Move The Punchline To The Top

Cartoon: as a piano falls from above one man says to another, “...from which derives the modern instrument played in concert today. Which brings me to my main point.”

One of the simplest and most effective changes you can make to a piece of writing is to move the punchline to the top.

Clearly this is bad advice for crafting jokes but when the writing in question is functional, designed to convey information efficiently, it’s a good instinct.

In the Civil Service where I worked for some time the problem was one of excessive delicacy. People didn’t like breaking bad news or issuing advice without a run up so that the typical paper would include:

  1. A rambling introduction explaining its own existence.
  2. A page or more of background going back to 1974 to ensure that when the bombshell landed, it was in context.
  3. The key item of information.
  4. A daintily worded recommendation delivered with the assertiveness of a light breeze.

In journalism this is sometimes called ‘burying the lede’ — hiding the nugget that will really grab a reader’s attention somewhere in paragraph three and opening the story instead with a description of the weather. You want to hook them, to give them a reason to read on — to get across why they should care.

For government ministers reading papers in the five minute dash from their office to a waiting car burying the lede wasn’t just boring — it was infuriating. If they needed background they would ask for it and they were far from delicate creatures.

My edits would often end up looking like this:

  1. A rambling introduction explaining its own existence.
  2. A page or more of background going back to 1974 to ensure that when the bombshell lands, it is in context.
  3. The key item of information.
  4. A daintily worded direct recommendation delivered with the assertiveness of a light breeze.
  5. Background information in an annex.

Except in rare instances of creative writing where you are intentionally seeking to create suspense or set up a payoff, use this template and you won’t go too far wrong.

The Formula for Short Articles: Topic, Fact, Call to Action

Writing blog posts and short articles is an art-form but there is an easy formula that works almost every time.

Producing a regular column in the Guardian Guide I had 150 words to play with every fortnight. That’s three paragraphs. Three short paragraphs. By the time I’d explained the premise I was nearly out of space.

But, with ruthless trimming of any fat, it was just enough room to say:

  • here’s a topic (e.g. Sheffield)
  • here’s something you might not know about that topic (it has lots of great pubs)
  • and here’s what you should do next (go pub crawling in Sheffield).

That probably sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how few people know this trick and end up writing something pointless and panicked.

In commercial writing the third point is usually a pitch — buy my product, use my service, request a quote — and sometimes that’s fine. Personally, though, I like it when businesses conceal their teeth just a little and point people out into the world.

With that in mind here’s my Call to Action (as the jargon has it): try writing an email to a friend this way, or a Facebook status update, and see if it works for you.

Avoiding the Outright Barbarous

In an essay published in 1946 the English novelist and essayist George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950) provided a helpful set of rules for writers.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

My favourite of these is the sixth because it illuminates an important point: some of the worst writing is the result of an excessive deference to rules.

Or, worse, to what the writer believes to be rules.

When I taught writing to rooms full of civil servants my soul would seep out of my shoes when I heard the words, ‘Well, my teacher always said…’

People had teachers who said one should never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’. They had teachers who would spit at the sight of a split infinitive. They had even been taught that bulleted lists:

  • should always be introduced with a colon;
  • should finish each row with a semi-colon;
  • that the final bullet should be introduced by ‘and’; and
  • conclude with a full stop.

That’s a good way to do it in many cases but can be overkill in lists of:

  • things
  • colours
  • places
  • names

Rules are not laws. They are often little more than preferences, or even prejudices, based on a particularly stuffy kind of (literally) old school thinking.

If you are not a confident writer they can be helpful, like familiar shapes in the fog, but someone who is really comfortable with words will know without hesitation when to break them. It will be a conscious decision — one the writer can defend.

As Orwell suggests the best reason to break a supposed rule is because to adhere to it would make your writing ugly or, worse, distort its meaning.

Clarity matters more then elegance which matters more than pounding English into a Latin shaped box.

You can read ‘Politics and the English Language’ in various printed editions or online here.