PR Training

The Best Piece of Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need

writing advice

If you read a lot about how to write well, then eventually you’ll come across brilliant statements that are jewels of their kind.

I recently found an almost flawless diamond from more than 100 years ago: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.”

It comes from the great American writer Ambrose Bierce, a celebrated cynic, novelist, playwright, poet and author — most famous for his satirical “The Devil’s Dictionary” and the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” He said it in his 1909 collection of language pet peeves, “Write It Right.”

These seven incisively crafted words capture not only the essence of good writing, but also what makes that essence happen mechanically and, therefore, what we as writers of business communications must imitate before, and as, we write for companies and clients.

Bierce enhanced the statement’s luster by gift-wrapping it in the book’s opening paragraph, which explains how clear thought is turned into empowered, eminently comprehensible prose:

“The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should so write that his reader not only may, but must, understand.”

Roman rhetorician Quintilian considered writing as one of the four interrelated elements (reading, speaking and listening being the other three) that produce the “perfect orator” — someone who has the “hexis” or facility to write or speak well on any subject. The habit comes from committed study, organized thought and constant practice. Is this orator not the conceptualization of the perfect PR practitioner?

Bierce’s write-right statement is exceptional for its brevity, directness and validity. I haven’t found anything better after decades of reading hundreds of guides on the issue. Think about what it means next time you get ready to write, and as you write. Allow it to help you write better than you already do.

For more writing-related content, check out the annual storytelling issue of Strategies & Tactics.


Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, teaches graduate PR writing and management at New York University. He also teaches business writing worldwide. For more than 50 years, he has handled public relations for corporations, associations and nonprofit organizations. He is founding director of the strategic public relations graduate program in The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, in Washington, D.C. Contact: db155@nyu.edu.

[Photo credit: abo photography]

About the author

Avatar

Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA

3 Comments

  • The comparison of the PR practitioner to the “perfect orator” is creative way to describe our communication methods. As PR practitioners, we must be prepared to use our skills to adapt efficiently to any situation. “Committed study, organized thought and constant practice” are all key factors in a successful career in PR and are important to exercise to constantly improve one’s skills in the world of communications. -Rachel Fuller, Platform Magazine Editor/Writer

  • I appreciate the point made about the four interrlated elements of the “perfect orator” as I think it must be helpful to consider all elements in the exercise of any one of them.

  • Don, you know I don’t share your fondness of the Bierce style, but in your post you mentioned Quintillian emphasizing reading as a pillar of rhetoric. My students in intro to human communication are encouraged to read voraciously.

Leave a Comment