My professional die was cast early on. When my mother passed away last year, one of the treasures left behind were report cards from my elementary school years. “He is our best speller,’’ Miss Moyer wrote at the end of my first-grade year. Earlier that year, she wrote “Thomas improved in his writing just lately. I was glad to see it.”
In fifth-grade, teacher Esther Ruth wrote that I was a “very good news reporter” and “handles self well when giving news reports.” Another comment from Miss Ruth said I was “an excellent writer in composition. Expresses himself well!”
These were the highlights on my report cards. In grade school, I was a typical energetic boy and average student, at best. I preferred playing outside to sitting at a desk. Nowadays, I’d surely be classified as ADHD. The same fifth grade teacher who commented on my writing skills also said I should “try not to whine when asking for help.” The first-grade teacher said I had “trouble solving problems such as 4 + — = 6.” This teacher also wrote I had “trouble telling amounts of money and telling time.” More than 50 years later, I think I’ve got a handle on both of those tasks.
With those elementary school highlights (and lowlights) behind me, I set out on a path to become a writer, a conveyer of information, facts and stories. I worked on newspapers in junior high school, high school, college and in the professional ranks. It was the right call. While I was raised in a working class, blue-collar family in the Philadelphia suburbs, mechanical aptitude somehow eluded me. And, as the first-grade teacher noted, so did math. Science was even more foreign. Words, though? Words I got.
I’ve always loved reading. Newspapers were my daily bread, as many as four a day. Magazines and books, too. When I speak to students about writing, I tell them it starts with reading. I was fortunate to read some of the best journalists around in Philadelphia newspapers. I also made it a point to read magazines that featured compelling writers. The way they constructed their words, sentences and stories amazed me.
Besides reading, good writing skills also develop by observing and reflecting. “You can observe a lot just by watching,’’ is one of my favorite Yogi Berra malaprops. Before writing a sentence, I find it important to think about the message that will be delivered. You need to know the message you’re sending before you can express it.
Since joining the public relations side, I have found PR writing is not much different from news writing. The outlet where my prose might appear may have changed, but in the end, good writing is good writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a press release, a newspaper, a magazine or a blog post. Expressing yourself through clear writing is challenging, a dying art in a world where informational nuggets are delivered rapid-fire. Complete thoughts can’t be delivered in 180 characters. In my eyes, words matter. They always will.
Even now, I’m the person you don’t want to read your Facebook wall or Twitter feed. I look for misspellings, grammar, sentence construction and word choice. When my wife of 23 years, Robin, and I first dated she used the word “anyways” in speaking. I let it slide the first few instances. After a few dates, I felt compelled to correct her. “It’s not a word. The word is ‘anyway,’’’ I said. She married me anyway.
Like any skill, writing requires a lot of studying, persistence, patience and reflection. I tell young writers to study good writers, but that’s just the start. Writers need to write. Put words on paper. Try different word combinations. Organize thoughts. Write, re-write, polish, edit, and edit again. The most frequent error I find with novice writers is redundancy. One recent submission I edited used the same word in a sentence four times!
I have grown a lot as a writer from my early years. Much of it is due to my newspaper experience. I worked for many years in Sports, where I needed to construct stories quickly and on tight deadlines, with newsroom chaos all around me. Every night was an election night. It made me focus on organizing and working swiftly while also conveying a clear, accurate and interesting message.
I’ve spent my entire professional career as a writer, and while I’m nowhere near the best, I still find it enjoyable. One article that I recently wrote for a client merged sports and stormwater chambers. I consider it one of my finest pieces, weaving together totally disparate facts into a nicely organized feature story.
What I like about writing is finding the unique angle and sharing it with readers. I’ve written about some amazing people, such as an overweight, blind woman who went on to become a world-class triathlete; a New York couple who fought infertility for eight years, adopted a child and then had their own biological child; and a woman from South America who moved to the United States without knowing a word of English and rose to become the executive director of an organization that supports victims of sexual assault.
Everyone has a story, and I have the awesome job of telling them to an audience. I don’t know if my grade-school teachers are still around. If they are, however, I think they’d be proud.