The “I” of the Storm: The simple secrets of writing & speaking (almost) like a professional
by Philip Yaffe (ISBN: 9789087640019)
The thing that sets a writer apart from someone who just writes is more than knowing correct grammar and spelling, how to construct a sentence or a paragraph, or the difference between passive and active voice and when to choose one or the other. According to Philip Yaffe, author of The “I” of the Storm, what sets a writer apart is how they “go about their work—their attitudes, methods, practices and procedures.” And his book is Yaffe’s attempt to show everyone who needs to write how to adopt those attitudes, methods, practices, and procedures.
Yaffe, a professional writer and writing instructor, makes it clear early on that there are two different types of writing, creative and expository, and that you must approach these two types with the different attitudes. Because the purpose of creative writing is to amuse and entertain, the attitude is “Everyone wants to read what you are going to write.”
On the other hand, with expository writing (the focus of the book), the purpose is to inform and instruct, and the corresponding attitude is “Nobody wants to read what you are going to write.” That statement is basically what I have long held to be the “dirty little secret” (although it’s surely not a secret) of technical writing people don’t want to read user’s guides or online help, and will only do so as a last resort.
According to Yaffe, when you’re writing to instruct or inform, starting with that attitude ensures that you work to organize and present your information in a way that helps stimulates interest.
I appreciated the time Yaffe spends defining of what good writing is. By establishing with almost mathematical rigor what the elements of good expository writing are—clarity, conciseness, and density—he makes it easier to analyze any given text and give it a more-or-less objective grade, and to see what we could do to improve it.
I feel that I’m forced into the wishy-washy language of saying we can give a “more-or-less objective grade,” because even with Yaffe’s detailed definitions of clarity, conciseness, and density, there are still areas of subjective judgment involved. For example, in his definition of clarity, Yaffe says we must do three things:
- Emphasize what is of key importance.
- De-emphasize what is of secondary importance.
Eliminate what is of no importance.
However, no two people will always completely agree about what information falls into these three categories; thus, all of these judgments will be subjective to some degree. Nonetheless, spelling out these definitions as clearly as Yaffe has gives us some effective tools we can use in on-the-job writing.
After defining what makes writing good, Yaffe describes a number of techniques we can use, including lessons from journalism like the Inverted Pyramid, and the 5 Ws + H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How), plus a number of general writing tips.
Yaffe also spends a large chunk of his book on oral presentations, explaining the similarities to expository writing, but also clearly stating the differences. For example, he points out that readers have the luxury of stopping to think about something they’ve just read, or skimming over things they aren’t interested in. Listeners don’t have that option. They have to try to absorb and filter the information at the pace set by the speaker. He also has some good advice on how to create a slide presentation that supports your speech, and how to avoid “death by PowerPoint.”
I felt that Yaffe fell just short of his goal in a couple of areas. For example, when he first described the mind-set needed for expository writing, he provided a few examples of why it was so important. However, I didn’t feel that his examples provided sufficient detail to show just how the “expository writing attitude” was applied.
On the whole, though, this slim book provides valuable guidance business professionals can use immediately.
After reading the book, I asked Yaffe if I could interview him, and he kindly agreed. Here’s our conversation:
WC&S: Tell me a bit about your background. You mention in your book that you studied science and math; how did you get from that background to teaching business professionals about writing? Have you had any journalism training or experience?
PY: How I went from math and science to writing is a rather long story. However, in a nutshell, I was a very good student in high school and therefore put into an accelerated college prep stream. This involved a lot of essay writing, literary critiques, etc. I had developed a complex writing style, i.e. long, convoluted sentences with sophisticated vocabulary, which I considered to be good writing.
I always got “A’s” on my papers and laudatory comments about the structure and content. During my last year in high school, I submitted one of these elaborate masterpieces, which came back with the traditional “A”, but also a note saying: “Philip, You have such interesting, original ideas. Why do you bury them under such complex language? Next year when you go to university, I suggest that you take a one-term course in basic journalism and learn how to simplify your writing.” I had no particular interest in journalism, or even in writing. However, I had particular respect for this teacher, so I followed his advice.
At university, I enrolled in a first-term journalism class. After some initial resistance, I realised that writing clearly and concisely was much more of a challenge that what I had been doing. As an extra-curricular activity, I joined the student newspaper (UCLA Daily Bruin) and rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief (1964-65). Then, after a stint in the Peace Corps (Tanzania, 1965-67), I returned to Los Angeles and got a job as a reporter/feature writer on The Wall Street Journal, which lead me into marketing communication (Burson-Marsteller) and transfer to Brussels (1974). The rest, as the say, is history.
WC&S: When you make the distinction between Creative and Expository writing, I’m a bit surprised that you never call special attention to writing to persuade. It seems to me to be a significant area of Expository writing. Is that something that people mention during your training courses?
PY: There are two reasons for this.
1. The objective of my course and book is to convey fundamental principles that people can apply wherever they choose.
2. Unless one is appealing largely to emotion, I believe persuasive writing intimately depends on adopting the expository writing attitude (no one want to read what you are going to write, so give them reasons), and conscientiously applying the concepts of clarity, conciseness, and density. No one has ever asked me specifically about persuasive writing because once they get into the course, I think they come to the same conclusion.
A couple of anecdotes may be useful.
A. I used to write and/or edit speeches for top executives of Toyota Europe. One day I was revising a speech at the company when the author began watching over my shoulder. I changed a couple of words around in a paragraph and he gasped: “But that’s so much better than the way I wrote it! Why didn’t I see that?”
Why, indeed? I asked myself the same question that night and concluded that he hadn’t seen it because he wasn’t looking for it. He was concentrating so much on trying to be persuasive that he gave short shrift to the fundamentals. This was true throughout the entire speech, and the speeches of the other Toyota executives.
This event was perhaps the prime impetus for me to de
velop my course and subsequently to write the book.
B. A Spanish friend was following a “good writing” course in English, which was mainly advanced grammar, vocabulary, diction, idioms, etc. He felt that he really wasn’t getting very much from it. I mentioned some of my ideas about writing. His response: “I have just learned more about good writing in 10 minutes than I have in that course in 10 weeks.”
This was a second major impetus for the book. Carlos, my friend, in fact helped me put it together
WC&S: When writing, you can use structural or typographic elements—bold, italic, bullet points, tables—to call attention to and emphasize specific things. What are the comparable elements of speaking?
PY: You can call attention and emphasise specific things by all the classic means such as vocal variety, facial expression, stance, movement, eye contact, gestures, body language, etc. These are very well known and I didn’t feel that I had anything original to add on the subject. For anyone who wants to learn and polish such skills, I could offer no better advice than joining Toastmasters International (I presume you are familiar with the organisation).
Visual aids are quite a different story.
Too many otherwise good speakers seem to think that showing something—anything—will advance their cause. By causing distraction and confusion, ill-conceived visual aids can in fact do a lot of damage. This is why I spend several pages in the book talking about the use and abuse of slides. PowerPoint today makes producing slides so easy, it is almost impossible to imagine a “professional” presentation without them. However, in my experience, they are often so poorly conceived and used that they are a disservice both to the speaker and the audience. The presentation would be better off without them.
So the message is: Either use visual aids correctly or don’t use them at all.
WC&S: What resources (on your bookshelf or in your Favorites list in your web browser) do you find yourself consulting over and over?
PY: I am a very eclectic reader. The only resources I find myself using over and over are:
* A dictionary, to confirm that certain words really mean what I think they mean. It is so easy to fall into bad habits.
* A thesaurus, because I firmly believe in Mark Twain’s adage: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
* Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. I seldom quote from the book, but I often find that Bierce’s pithy definitions inspire me. One of my favourite definitions, which I did recently quote in a speech, concerns hypocrisy. Hypocrisy (n): prejudice with a halo
For general reading, there are four books that I regularly revisit (about every 2-3 years), because they present important theses in such an easy, palatable manner. They are:
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Candide by Voltaire
- Marco Polo by Viktor Shkovski
- Up the Organisation by Robert Townsend
Editor’s note: The “I” of the Storm can be ordered directly from Story Publishing. Yaffe let me know that it will also be available through Barnes and Noble or Amazon by the end of this month.