Writing tip: Tell it to Mom

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

4 words can make a huge difference.
When you write, do it like …
… you’re telling it to Mom.

One of our writers had a good story.
She just wasn’t sure how to present it.
She had spent two hours with owners of:
• A “perfectly” restored 218-year-old house.
• 3,000 square foot barn converted to a home.

As her editor, my advice was simple.
Write as if you were telling it to Mom.

Many of us have writing problems.
Me, too, and after all these years.
Writing conversationally is the key.

As fact gatherers, we write like fact gatherers.
The fire that killed 5 comes across as cold.
It reads like a government report.
It needs to be, pardon the expression, warmed up.
It need to be about the lost people, not just the fire.

Some years ago, my son and I visited a friend.
George James had worked with me earlier.
George was a fine writer who cared about people.
He was working at the time as a crime reporter.

He filed a story about a fire with his editors at the NY Times.
The Times prides itself on being a newspaper of record.
It falls a bit short about being a newspaper about people.

George had just written an account of a fire that killed 5 people.
He showed us a printout he sent to the city desk.
It read like a police incident report.
Its 47 words contained who, what, when, where and how.

“George,” I said, “this doesn’t read like your work.”
He nodded and produced another printout
“Here’s what I originally sent,” he said.

It began: “Samuel ___ collected people and furniture.”
It talk about the owner of the building.
It told who else lived and died there.
George had talked with neighbors.
He found the owner furnished it with Salvation Army stuff.
He rented to people who could not afford to pay him.
They weren’t evicted. Samuel ___ had a heart.

The version the city desk rejected was a human story.
We asked George why he would work for such editors.
They obviously had tin ears . . . and no hearts.
“It’s THE New York Times,” he said.
“They usually accept what I write.”
“They pay well, too.”

“Tell it to Mom” is a technique we teach our writers.
It doesn’t have to be a news article.
It could be a sales letter or an advertisement.
The principle applies to whatever you may write.
Make it about people and tell it to Mom.

Think about this:
If you told Mom the story, what would you say?
Would you say “The owner and 4 homeless people were killed in an suspicious apartment house fire in lower Manhattan late Monday night”?
Probably not although that’s what most editors expect.

But you wouldn’t write that if you knew about:
• The big-hearted owner of the building.
• His 4 tenants who could not afford to pay rent.
You might tell Mom something like this:
“Mom, this guy Samuel ___ had a big heart.
“He let people live in his apartment building.
“That was even if they couldn’t pay him rent.
“In a fire last night, he and 4 of them died.”

Tell it to Mom and you can tell it to the world.

Here’s an exercise for you journalists:
Take a news article you have written.
Rewrite it as you would tell it to Mom.
Then boil down the conversational version.
Write short sentences with powerful verbs.
Make Mom see and hear what you saw and heard.

Here another one for you:
Imagine someone from Mars has arrived on earth.
She knows little about us but understands English.
What would she make of your prose?
Could she understand what you writing about?

This helps avoid jargon from police, politicians and others.
They talk in a special code we have learned.
Most of our readers don’t understand it.
Translate. Keep it simple. Help them understand.
By all means, tell it to Mom.