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.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org.[Photo credit: abo photography]
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.
I didn’t know I had a fondness for Bierce’s style, but I certainly love his irreverence and this 100-year-old statement of his about writing (“Good writing is clear thinking made visible”), which, if used as a constant reminder by every PR writer, would obviate the need for writing pundits and teacher/trainers like me to complain about how they write.
And 100 kudos to you (kudos is a singular word) for requiring your students to read voraciously. I hope it’s working as well as I know you want it to. Would any writer of consequence, in or outside PR, deny the value of reading as a foundation for using words well to convey one’s thinking, which is, of course, where the magic comes from.
We need to get together to kick the reading/writing/arithmetic can down the road over an almost frozen bold better or nearly as cold iced coffee. I’m immunized, so ready at any time to get to wherever if convenient for you in lower-mid Manhattan.
Sorry, Jim. I mistyped the last paragraph. My fumbling fingers like to mess with me. It should read:
“We need to get together to kick the reading/writing/arithmetic can down the road over an almost frozen cold beer or nearly as cold iced coffee. I’m immunized, so ready at any time to get to wherever is convenient for you in lower to mid-Manhattan.”
The invitation is still valid.
Much belated response: Not sure what you mean by Bierce’s style (he wrote in many), but I hope you don’t think his definition of good writing is anything but clear, compelling, and spot on.
As a PR and Communications major, I have written a lot of papers, but I am not always confident in the writing that I do. I have always doubted my writing skills and would always question myself “Am I a decent writer”? As a student, I will continue to write throughout my college career and after college as well and it is important to me that I have confidence in my writing. I really liked Ambrose Bierce’s quote “Good writing is clear thinking made visible”. I would agree with this except I struggle to do that. Sometimes I know what I want to say and can see it in my head, but I cannot seem to put it on paper. I think that when it comes to writing the best thing for me to do would be to create an outline while also keeping this quote in mind. I think that with the use of an outline, I will be able to put down my thoughts in a much more organized manner and say exactly what I want in my paper. I can make sure that my readers will understand exactly what I am trying to say.