Lessons from speech writing

President Obama’s speech at Madiba’s funeral has been described as a “masterclass” and a “lesson in speech writing”. The speech is also an excellent example of the use of parallelism to create a powerful rhythm. Parallelism (or parallel structure) is when all elements in the sentence have the same weight and are often the same part of speech. For example, all elements are nouns or adjectives or the same verb form. Here’s an extract from Obama’s speech:

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. .

The words in bold show the start of the three elements, all of which begin with an infinitive (“to” form of a verb). The structure of the three elements are also equal, each element containing two aspects, e.g. “not just the prisoner” and “but the jailor as well”. These three beats resonate in the listener’s head, creating a crystal clear image.

In his inaugural speech, Obama also used parallelism to great effects. The equal (parallel) elements are shown in bold.

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

Even if you are not writing a speech, consider using parallelism in your writing so that your message resonates with your readers. Read what you have written out loud and listen for the rhythm.

Learning in a Community of Practice: the Editors’ Circle

At Write to the Point we are interested in constantly improving our own practices as editors, writers, writing tutors and learning designers. Sure, we have done courses and got the certificates, and we learn everyday in our work and the interaction and feedback we get from clients. However, courses and learning on the job have their limitations. A traditional course often focuses on delivering large amounts of generic information, so participants come away with a lot of information, which is soon forgotten or is difficult to put into context. Learning on the job can be very effective, but we work in a profession where hectic deadlines are the norm and so rarely have time to consolidate the learning or engage in meaningful reflection.

Over the past year or so, we have been experimenting with a different type of learning, which isn’t as formal as attending a course or as informal as learning on the job. We started a Community of Practice for Editors to stimulate and continue our learning. A Community of Practice (CoP) is a recognised form of learning, where a group of professionals come together to share their knowledge and skills around a particular field. CoPs enable established professionals to keep up to date with practices of the field, get feedback from other knowledgeable professionals and inculcate others into the practice through the mentoring and support of novices.

A visual representation of a CoP from this website http://convcme.wordpress.com

Our Community of Practice, called the Editors’ Circle, comprises about 12 individuals who meet every four to six weeks to discuss a topic or participate in an activity that enables members to learn something new, deepen their understanding or share their expertise. Our sessions start with members giving an update on what’s been happening since the previous meeting and sharing what work they are busy with. The practical learning session that follows may involve everyone doing editing exercises and giving feedback to each other, someone demonstrating how to create wireframes for web pages, or  useful tips for working more efficiently. One such session resulted in the Top ten tips for rookie editors post.

A CoP is more than just a chance to get together, although networking is an important aspect of a CoP, especially for freelance editors who often work alone and from home. To manage and maintain a CoP requires some organisation and effort in planning and developing activities, but the learning and benefits for all members mean that such efforts are well worth it. It is a route that established organisations or groups of independent professionals might consider.

10 top tips for rookie editors


At a recent Editors’ Circle meeting, we discussed what advice we would give to a rookie editor starting out as a freelancer. These were the top ten tips:


  1. From Day 1 start your own style sheet and discuss your style decisions with other editors.
  2. Clients often don’t know what editing means, or the process involved, so be clear about what level of editing you are offering and where you fit in to the process. If necessary, ask another editor to explain the publishing industry to you.
  3. If you can, find a mentor especially for the first couple of jobs. Or ask an experienced editor for some advice and feedback.
  4. Learn how to accept feedback and take all criticism as constructive criticism.
  5. Learn to let go – do a thorough edit but don’t spend unnecessary time.
  6. Develop a network and be brave enough to ask people for work. Pick up that phone and cold call publishers. Offer to do a short edit/proofread for free as a way to get your foot in the door.
  7. Keep a sense of humour and don’t become a wingeing grammarian.
  8. Communicate with your client! If running late, tell the client and if necessary send off the work done so far, even if unfinished.
  9. Learn to manage your time and be self-disciplined. Get into a routine that works for you. Don’t allow people to ‘pop in’ unannounced just because you are working from home.
  10. Don’t be afraid to ask for money upfront, e.g. deposit of 30% to 50% or part payments, depending on the length of the project.

What tips would you give a rookie editor?


A picture paints a thousand words

While it is indeed true that a picture paints a thousand words, can all information be represented graphically?

What are infographics?

Information graphics (or infographics) portray visually the important information and are supposed to be aesthetically pleasing. A good infographic is able to communicate facts and complex relationships. I also think that an infographic should encourage people to read the accompanying text, which is why I liked this infographic from the White House (although the author of the blog disagrees, saying there’s “way too much text”).

Our latest project involving infographics

I think that much depends on your readers and the focus of the publication, as well as the budget.

For instance, I recently completed a publication entitled Secondary Cities: the start of a conversation for SA Cities Network. The brief was to produce an easy-to-read, visually pleasing publication suitable for a number of audiences: the general public, national policy-makers, municipalities, academics and NGOs. The base document was a lengthy research paper that (in my view) would only interest academics.

I think the final product works well. Not all the information is displayed as infographics — the city comparisons (pages 35—40) are just prettified tables. The real challenge was fitting so much city data onto one page, but we managed it (thanks in no small part to the designer we worked with). In the end, each profile tells a story of the city’s evolution over the past 10 years.


What do you think?

PS For me, when I hear the phrase “A picture paints a thousand words”, I think of that song by Bread, If. (Enjoy!)

Who’s your audience?

Oh joy! On 17th February 2012, The Economist’s Style Guide came back online, in a browsable alphabetised format.

I think this style guide should be manadatory reading for all writers, especially in business and government.

Here’s one piece of essential advice:
Readers are primarily interested in what you have to say. By the way in which you say it you may encourage them either to read on or to give up.

Too often writers focus on crafting a fine piece of prose instead of thinking about who’s  going to read it. That’s why we include the concept of audience in the first two modules of our Professional Writing Course.

If you want people to read your writing, following these hints from The Economist is a good start:

  • Don’t be stuffy. Avoid showing off and using pompous and obscure words.
  • Use everyday language. Don’t sound like a lawyer or a civil servant!
  • Don’t be arrogant and tell the reader what to think. Instead persuade them (and avoid too many ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’).
  • Don’t be pleased with yourself, unless you want to irritate your readers.
  • Be clear, which means use simple sentences and avoid complicated constructions.

Communication is about other people hearing your message.

So, before writing anything, ask yourself this simple question. Who is going to read this?

Between or among?

At our last Editors’ Circle, we discussed some common grammar mistakes that almost everyone gets wrong, using this list as a starting point. Someone raised the issue of  when to use ‘between’ and ‘among’, which is not on the list.

The common rule is that  ‘between’ is used for two choices and ‘among’ for more than two.
For example: he is between two jobs; she divided the cake among the six of us.

However, it’s not simple as that.

You can also use ‘between’ when talking about distinct items even if they are more than two.
For example: The negotiations between the United Kingdom, Germany and France were going well.
But, The negotiations among the countries were going well.

As an aside, we all agreed that amongst should never be used in place of among – it’s just too old-fashioned. Similarly, we decided that ‘whom’ should be avoided at all costs. With whom did you meet? sounds old-fashioned. Rather simplify the sentence: Who did you meet?

Writing as a form of cartography

If writers spent more time organising their thoughts than choosing the mot juste, the overall quality of writing would improve overnight. I would rather edit a grammatically incorrect piece of writing from a second-language English speaker than a mish-mash of ideas that has no logical flow or purpose.



Why is it that so few writers (in my experience) know how to structure their thoughts?

Organising your document is like the road map of a journey, helping you to deliver your message by linking the ideas and information together in a natural, logical way.The organisation can be invisible (no headings or numbering) or visible (with headings/numbering).

Yet, students don’t appear to be taught cartography (the science or practice of drawing maps) anymore.

I remember learning how to structure essays at school. In fact, writing outlines probably helped me pass many an exam, even if I didn’t finish writing the answers. Of course, you also need more than a good plan, as I discovered when my history teacher returned my essay on the Tudors with the mention “Well-argued and structured essay worthy of an A, but as you haven’t included a single date or fact, I can only give you a D”. I had drawn an excellent map but forgotten to add any road numbers.




First Editors’ Circle


slash and burn

The first meeting of Write to the Point’s Editors’ Circle took place this week. Our ‘homework’ was to edit the introduction of (what I call) a ‘slash and burn’ paper. Guidelines included not to worry about the author’s voice and not to be shy about rewriting/cutting. For me, the most interesting aspect that arose from the discussion was how different our editing methods are.

Some print out and read through the document before getting the red pen out, while others work only onscreen. Others jump right in there and start ‘cutting and slashing’ from the start.

Yet, whatever our style, we had all identified the same key point(s) of each paragraph in the sample document – which was very reassuring for all concerned!

There was a lot of talk about the challenge of striking a balance between the author’s voice and the reader’s understanding, and we all agreed that the content and readership will determine to a certain extent how much of the author’s voice is retained. Without a doubt, we will return to this debate in future meetings.


Thank you to our guinea pigs!

Well, our first Foundation Course is over, and all our guinea pigs survived the last module. We are so grateful for their commitment and positive feedback.

We learned that there is only so much grammar that a person can take! Therefore, in our next courses, we will infiltrate grammar into the earlier modules. We have also extended the course from four to five modules, as sentences and paragraphs each deserve their own module.

We were happy that everyone enjoyed themselves and learned something. It proved to us that our methodology works, and reinforced our belief that anyone can learn to write concisely and clearly!

Finally, here are some comments from our participants:

“I never thought that sentences could be such fun.”
“I found it clear and easy to understand.”
“I learned something new every week.”
“It was good to work on business writing in a playing context without a looming deadline.”
“It was such a good learning experience.”

Foundation courses in 2011

Our Foundation Course runs over 5 weeks (choice of morning/evening classes in City Bowl or Southern Suburbs) and consists of weekly, classroom-based workshops, with email support between classes. Classes start are run in the City Bowl and the Southern Suburbs.


  • Commit to completing homework outside of the workshops.
  • Submit a short piece of writing (2-3 paragraphs) prior to the first workshop, on a topic of your choice.
  • Be computer literate and have access to Skype, email and the Internet.

Week 1: prewriting tools: Exercises to help overcome writer’s block, structure thoughts, and begin to get  ideas/information down on paper. You will learn how to use free writing, brainstorming and clustering (mind mapping).

Week 2: purpose—audience—planning: Good writing is all about purpose, audience, and planning. You will learn how to clarify your purpose, identify your audience, and plan your document using two common structures: outline (beginning, middle, end) and argument (both sides of an issue).

Week 3: paragraphs: Paragraphs flesh out the bones of your structure. You will learn how to create a coherent flow, use linking sentences, and write logical, well-developed paragraphs and effective topic sentences.

Week 4: sentences: Sentences are the building blocks of writing. You will learn how to write clear sentences, recognise three common sentence errors, and join sentences using conjunctions.

Week 5: basic grammar and style: Knowing what not to do often makes writing well easier. You will learn about grammar gremlins and the basic elements of good style.

For more information, email info@writetothepoint.co.za