Why Writing Is More an Art Than a Science
Since 2008, Paul McClure has been regularly lecturing at the CEF workshops on communication topics. He has helped many public officials upgrade the effectiveness of their written communications in English, working with course participants from all CEF member countries and several adjoining EU member states. We were happy to talk to Paul, our associate fellow, about why writing effective, clear, and concise messages is important.
You have extensive professional experience as an editorial expert and writing teacher. What do you think is the best way to improve writing skills? What strategies we can take to help us get better at writing?
There’s really no substitute for practice. My own skills have gotten so much better when my jobs have required me to do a lot of writing and editing, often on a daily basis. But I think a special tip for second-language speakers is to read as much in English as possible, to get a better sense of what sounds natural and makes for a good editorial style. To improve writing, I don’t think it’s enough to watch English-language movies and television. And especially for languages that don’t have the article (a, an, the), lots of reading is the best way to pick up how we use this feature of English. It’s not strictly governed by rules, and there’s not even total consistency between American and British English.
On several occasions, you have emphasized that writing is more an art than a science. Can you give us some examples?
Sometimes a participant will ask that I show the “right way” to revise an example we’re discussing. But there’s never just one way to improve a text. In the writing principles I cover, the focus is on judgment, not on formal rules. For example, the grammar is usually correct when we use the passive voice, but if a document does that in almost every sentence, the writing is not going to engage the reader as much as it could. Similarly, there may be nothing grammatically wrong with 50-word sentences, but they’re harder for all readers to understand and will offer fewer points of emphasis than if we use shorter sentences. In my workshops, I often challenge participants to think more about the reader, and we look at concrete ways to pull the reader in and make it easier to absorb key messages.
In past, you had many opportunities to work with public officials, either in CEF headquarters in Ljubljana or the region. What are the things you find most fascinating about South East Europe?
Many of the officials I’ve met are in a great position to shape reforms and help build a better future for their country. Courses through the CEF provide some important building blocks for that very exciting work. But I also think many officials face a big challenge to help their institutions become more nimble and creative, as well as less bureaucratic. From a personal standpoint, the region is fascinating to explore because it offers a tremendous range of landscapes and such varied cultures, many of which overlap. I feel fortunate that my time in the region has enabled me to see many wonderful sights that are still not very widely known.
You have been working with the CEF for many years now. If you were to choose five words to describe our cooperation, what would they be?
Positive. Flexible. Enduring. Personal. Rainy. Just teasing with that last one—there’s plenty of sunshine, both in Slovenia and across the region! But a few of my workshops over the years have indeed coincided with some massive storm systems, including my latest one.
Soon you plan to retire after an extensive professional career in World Bank. What are you dreaming for next year? Maybe writing a book?
More flexibility will be great, though it will also be essential to set some goals. I do have some writing projects in mind, and I expect to keep working with the CEF (if they still want to after the “rainy” comment!). It’s also possible that I’ll consult with the World Bank down the road, as well as some other organizations. I plan to stay where I live in Washington but will step up my travels. I’ve been an avid traveler for years, but now I expect to do some longer trips from my bucket list and to do it at a more relaxed pace. Time will tell.