On writing more betterer

~ 02 June 2008 ~

Months ago I was returning by plane from a conference, and in want of something to read I slipped the in-flight magazine out of the seat pocket in front of me and flipped to the back of the magazine. I stumbled on a pair of movie reviews that purported to be all about the newly released Happy Feet, but in turn were almost entirely about textbook examples of great and poor writing.

The first review was written by The New York Times’ seasoned film critic A.O. Scott, filling in for Roger Ebert. The second was by Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper of the Ebert & Roeper show. The two reviews side by side couldn’t possibly contrast each other more appropriately, so much in fact that I tore the page from the magazine, stored it in my bag, and only yesterday did I find the yellowing page in a scattered pile of papers.

Here are the two reviews:

A.O. Scott (sitting in for Roger Ebert): Happy Feet is the new computer-animated spectacle directed by George Miller. Elijah Wood gives voice to an emperor penguin named Mumble, whose feet replicate the moves of the great tap dancer Savion Glover. The movements of the penguins in this move are beautifully rendered, as is their icy, watery habitat; there are some fine dance numbers and some thrilling action sequences. Happy Feet is an overstuffed stew of themes, plots, semiclever pop culture references, and familiar characters. And, I confess I’m a little worn out by all the cartoon pleas for interspecies understanding that we’ve been getting lately, but Happy Feet was made with enough skill and enough heart to get a thumbs up from me.
Roeper: I’m with you all the way on this one; I’d give it a mild thumbs up. I mean we see in this movie a lot of themes that we’ve seen in a million other animated movies about the kind of runt of the litter, from Nemo on down. In the last 15 minutes, they get into this whole man-vs.-nature thing. It’s rendered OK, but it comes out of nowhere. All of a sudden we’re seeing almost a different form of animation as well. I think kids will love it, because the penguins are cute. Also, I appreciate that at the beginning of the film they told us who some of the actors were.

Notice the contrast? A.O. Scott’s review flows well. The tone of his piece is engaging. I get his point. Roeper’s review, on the other hand, lacks any semblance of organization. It reads as if he just spit out terse remarks in response to a question about the movie. The last three sentences are totally disconnected, especially the concluding one. What’s that all about?

Great writing doesn’t typically come by chance. And in my mind, it’s an art anyone of any trade should strive to master — designers, marketers, developers, and yes, film critics.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the instruction of great writing, but I’m certainly no stranger to the application of it. So if you were to ask me what my guiding principles for authoring have been up to this point in my career, it would probably take me a while to come up with a list (it did for the one below). It might resemble something like this:

  • Lead with a question, story, or compelling one- / two-line summary
  • Transition logically from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph
  • Use a thesaurus along the way to add flavor and variety
  • Write passionately throughout, keeping the reader (and yourself) engaged in the topic
  • Be casual in tone once in a while to break things up
  • Revise, revise, let it sit for a while, then revise again
  • End memorably, succinctly, summarily, or all three

That’s it. No magic formula, just a few salient points. Of course, I’m making the practice of writing sound much simpler than it really is, but at the end of the day it isn’t an elaborate science. It just takes practice, good editing, and passion about the topic at hand.

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. Go write a building — as articulately, thoughtfully, and beautifully as an architect would.



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1   Tim Wright ~ 04 June 2008

Good points.It’s interesting how, in recent years there seems to be a massive divide in writing for the web.

On one hand we have a ton of casual users blogging their random thoughts or twittering, and on the other hand there has been a large stress on writing quality content for the web.

I wonder where it’s going to settle, since there’s value in both.

I feel like I need to have good sentence structure in this reply…

2   Andrew ~ 04 June 2008

If you want to hear how great writing sounds, listen to one of the many programs NPR produces — particularly This American Life. Most NPR programs follow a very similar formula to the one you’ve outlined.

3   Cameron Moll ~ 04 June 2008

…or grab the audio version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, read by the author. Also a great listen of great writing.

4   Jonathan Snook ~ 04 June 2008

Practice, practice, practice. The more I write, the better I get. I’m certainly no master of prose (not even close) but I can tell the difference between what I produce now compared to what I used to write a few years ago.

As shepherds of the web, we need to look at how we write just as carefully as how we design just as carefully as how we develop. Every step of the way is just as important.

5   Joshua Marino ~ 04 June 2008

An interesting article - I love the guiding principles - very helpful indeed.

However, I wonder about your source material for this piece. I have read many film reviews in the past, and both of these seem woefully inadequate. I would surmise that rather than being written reviews, they are in fact direct quotes from the late night banter between these two critics on the nationally televised show, At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.

Basically, the quote from A.O. Scott is the setup - Informing the audience of the subject, style, and general plot of the movie, followed by a few of his own opinions on the film. (Hence the organization and structured flow.) Roeper’s quote is a direct conversational response to Scott, and is not intended to stand on its own as a cohesive review of the film, and certainly not as a well-written piece for inclusion in a magazine. His comments most likely also coincide with clips from the film that are being shown as he speaks, which explains the almost stream-of-consciousness style of the quote.

In the end, I’m fairly certain neither of these critics expected a transcript of their comments to be reproduced under the guise of a written review. More likely, Roeper might have expected credit for the snippet, “Kid’s will love it!” plastered across the top of an magazine ad for the movie.

6   Keith ~ 04 June 2008

I wasn’t going to comment, until I read Joshua’s thoughts. I think your advice is sound, but your examples are, IMHO, both pretty bad.

As far as writing goes.

They don’t read like they’ve been written at all. My guess is these are verbal transcriptions. Scott’s is slightly better, but I hardly think it flows the way a well written piece should. The setup feels just a disjointed to me as Roeper’s bit.

In fact, in reading them, I was hard pressed to decide which one was worse. :)

Having said all that (sorry) I think the advice you give here is worth paying attention to.

7   Megan ~ 04 June 2008

To add to what Jonathan said above, I also think that reading a lot is a good way to get better at writing. I’ve always been able to write well and I think it has a lot to do with my reading habits ;)

Thanks for pointing out the importance of good writing. I’ve written a bit about this myself, mainly in the sense that writing is often undervalued in web design. A recent ALA article talked about out the problems with getting clients to deliver content. If designers can do a bit of writing and/or editing we can really improve the quality of our websites.

8   Cameron Moll ~ 04 June 2008

Tim: On one hand we have a ton of casual users blogging their random thoughts or twittering,

I would argue even the most casual/informal words should at least have some thought behind them. Compare Zeldman’s tweets to those from less thoughtful tweeters (which, to me, have little value).

Joshua: In the end, I’m fairly certain neither of these critics expected a transcript of their comments to be reproduced under the guise of a written review.

You make good points about the possibility of these being transcripts from spoken words rather than written reviews, which no doubt crossed my mind choosing these examples. But do you also not surmise that each of these critics may have prepared their remarks before-hand?

For reference, here’s audio from the original review on the show. The remarks are fairly close to what’s here, but Roeper’s in particular is out of order. Perhaps who’s at fault here is the editor of his remarks, and not Roeper himself.

Keith: I think your advice is sound, but your examples are, IMHO, both pretty bad…. Scott’s is slightly better, but I hardly think it flows the way a well written piece should. The setup feels just a disjointed to me as Roeper’s bit.

Hey Keith, long time no chat. Good to hear from you, though I have to call you out as well: Please elaborate a little better about why you don’t think Scott’s review is well-written.

9   Shay ~ 04 June 2008

I am refreshed to read a blog on the art and craft of writing.

Recently I completed the book “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and would recommend it to anyone trying to focus and develop their writing. His thoughts on clarity, use of words, and organization are some of the best insights I have ever read and you will enjoy the author as he practices what he preaches.

10   Joshua Marino ~ 04 June 2008

Cameron: But do you also not surmise that each of these critics may have prepared their remarks before-hand?

Yes, I’m sure that they both spent some time pre-show preparing their remarks; however, I would also guess that Scott spent more time in preparation, since he was the one doing the setup for this particular movie. (I believe they alternate assuming this role for each movie reviewed) Roeper, in this instance, would be more likely to simply loosely jot down his thoughts beforehand, since his response would need to be much more conversational and extemporaneous. (dictated by the format of the show)

Regardless of these details, I still tend to think that a re-edited transcript of conversational banter on a television program makes for a less-than-ideal example of good vs bad writing.

11   Amanda Kern ~ 04 June 2008

Bravo Cameron. I have to commend you on not only addressing writing well but the fact that the ability to write complements any job one might hold.

I’ve got to hand it to you - you’re definitely a great writer. :o) You’ve mastered getting tons of us back your blog regularly. Kudos - keep ‘em coming!

12   Dickson Fong ~ 04 June 2008

Thanks for bringing this up. Quality writing skills aren’t as prominent on the web as they should be. I think part of this can be attributed to the popularity of blogging and social networking. The accessibility and the ease of these tools enable people to publish their thoughts on a whim.

However, while we can argue that the affordances of the web have led to the demise of good writing, we should also recognize that it’s also the web’s greatest strength. It’s really just a medium for communication. If someone can convey a piece of information adequately in one jumbled paragraph, why waste time churning out a perfect piece of prose?

13   Marcello ~ 04 June 2008

Methinks your being a bit of a snob, Cameron! Sure, there’s a place for meticulously-structured grammatically-correct communication, but can you imagine what it would be like if everyone wrote like that all the time? I’d be banging my head against the wall from the monotony of it all!

There’s certainly a contrast between the two reviews you’ve cited, but I don’t necessarily think that one is superior to the other. One is structured, the other conversational. One does a better job of conveying meaning, while the other does a good job of conveying feeling. I understand and appreciate them both.

14   Cameron Moll ~ 04 June 2008

Regardless of these details, I still tend to think that a re-edited transcript of conversational banter on a television program makes for a less-than-ideal example of good vs bad writing.

I’ll concede that to an extent, Joshua. I don’t watch the show, so for me this print piece was/is the only way to consume their reviews. They weren’t presented in the magazine as transcripts but appeared (to me) to be written for print. So to that end, they still remain examples of the written word.

15   Justin Viger ~ 04 June 2008

I think I understand Cameron’s point. But I think Richard Roeper is just reacting off of what A.O. Scott said about the film. If they both had prepared and written out what they are going to say it would not be enjoyable to watch and they may repeat what the others says.

16   Justin Viger ~ 04 June 2008

Speaking of bad writing …

17   Kevin Crawford ~ 04 June 2008

Love the Hemingway quote

18   Evan Meagher ~ 04 June 2008

Neither of the pieces are remarkably well-written, in my opinion. I agree with you on Roeper’s review, but A.O. Scott’s reads like that of a third grader. His use of adjectives and metaphor is very shallow. Both pieces feel as though the authors just spit out a paragraph without really thinking.

Good post, nonetheless. I like how the design community seems to be focusing a bit more on content lately.

19   Andrew Hedges ~ 04 June 2008

Good points, Cameron. One that I take issue with, though, is “Use a thesaurus along the way to add flavor and variety”.

I would restate it as, “Vary repetitive words” and leave it up the writer how she implements it. I rarely use a thesaurus, preferring to draw from my familiar vocabulary. In the end, I feel that gives my writing a more consistent tone than if I include words found, at random, in a book.

20   Gil ~ 05 June 2008

I don’t really think that the quality of your examples matter too much as you chose them so that you could compare and contrast two styles and to make your point.

However, spare a thought for the poor writers though, as who knows what the editor did in between them writing their review and it appearing in print.

When we write on our blogs, what we write appears as we intended it to without (in most cases) an editor changing things.

21   Naz ~ 05 June 2008

When I read this, I immediately thought, “The Roeper bit had to be taken from the show — that’s exactly how he speaks on the show.” It really is. I even imagined the show in my head as I read the words. I believe it’s noted above but I expect that it was indeed from the actual show, tweaked, oddly enough.

Perhaps a disclaimer or some kind of context between what AO wrote and what Roeper’s reaction was could have preceded the written piece but the Ebert & Roeper show is very much like what was mentioned above — someone sets up the movie formally and the other person reacts and riffs. (see show example).

Regardless, I’m only nitpicking the examples (more than I thought I would, heh) rather than the point, which I agree with. Nice one.

22   Donald ~ 05 June 2008

I recently have started a blog and enjoy talking about what I do and the opinions I have. The problem is that I know I have poor writing skills. I have heard that reading can improve writing practices. Do you have any advice on learning to write more effectively.

This is my first time to your blog. I found this blog on David Airey’s top 50 blog’s.

23   Steve Pilon ~ 05 June 2008

As a regular viewer of the show, I can vouch that yes, that’s a transcript. And generally the way the show goes, the person that starts the review reads something that has obviously been written beforehand to set up the discussion, but after that, it is just conversational give and take. Roeper does do proper written reviews for the Sun Times though.

24   Ron Domingue ~ 06 June 2008

Excellently article Cameron, blogging has gotten some re-focused on the art of writing. I’ve been reading The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White and it provides many guidelines that still relevant for the medium.

25   ~ 07 June 2008

Yeah, Zeldman’s tweets are always so well composed: (Ed: linked removed)

26   Cameron Moll ~ 07 June 2008

Yeah, someone else pointed that out to me as well. Touché.

27   Nick ~ 08 June 2008

Like Andrew Hedges, I’d also like to add a qualifier to “Use a thesaurus along the way to add flavor and variety”: “but only use words that you were already familiar with.”

A thesaurus is best used to refresh a writer’s memory. If I need to refer to a thesaurus, I never use words that I haven’t heard before. Every word has it’s own connotation, and using a word even slightly wrong can break the flow and give the reader the feeling that something isn’t quite right.

28   Jessica ~ 29 June 2008


This is my first visit to this blog, and I find it quite refreshing.

Your example recalled for me my high school English teacher Mr. Cauble. He urged that his students would never write well unless we were to immediately improve the manner of our speaking, and that the two were inextricably linked. Speaking poorly was not allowed in his class.

He was absolutely right. This was back in 1985, before spoken language became influenced broadly by email and IM. Certainly anyone whose words appear in public in any format could be expected to organize their thoughts and develop a firmer command of language.


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