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.

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

Pilot foundation course

We are halfway through our pilot foundation course, finally putting into practice our ideas and theories. And, it is such fun! We have seven intrepid guinea pigs who are testing the course, and the feedback has been wonderful.

We have already had three of the four workshops. Week 1 was all about prewriting tool and included exercises to help over writer’s block. Our guinea pigs tried out free writing, brainstorming and clustering (what we call mind mapping). Then, Week 2 was the PAP module – purpose, audience and planning. We looked at how to clarify your purpose, identify your purpose and plan your document. We experimented with two structures for planning documents: an outline (beginning, middle, end) and an argument (both sides of an issue).

This week, we got down to the nuts and bolts of writing: sentences and paragraphs, the building blocks of writing. We looked at the three most common sentence errors (sentence fragment, comma splice and run-on sentences), how to structure a paragraph using an outline, and the importance of transitional words and sentences to link sentences and paragraphs.

Our intention of this course was to have fun – learning as play. And, judging from the reaction of our participants, we seem to be succeeding. However, the litmas test will be next Tuesday, when we run our last module (Get Writing 2) and tackle common grammar and spelling words!

Courses OLD


As soon as you take one step up the career ladder, your effectiveness depends on your ability to communicate your thoughts in writing and in speaking. Peter Drucker (1909-2005)

Our communication courses include the Professional Writing Course and Critical Thinking through Writing, which comprise easily digestible modules with ongoing review and coaching through the Writing Practice. We have developed our interventions based on a clear understanding of why people struggle to communicate clearly and years of reviewing, editing and mentoring all standards of writing.

The key to communicating effectively is to think critically. Indeed, the ability to think critically is key to the success of both individuals and organisations. Writing is one of the best way to develop critical thinking, so we developed our Critical Thinking through Writing course.

We believe that anyone can improve their writing, and the starting point is our Professional Writing Course. The course consists of 6 modules that cover the key principles of effective written communication and can be customised to an organisation’s specific needs.

We also develop Customised Courses that build on the skills learned during the Professional Writing Course. These interventions are adapted for particular projects, organisations and teams, as well as differing levels of competency and types of writing. For example, writing emails, writing collaboratively, and writing minutes/running meetings.

Our modules are ideally delivered in a workshop setting, but they are also available via the Internet/Skype.

What makes us different?

  • We encourage you to develop your writing skills rather than ‘give you answers’.
  • We focus on the structure and flow of your document, not only the content.
  • We combine face-to-face (classroom) with online support so that you learn effectively.

Resources OLD

Here are links to some of our favourite websites/people.

A great resource for news on what’s happening in the world of books is BOOK Southern Africa (Book SA).  We support their goal to help build the Southern African literary marketplace to new heights!

Our two favourite books stores in the Mother City are the Book Lounge in town and Kalk Bay Books in the Southern Suburbs. Their staff actually read books and will find you whatever book you are looking for. Both stores also organise amazing events from book launches to children’s reading groups.

We are members of the Professional Editors’ Group, an association that represents copy-editors, proofreaders and other practitioners operating in the South African publishing industry, in corporate communications and in the media.

A wordsite we like is thatwordsite, a home for word nerds of all milieus’ (which we prefer to spell milieux – both forms are correct).

Writing Practice

 Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn. CS Lewis (1898-1963)

At Write to the Point, we know that you learn by doing and so the best way to learn to write is … to write.Yes, it is important to understand writing conventions, but no amount of theory will improve your writing – only practice will.

The Writing Practice is not about fixing your efforts. Rather, we review, prompt and suggest. You learn at your own pace and practise on real-life examples from your work, growing your writing skills effortlessly over time.

The Writing Practice consists of:

  • Personal writing audit: includes analysis and report
  • Ongoing review and communication support via email/skype/f2f

For more information, please contact info@writetothepoint.co.za


Communicating through Writing

It’s easier to teach a poet how to read a balance sheet than it is to teach an accountant how to write. (Henry R. Luce 1898–1967)

If you are struggling to write well and with ease, or you want to take your writing skills to the next level, the Communicating through Writing course is for you. The course distils the essence of the writing process.

We also know that the best way to learn to write is … to write! That’s why our Communicating through Writing course is spread over six weeks and combines classroom modules with email support. Designed to be immediately applicable to real work, the course gives you plenty of opportunities for practice and reflection. Ongoing mentoring and reviewing is provided through the Writing Practice.

Who will benefit?

  • Professionals looking for a comprehensive approach to developing and enhancing their written communication skills
  • Seasoned writers needing a refresher or further consolidation of existing skills
  • Employers wanting to equip staff or teams with tools and skills to enhance written communications and is suitable for any profession or business

What is involved?

The Communicating through Writing course consists of six interlinking modules that will enable participants to master the key principles of effective written communication. Each module comprises a weekly workshop. The modules are spaced out to give you optimum time for consolidation and reflection.

Week Topic You will learn:
1 Prewriting Free writing and clustering (mind mapping), and the concepts of purpose and audience. how to overcome writer’s block, structure your thoughts, and begin to get ideas/information down on paper.
2 Planning and structuring
Further exploration of purpose and audience; organising your information how to clarify your purpose, identify your audience and different ways of organising your document.
3 Paragraphs Paragraphs that flesh out the bones of your structure. how to create a coherent flow, use transitions and write logical, well-developed paragraphs and effective topic sentences.
4 Sentences Sentences that are the building blocks of writing. how to write clear sentences, recognise three common sentence errors, and understand how to make strong linking sentences/transitions.
5 Grammar Learning what not to do. about the basic grammar gremlins and some common grammatical errors
6 Style Grammar is also about style the basic elements of good style.

For more information, please contact info@writetothepoint.co.za