Writers, when in doubt, KISS

Sound advice from SAPF’s writing judge, Therésa Lee. A barometer she uses when judging competition entries for writing, is the KISS principle. She believes this well-known dictum still holds true – Keep It Short & Simple. She shares some insights into her judging process in this article.

Therésa is not new to the panel of judges; she has been a stalwart judge for around ten years.

When evaluating writing, the first thing she picks up on is grammar and spelling. It may sound obvious, but there are writers who frequently neglect to have their articles proofread. Note – HAVE it proofread. She is a firm believer that you cannot proofread your own work. In South Africa we adhere to UK English (honour, organisation, programme), but if you insist on using US English (honor, organization, program), please be consistent.

Readability is very important – short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. If it’s an in-depth article, there should be a summary or lots of cross heads to break up the copy into digestible pieces.

Exceptional writing will engage readers. It starts with an alluring introduction that seduces you to read right to the end. It should be extraordinary, unusual and creative.

Corporate writing often falls into the trap of using jargon. Just because agile/robust/low-hanging fruit (the list goes on) are the new buzzwords in the company, doesn’t mean they should be used 15 times in one article, or in every article in the publication. Repetition is also a killer; find synonyms rather than repeating words.

Therésa is a skilled and experienced communicator who enjoys her work and all the daily challenges involved with it. “I know strategic communication makes a difference, adds value and effects change,” she says.

Speaking of stalwarts

Although he writes in the context of older newspaper newsrooms, Harold Evans, writer of the classic series Newsman’s English, speaks of and to journalists and editors: “Words are our trade. It is not enough to get the news. We must be able to put it across. Meaning must be unmistakable, and it must also be succinct. Readers have not the time and newspapers have not the space for elaborate reiteration. This imposes decisive requirements. In protecting the reader from incomprehension and boredom, the deskman has to insist on language which is specific, emphatic and concise. Every word must be understood by the ordinary man, every sentence must be clear at one glance, and every story must say something about people. There must never be a doubt about its relevance to our daily life. There must be no abstractions.”

He also writes the following in Editing and Design (the reprinted version from 1979) which is the first book in the series:

“The good text editor is a surgeon who can save facts and who can make the body of the story more vigorous and healthy. His instruments are a clear mind and a love of the language.”