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Don't Do It

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Seven "don't" warnings to remember when writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've been going through manuscripts submitted for workshops and for my classes at Indiana University. Reactions include numerous "don'ts." Yes, when the copy moves me to do so, I offer positives in my edits and evaluations. But copy, good or bad, deserves response, and an honest response, tough as it might need to be, is the best policy for an editor. Ultimately, it is the best for the development of writers, too. Be straight with them (and yourself as a writer, too). Tell them (and tell yourself) what is wrong. Give them (and you) "don't" warnings, along with necessary explanation.

Here are seven oft-used "don'ts" that my writers, my students, get.

Don't Obfuscate

I use the word to double down on a major problem, probably the most serious that we, as writers and editors, can commit. "Obfuscate," you might tell me, is an obfuscating word. Of course it is. So, I splash it in red wherever the writer has been so, wherever he or she has not been clear. It's my way of screaming the dictum that clarity comes first. If we can't provide clarity, not much else matters. Readers must easily comprehend what we're telling them. That's always been rule number 1, and so, when I find something that might confuse those being written for and to, first I'm likely to simply say, "Be clear." But when the issue is serious or becomes repetitive, I take to shouting, "Don't obfuscate." I've found it can be more alerting.

Don't Skimp

I know space is a premium commodity, but do not deprive the reader of what must be considered essential information. To leave coverage incomplete amounts to a sin of omission, which is to leave the reader unenlightened or ill informed. Provide whatever, on careful consideration, is deemed necessary for the reader's wants and needs, for the reader to feel the story covers the topic thoroughly.

Don't Overdo

Be aware of limits. Be cognizant of how much the reader requires or is likely to favor. Add to that a realistic view of what will fit comfortably and suitably into the body, the totality of the publication in which your article will run. Combine those mental alerts, and pay heed. The pressure these days is always toward the shorter. So, determine how to be your best at being shorter, keeping in mind the previous "don't" on this list: "Don't skimp."

Don't Bore

If you cannot build enthusiasm for your subject and your work, what you've done will have been done for naught. Be honest with yourself. Consider if you've made your material sufficiently inviting, interesting, pleasing, pressing, alluring, exciting, surprising, intriguing, amusing, and/or compelling. That you love your own material means little if you've not found a way to make the reader love it. There must be draw.

Don't Rush

Make the reader believe you are giving him or her time to chew, then savor, then digest the copy and its substance. That comes when the reader can settle into the article, as into an easy chair, take a breath, and, in comfort, be tempted to imbibe the mental and emotional food you're providing. Give the impression -- through your passion and/or urgency and/or the fascination of your material -- that this is a verbal meal designed to be noshed or inhaled rather than gobbled. In length, the package may be a snack, but make it a morsel worth dallying over and then remembering.

Don't Meander

Every moment the reader spends with your piece should be considered worthwhile. Waste not that temporary and precious writer/reader tie by allowing him or her to think you're providing less than was expected or is deemed necessary for satisfaction. The tie will loosen, even break. Make the most of the space available to you and the patience that your reader is making available to you.

Don't Shirk

Take no shortcuts in your work. Give the reader the benefit of your fully engaged faculties: the idea generating, the reportorial, the organizational, the verbal, the evaluating, the finalizing. Don't skimp on zeal. Don't skip steps in the editorial process. Skimping and skipping result in flawed products. They reduce effectiveness. They destroy excellence. They cheat your reader, and never should you want to do that.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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