Writing Coach

By Ivars Peterson

Even professional writers can use the help of a writing coach. And Ann Wylie is one of the best.

About a decade ago when I was on the staff of Science News magazine, the editors invited Wylie to present a writing workshop at the publication’s offices in Washington, D.C . The staff writers were already highly experienced in translating complex research results into articles aimed at a general audience. But there is always room for improvement.

Wiley’s workshop focused on “making your copy more creative.”  In other words, thinking long and hard about what would capture and maintain a reader’s interest.

Many of the basic principles that she talked about apply whether you are writing an article for a magazine, preparing an oral presentation, or collaborating on a mathematics paper. You use whatever tools you have at hand to communicate an idea to an audience as effectively as possible, and her workshop, with numerous examples, was designed to add to this toolkit.

The workshop emphasized the importance of telling a story and organizing the material for interest, with many tips on the use of metaphor and other devices to help keep a reader going.

The first paragraph (or lead) is crucial; to get attention you should be concrete, creative, and provocative, Wiley says. You can start off with wordplay, description, metaphor, anecdote, juicy detail, or startling statistic, for instance. Avoid abstraction, question, quotation, fact pack, or announcement, she argues.

The same principles apply to the final paragraph (or kicker), which should bring the article (or presentation) to a rousing conclusion.

All this requires a great deal of thought and much practice. When you read articles or hear presentations, note what works and doesn’t work. Learn by example.

As a writer or presenter, pay attention to your audience. Initially, it may be a colleague or fellow student, later an editor or two, then your readers or listeners. What did they like and not like? What did they find confusing? Illuminating? Did you hold their attention to the end?

Soon after the Science News workshop, I subscribed to Ann Wylie’s monthly email newsletter, “Wylie’s Writing Tips,” and I have been receiving it ever since.

The latest edition highlights the work of science writer Tom Rickey of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in using metaphor to communicate complex concepts.

I knew Rickey when he was in media relations at the University of Rochester and as someone who was unafraid to tackle complicated topics in computer science or mathematics. More than once, he alerted me to important research results that I could then pass on to readers of Science News.

Wiley contends that the use of literary devices such as metaphor is not fluff. “Creative material communicates more clearly, builds reader loyalty, creates a ‘buzz’ for your topic—even enhances credibility,” she writes in her newsletter. “The good news is that creative copy doesn’t take talent. It doesn’t even take creativity. Instead, it takes techniques, tricks and time.”

Wylie’s newsletter is a handy guide to techniques and tricks that you can use to enhance the appeal of your writing, from expository papers and how-to articles to blog posts and tweets.

  1. Somebody took some great notes back in the day, Ivars! Great to hear from you again this way. And thanks for the great article!

  2. Thanks for the pointe to Ann Wylie’s material and mailing list. I’m off read more about using creative devices at her site. Hopefully, the metaphors will be interesting and not condescending like the use of simile in science writing tends to be.

    I find descriptions like “imagine subatomic particles to be small basketball-like objects”, to be rather condescending. Perhaps the author thinks I can’t imagine what they might mean if they just said “subatomic particles occupy the atomic nucleus”, or “the nucleus is made up of subatomic particles”. Did I really need to have the concept which has nothing to do with basketball, tied to basketballs?

    As a counterexample, I almost never hear metaphor used when talking with people who work on cars, or do other quote, unquote, familiar tasks, with which others might not be familiar. I never hear, “Think of this fuel line as being like the esophagus of the car.” or “think of this fence post as being similar to posts that hold up the net of a soccer goal.”

    Instead, they just provide nice common-sense explanations. “The car runs by burning gasoline that flows through this hose to the engine.” and “this post holds up the wires of the fence.”