wilma's mentoring for me came from the scrawled copies of the Vanguard that she hung in the newsroom for every staffer's embarrassment,” says Joe Bernt, editor of the Vanguard in 1970, when students shut down PSU for a week of anti-war protest. He now teaches writing at Ohio University.
“All her scratchings on the fat, gangling prose that made it into the Vanguard taught me a good deal about sparse prose and editing that I practice professionally and in the classroom,” Bernt recalls.”
Her students remember such lines as:
"Speculation. Get the facts from a source willing to go on the record and who knows something.
“Boil it!” – A reference to wordy sentences.
“Where’s the lead?” – Pointing out the real news was buried in sentence 23 rather than at the top of the story.
“You do good work, just not enough of it.”
Ouch, that last barb stuck with me for life. It’s not too late to find a Wilma. If managers of PR shops want to help the creative staff, young an old alike, start looking.