Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Tyra Banks Approach to Writing

Do you have a supermodel you can consult with? Headline notwithstanding, I don't mean Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell or even that inimitable diva, Tyra Banks. (I call this column the Tyra Banks approach because I'm Canadian and irony is in my nature.)

What I'm talking about today is having a writing model — that is, a clear example of the kind of text you want to emulate.

This sticky issue came up in a teleclass I hosted recently. One of the participants described submitting a piece of writing to a European publication. Although her field is highly technical (forestry sustainability), she worked hard to ensure her text was easy to understand and readable. Both commendable goals.

Trouble is, the client wasn't totally pleased and asked for rewrites going in the opposite direction. In other words, the client wanted text that was a bit more sophisticated even if it was less easy to understand. "What did I do wrong?" the writer lamented.

I haven't seen either the original text or the revised text, but I answered from my gut, based on 30 years in the business. "You didn't have an example — a model — of what they were looking for," I guessed. (This turned out to be true.)

It's important to remember that while there is "good" writing and "bad" writing, there is also "right" writing — that is, writing that the client wants. Models are so crucially important to achieving this goal that you should always ask your clients for some samples before you start any writing project. Why? Three main reasons:

  1. Models help you understand exactly what the client wants. As the old joke in the newspaper business goes: editors are people who don't know what they want until they see it. Clients are pretty much the same. They are usually imprecise, often vague, and always impatient. Asking them to provide several example of writing they like is an excellent way to prevent miscommunication.

  2. Models give you a precise measuring stick. With a model you have something specific to analyze. "Keep it simple," orders the client. But one person's simple is another person's complicated. With a model in hand, you can run readability stats (available free in MS Word) and see the precise grade level the client is aiming for. You can also look at more subtle measurements such as use of metaphor, concrete versus abstract language and "voice." This knowledge is power.

  3. Models make it possible for you, the writer, to gain "instant understanding." You know the old saying "a photo is worth a thousand words"? Well sometimes a thousand words can be like a photo. When you read a piece you can ask yourself "What did I really think of that?" You'll have what I call a "snapshot reaction" in which you'll consider the ineffables: tone, feeling and mood. By noticing the forest instead of the trees you can gain an almost intuitive understanding of what the client wants.

All of this raises an interesting question. What do you do if the client has bad taste? It happens. Sometimes clients just seem to love icky writing — passive voice, lots of jargon, long sentences. While this is never welcome news, it's always good to know what you're up against. You can then decide if you want to persuade the client to approach the task differently or whether you prefer to walk away.

Of course this can be a tougher choice if you're in a regular job and it's your boss who has the bad taste. But even then models may be able to help. You can bring your boss some published writing samples (ones that display "good" writing) and try to show him or her why they're effective.

Selling the concrete is always easier than selling the theoretical. Just another reason why supermodels rule.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 10th 2008, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Ross E. (High Level Canada)
Hi there, all:

The article highlights that value of the 'mentor text,' something I'll be using this year in teaching writing to my grade 7 and 8 students ... part of the 6 Traits Writing method.

It's always a good thing to find reinforcement from the world of writing for the methods I undertake. Totally good!


Wednesday September 10th 2008, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Chris H.
This is a great article that reinforces the need for exemplars when teaching.

Sunday September 14th 2008, 9:04 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Good article, easily understood, and illustrates some of the techniques I have been developing in my own writing.
I write for fun and to express ideas that come up to mind from day to day that might be of interest to those I love.
Retired medical doctor of medicine, 78 tomorrow!
Monday September 15th 2008, 5:39 PM
Comment by: SAS (Spring Park, MN)
Asking your client for a model is great advice. It is difficult , as you say, when your boss or client likes the icky writing .. it's not something you want in your portfolio. It has happened to me more than once.

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