Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest, Philip A. Yaffe. Phil is a former feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communications consultant. He is the author of The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional.
Good day Phil and thanks for participating in our interview
It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
This is a rather strange story. In brief, when I was a student in Los Angeles in the 1950s, my passion was science and mathematics. Because I was a pretty good student, I was put in an accelerated college prep section in high school, which meant that I had to do a lot of writing. I had developed a rather complex, almost gothic writing style with convoluted sentence structures and vocabulary far beyond the norm for my age.
One day I got back a paper with an "A" grade (I usually got "A" or "A-") with a note saying: "Philip, you have such interesting things to say and you organized your thoughts so well, why do you hide it all under your almost impenetrable writing style. Next year when you go to university, I suggest that you take an introductory course in journalism to learn how to simplify your writing."
I had no particular interest in writing in general, and certainly not journalism in particular. But I had great respect for this teacher, so I followed his advice. This I where I discovered that clear, concise, comprehensible writing was much more of a challenge than the pseudo-sophisticated stuff I had been doing. Following this revelation, I naturally gravitated to the student newspaper. When I graduated from UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) in 1965, I left with both a degree in mathematics and the title of Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA Daily Bruin.
I then went into the Peace Corps, when fate stepped in again. I was posted to Tanzania to teach high school mathematics and physics. By chance I was posted a stone's throw from the only school of journalism in the entire country. I couldn't resist. I immediately raced up the hill to offer my services. It was a fantastic experience.
When I returned to Los Angeles in 1968, I decided against taking an advanced degree in mathematics. Fortunately, I was hired by The Wall Street Journal. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I hope not. I believe that the style of an expository (non-fiction) text should reflect the subject and the intended audience, not the writer.
At one time I was writing articles for an industrial newsletter, along with several other freelancers. One day the communication director said to me, "Phil, I can recognize your articles even without looking at the byline." My heart sank. "Good grief, I hope she isn't going to tell me I have a distinctive style," I thought. "I have very little technical background," she continued. "When I read one of your articles, I immediately understand the subject. When I read articles from anyone else, I usually have to read them twice to be certain I know what they are talking about."
I considered this to be perhaps the highest compliment as a professional writer I had ever received.
What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Lack of appreciation. I don't mean this in a personal sense. While most people will concede that they that they don't know how to write fiction, they believe they know how to write non-fiction.
I remember once a potential client said to me, "Phil, I am going to let you do this job because I don't have time to do it myself." I was stunned. I told him that if he if he believed that he could do the job as well as I could, then we had no business working together. I declined the commission.
By contrast, I was once commissioned to write a technical description of an early digital telephone network aimed at the lay public. When I presented it, the communication director said, "I couldn't have written this if my life depended on it. I don't know how you do it. I think this is the first time I have fully understood the system myself." Needless to say, we got on famously.
I am fond of collecting quotations. Here are a few of my favorites about the craft of writing.
"A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." - - Thomas Mann
"There are two kinds of writers in the world: bad writers and improving writers." - - William Blundell
"The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new
way or to say a new thing in an old way." - - Richard
"Good writing is clear thinking made
visible." - - Bill Wheeler
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." - - Edwin Schlossberg
"Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors." - - Rhys Alexander
"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." - - Samuel Johnson
"Don’t write merely to be understood. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood." - - Robert Louis Stevenson
But the final word must of course go to the undisputed champion.
"Good writing is hard work." - - Snoopy (Charles Schulz)
What do you think of the new Internet market for writers?
Personally, I don't think of it as a way to make money. I use the Internet mainly as a means of promoting my books, by writing articles, generating book reviews, and engaging in interviews.
What motivated you to write The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional? As a follow up, did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Throughout my career, I had been appalled by how poorly middle and upper level executives wrote. These were obviously very intelligent people, but from the way they wrote you would never have guessed it.
I recall one day I was editing a speech by a top executive in Toyota Europe while he was looking over my shoulder. I moved a couple of words around in a paragraph and he gasped: "But that's so much better! Why didn't I see that myself?" Later I asked myself the same question: Why hadn't he seen it. The answer was: He didn't know what to look for.
This incident was the impetus for me to develop a writing course and workshop for executives. The book was a natural follow-on.
I have often been told that I am an exceptionally good writer: clear, concise, to the point. In devising the course, I think I discovered why. I had been subconsciously applying certain simple mathematical principles to my writing. Now I apply them consciously, and I advise others to do so as well.
How can teachers encourage good writing in their students? As a
follow up, do you have any suggestions as to how to become a
I don't like to generalize, but I feel that schools don't really teach good writing, so it is unrealistic to expect students to achieve it. Teachers exhort students to be clear and concise, but they are never really taught how to do it. They may do a good job of teaching grammar, vocabulary, diction, syntax, etc., but these are the frosting on the cake. The cake itself is missing.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. How do you know that a text is clear? If this sounds like a silly question, try to answer it. You will probably do something like this:
Question: What makes this text clear?
Answer: It is easy to understand.
Question: What makes it easy to understand?
Answer: It is simple.
Question: What do you mean by simple?
Answer: It is clear.
You in fact end up going around in a circle. The text is clear because it is easy to understand . . . because it is simple . . . because it is clear.
"Clear," "easy to understand," and "simple" are synonyms. While synonyms may have nuances, they don't have content, so you are still left to your own subjective appreciation. However, what you think is clear may not be clear to someone else.
This is why it is necessary to give "clear" an objective definition, almost like a mathematical formula. To achieve clarity -- i.e. virtually everyone will agree that it is clear -- you must do three things.
1. Emphasize what is of key importance
2. De-emphasize what is of secondary importance
3. Eliminate what is of no importance
In short: CL = EDE
This is an example of how applying the simple mathematical concepts I mentioned earlier provides what amounts to a recipe for clarity. It tells you how target clarity in your first draft, then how to check if you have actually achieved it in order to prepare your final draft.
How to apply this formula to best effect is fully explained in the book. The book also gives a formula for conciseness, which does not simply mean being short! Conciseness, like clarity, is a "weasel word", because what is concise for one person may be incomplete for another. This is why these attempts to define clarity and conciseness with almost mathematical rigor are so important.
Again, all this is explained in the book.
What do you think makes a good story?
If we are talking about expository (non-fiction) writing: Anything.
It is my contention that there are no dull stories, only dull writers. If you ask a ditch digger about his job, he will tell you much more about digging ditches than you ever imagined. It is the writer's job to dig for this information (if you will pardon the pun), then convey it to his readers.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
For expository (non-fiction) writing, absolutely writers owe something to readers. They owe them a text that gives them a maximum of information in a minimum of time. This means that it must be clear, concise, and "flexible."
Novice expository writers often assume that the purpose of producing a text is readers to read it from start to finish. This is incorrect. The purpose is for readers to read as much as they need. Since readers are different, what is necessary for one can easily be too much for another. It is the reader who must make this decision, not the writer.
How often do people who start to read a newspaper article actually finish it? Estimates are only about 5 percent; 95 percent of them stop somewhere in between. Does this mean that the article was poorly written? No, it means that it was written very well. Why? Because it allows each individual reader at some point to say, "This has already covered all of my concerns, so I can now stop reading it and go on to something else."
There are numerous techniques for achieving this kind of flexible writing. They can be applied to virtually every kind of expository text: company newsletters, research reports, financial reports, marketing proposals, etc.
Do fiction writers (short stories, novels, poems, screenplays, etc.) owe anything to their readers?
Having no experience in the field, I am not well-placed to answer this question. What I can say is that the principles and techniques that make for good expository writing can also enhance fiction. I know, because I've had the experience. A budding novelist asked me to critique her book. At first I didn't feel competent to do so, but when she insisted, I finally agreed. I critiqued her fiction text as I would have an expository text. When she revised it according to my comments, the improvement was astounding!
Where can our readers find out more about you and The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional?
I have some 70 articles circulating on the Web. Most of them are about writing and public speaking, but some go off into other fields such as philosophy, science, and religion. Just punch my name "Philip Yaffe" into any search engine and take your pick.
If you are interested in the book, it is currently available only on line from numerous booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Target. I hope to have it in selected bricks and mortar bookstores by the end of the year, particularly on college campuses.
When I was at UCLA, I saw a number of my colleagues flunk out because they couldn't write at a college level. They had never been taught to. I hope The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional might make a small contribution towards avoiding further such unnecessary tragedies.
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
Yes. Except for expense reports I have never written fiction. However, a budding novelist here in Brussels who had read some of my articles on writing asked if I could help her revise the draft of her latest effort. I was reluctant to venture into an area that I felt I knew nothing about (except as a reader), but then decided to give it a try.
I was surprised and delighted to discover that the same fundamental principles of non-fiction writing that I teach can also dramatically improve fiction. We both agreed that the revised version was considerably better than the original.
Fiction and non-fiction are still essentially different genres. The mindset needed to succeed in the one is quite different from the mindset need to succeed in the other. Nevertheless, it seems that at their core, they are more alike than they are different. A happy revelation! In my next book, I intend to explore this commonality further.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors