Owen Spencer-Thomas on how become a successful writer
“Call a spade a spade, not a digging implement, and certainly not an excavation solution”. That’s the advice of Owen Spencer-Thomas who spent most of his working life as a popular TV and radio broadcast journalist in the UK.
“Just tell it as it is,” he says. “Communicate clearly.” He strongly advocates keeping the text simple. “Write in plain English,” he insists. “Picture your audience, know who they are and write for them.”
He began building up his journalistic skills with the BBC and later joined Independent TV’s Anglia Television as senior reporter and presenter in 1978. He is widely considered to be an authoritative figure as both writer and broadcaster.
The University of Westminster awarded him a doctorate, Doctor of Letters (D.Litt), in recognition of his services to journalism and the voluntary sector.
After retiring from the cut and thrust of the news gathering business, he worked for the University of Cambridge and set up a teaching website aimed at people who want to improve their writing skills.
Today would-be journalists worldwide continue to regularly visit his website. According to GoStats, a tool which analyzes website data, his site received hits from 92 different countries during the month of April 2020.
One of Owen’s pet hates is needless words. “Why link two words with the same meaning when one will do the job?” he asks. You must choose your words deliberately.
So, do you really need to speak of ‘component parts’ and ‘Free gifts’? Aren't all gifts free? Watch out for anything that is 'exactly the same'.
Likewise, he urges writers to avoid oxymorons which pair words that contradict each other. For instance, ‘new and improved’, ‘poor little rich girl’. It's enough to confuse the ‘living dead’.
Owen reminds us that any fool can make an idea sound complicated. It takes rigorous and careful thought to keep it simple. Plain English is direct and concise.
As a seasoned journalist he warns his readers to be on their guard against those needless words. Discard those redundant ones. Be succinct. For instance, “Our Company is facing up to the threat of being closed” can be simplified to read “Our Company faces closure.”
He believes good communication depends on keeping your sentences simple and short. “Use bite-size sentences,” he says. Long-winded complicated ones can easily be misunderstood.
But non-stop short sentences become repetitive. Because much of Owen’s work has been behind the microphone, he knows good writers can learn from good speakers.
“Your writing, and your spoken word,” he says, “must never sound like the rapid fire of a machine gun.” So, from time to time, add a longer sentence. Variety is the spice of life. An occasional well-crafted sentence can take your audience by surprise.
“Good writers read”, he maintains. “They need to immerse themselves in a pool of words. After all, reading is what usually sparks a person’s desire to write. Discovering the strengths of other writers will help you in your own writing.”
The British statesman, Winston Churchill, was right to say that old words are best. Old words rule because people know them intimately. Familiar words spring to mind spontaneously.
Owen believes the key to effective communication is to know your readers, your audience. In other words, put yourself in their shoes and choose your words thoughtfully.
He tells his students to be direct and speak plainly with words they can grasp. “If they cannot understand you,” he asks. “Why should they listen to you?”
His final piece of advice is to personalize your story. “People want to know about people,” he reminds us. So, if you can make your point from a human-interest angle, it's more likely to be read.
You can often make a big story bigger by giving it a human face. For instance, the politician advocating a policy may be more interesting than the policy itself.
Your own experiences can add authenticity and authority too. You can write with passion.
Owen tells us that he and his wife have two sons with autism. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s 2008 New Year Honours. His award was given for his voluntary work in the local community and support for people with autism.
As she pinned his medal on his lapel, the Queen asked him, “What do you do?” “Oh, I write and I speak,” he replied.
“People must have listened to you,” she added knowingly.
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