The biggest bore is reading something written by someone who has nothing to say, no story to tell. And as our attention span gets shorter – now eight seconds, which is (apparently) less than the average goldfish – a boring headline/first paragraph is the kiss of death when it comes to writing.
But it’s not the kiss of death we want – it’s someone who can KISS (Keep It Short & Simple) creatively. A writer who can get straight to the heart of the story with a few well-chosen words and keep us longing for more.
Writers need to grab our eyeballs and glue them to the page. As advertising guru David Ogilvy once pointed out: “On average, only one out of five readers gets beyond the headline.”
And although my colleagues and I do read to the end of all of the entries to the annual GNE Young Writers Award, it’s sometimes really quite a struggle. “Boring” is always the most common comment during our deliberations.
We want to be inspired, to be convinced, to be surprised, to hear a dissenting voice, to be provoked. Because the first rule of writing is having something interesting to say. It really is about content.
This is even more the case when the writing in question is supposed to be “an opinion piece for a newspaper” as is the case with the GNE Young Writers Award (sponsored by the BBC until this year).
Find your own voice. Use your own experiences, your own examples. By all means quote people and use statistics (name your sources please!) to back up your arguments. But make sure it’s your story.
The advice I always give my trainees and which GNE publishes on its site comes from one of my favourite writers/journalists, George Orwell (author of 1984, Animal Farm). Follow the tips in his essay Politics and the English Language and you can’t go wrong:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image will make it clearer?
4. Is image fresh enough to have effect?
5. Could I put it more shortly?
6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
When choosing words, follow these rules:
7. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which
you are used to seeing in print.
8. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
9. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
10. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
11. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon
word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
And my own personal favourite:
12. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright
I have been one of the judges for the GNE writing competition for quite a few years and I am glad to say that there are always some well written entries. When drawing up our shortlist, we rarely argue about the top two or three.
But please remember: according to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span of human beings has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013. One second less than the attention span of a goldfish.