The Tyra Banks approach to writing

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Do you have a supermodel you can consult with? Headline notwithstanding, I don’t mean Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell or even that inimitable diva, Tyra Banks. (I call this column the Tyra Banks approach because I’m Canadian and irony is in my nature.)

What I’m talking about today is having a writing model — that is, a clear example of the kind of text you want to emulate.

This sticky issue came up in a teleclass I hosted last week. One of the participants described submitting a piece of writing to a European publication. Although her field is highly technical (forestry sustainability), she worked hard to ensure her text was easy to understand and readable. Both commendable goals.

Trouble is, the client wasn’t totally pleased and asked for rewrites going in the opposite direction. In other words, the client wanted text that was a bit more sophisticated even if it was less easy to understand. “What did I do wrong?” the writer lamented.

I haven’t seen either the original text or the revised text, but I answered from my gut, based on 30 years in the business. “You didn’t have an example — a model — of what they were looking for,” I guessed. (This turned out to be true.)

It’s important to remember that while there is “good” writing and “bad” writing, there is also “right” writing — that is, writing that the client wants. Models are so crucially important to achieving this goal that you should always ask your clients for some samples before you start any writing project. Why? Three main reasons:

1) Models help you understand exactly what the client wants. As the old joke in the newspaper business goes: editors are people who don’t know what they want until they see it. Clients are pretty much the same. They are usually imprecise, often vague, and always impatient. Asking them to provide several examples of writing they like is an excellent way to prevent miscommunication.

2) Models give you a precise measuring stick. With a model you have something specific to analyze. “Keep it simple,” orders the client. But one person’s simple is another person’s complicated. With a model in hand, you can run readability stats (available free in MS Word) and see the precise grade level the client is aiming for. You can also look at more subtle measurements such as use of metaphor, concrete versus abstract language and “voice” (first, second or third person). This knowledge is power.

3) Models make it possible for you, the writer, to gain “instant understanding.” You know the old saying “a photo is worth a thousand words”? Well sometimes a thousand words can be like a photo. When you read a piece, put it down and ask yourself “What did I really think of that?” You’re having what I all a “snapshot reaction.” You’re considering the ineffables: tone, feeling and mood. You’re noticing the forest instead of the trees.

All of this raises an interesting question. What do you do if the client has bad taste? It happens. Sometimes clients just seem to love icky writing — passive voice, lots of jargon, long sentences. While this is never welcome news, it’s always good to know what you’re up against. You can then decide if you want to work for that client — or whether you prefer to walk away.

Of course this can be a tougher choice if you’re in a regular job and it’s your boss who has the bad taste. But even then models may be able to help. You can bring your boss some published writing samples (ones that display “good” writing) and try to show him or her why they’re effective.

Selling the concrete is always easier than selling the theoretical. Just another reason why supermodels rule.

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