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Getting Into the Writing Game, With Words of Advice From a Coach

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: advice from a writing coach.

RS: Jack Hart is a managing editor at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. We talked to him last year about the classic writing guide by William Strunk and E.B. White called "The Elements of Style."

AA: Now Jack Hart has written his own book, based on forty years of experience as an editor and writing coach. It's called "A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words That Work."

JACK HART: "I always start every piece of writing I do by thinking about what is the core thing that I really want to say. And the first thing that I always write is theme -- the word theme, t-h-e-m-e, colon -- and then try to come up with a theme statement that is a simple subject-predicate-object sentence that is my core idea."

AA: "And that's more to guide you? I mean, does that sentence work its way into the final -- "

JACK HART: "It probably will never appear in print, so there's no angst associated with it. It's not for public consumption. But it's right there on the top of my screen to guide me all through the writing process.

"Then I like a little jot outline, just a rough sketch of where you're going from there. And it often will consist for me just of three or four numbered points; these are the three or four main topics that I'm going to cover in this piece of work.

"Or if it's something more scenic -- a piece of creative nonfiction or a piece of fiction or something like that -- it would be a scenic outline: scene one, scene two, scene three, and what I'm going to accomplish in those scenes."

RS: "So what you're saying is you have kind of a roadmap for beginning your composition or your article or whatever you're writing -- you have some prewriting in there."

JACK HART: "Yeah, it's a lot easier to write if you know where you're headed."

AA: "Do you have any quick, off-the-top-of-your-head troubleshooting tips for people who might be listening, having trouble writing something?"

JACK HART: "Well, the most astounding thing I discovered in my career has to do with process as well, and that is: If you are having problems at any one step of the process, the trouble probably originated in the immediately preceding step of the process. So if you are having problems with your draft, you probably don't have a good organizational scheme. If you are having problems organizing your material, you probably didn't do a particularly good job gathering your information. And so on and so forth."

RS: "Or perhaps don't understand it yourself enough to write it."

JACK HART: "That's right. If you don't have the right information, then you didn't hone your idea perhaps well enough in the first place."

RS: "Give us some of those techniques -- tell us a few of your tricks that might even help us."

JACK HART: "Here's a good one: expletives. We just think of expletives as profanities. But, in fact, an expletive is any empty word that doesn't really have any content to it. And the most common ones in English are things like 'there is,' 'there was,' 'it is,' 'it was.'

"And there's nothing grammatically wrong with a sentence constructed with 'there is' or 'there was' in it, but usually you can construct a much more forceful sentence by getting rid of 'there was' or 'there were': 'There were six geese waddling across the golf course.' How about just 'Six geese waddled across the golf course.'"

RS: "Could you give us a few more tricks that might help listeners who are writing English as a foreign language but want to write more?"

JACK HART: "Well, particularly if you're writing English as a foreign language, I would think there's a tendency to be a bit timid with the language and to include a lot of little qualifiers. E.B. White, in his wonderful book with Strunk, talked about little qualifiers, which White called the 'parasites in the pond of prose' -- so things like 'a little bit' and 'rather' that are almost never necessary.

"'Instead' -- here's an example -- 'Instead, the somewhat dark rooms are suffused with a cool glow from embedded lights.' What do we need 'somewhat' for in a sentence like that? 'In a refined, civilized, technically efficient if somewhat frostbitten way' -- well, why not just step out and say 'if frostbitten way.' 'Viewed as stodgy and a bit behind the times' -- just say 'stodgy and behind the times.' But a lot of folks get in the habit of just qualifying every other statement that way -- "

AA: "Those are hedge words, right?"

JACK HART: "They're hedge words that weaken what we say."

RS: Jack Hart is author of "A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words That Work."

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And for more advice about writing, check out our Web site: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.