Want to Improve your Writing? Try Telling a Story...

Late University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Joseph Williams was arguably one of the best writing instructors of our time.  I met him years ago when he was teaching a judicial writing course at the National Judicial College. The genius of his approach was to improve clarity in legal and business writing, by asking writiers to first sketch a "story" of their work, including the list of "characters" (nouns) and actions (verbs).  By focusing on storytelling, you as a writer are forced to be more concise in explaining information to your reader--in a more active context.  Using the "character-action" approach to writing simplifies your lanaguge, places responsbility cleary for following regulatoins, and reduces your use of the passive voice. Consider these two examples:

(Statutory Instrument 1991 No 2680, The Public Works Contracts Regulations 1991, Part 1, 2.4, page 4)

'General saving for old savings

12. - (1) The revocation by these Regulations of a provision previously revoked subject to savings does not affect the continued operation of those savings.

(2) The revocation by these Regulations of a saving on the previous revocation of a provision does not affect the operation of the saving in so far as it is not specifically reproduced in these Regulations but remains capable of having effect.'

Now consider this second example and decide which one you prefer:

"USCIS published a notice in the Federal Register on Nov. 24, 2015, to inform the public of proposed changes to Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. The public may provide comments on the proposed changes for 60 days, until Jan. 25, 2016.

Many of the proposed changes to Form I-9 are intended to help  reduce technical errors and help customers complete the form on their computer after they have downloaded it from For instance, the form:

Checks certain fields to ensure information is entered correctly;
Provides additional spaces to enter multiple preparers and translators;
Includes drop-down lists and calendars;
Provides instructions on the screen that users can access to complete each field"

A storytelling approach (Character-Action) makes this second example a lot easier to read.  Notice in the last pargraph lead:  the "Form" becomes the character and the bulleted list describes its actions.  Something to think about...


excellent tip!  Thanks, William T.
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William T.

Public speaking coach and college writing instructor/tutor

10+ hours
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