Focus on precision in your writing

Make what you write say what you mean

Years ago I ambled from my backyard to a neighbor’s and told him I admired the trellis he was building. He wheeled toward me and said, “You work much with teak?”

I erupted into laughter, but stopped short and said: “No offense, Jack. I was laughing at myself, because I don’t work with anything.”

Except words.

I have no handyman heritage in my family.

Yet I’ve been working with and loving words ever since my mother taught me to read when I was 4; she had me sound out the letters on the label of a bottle of ketchup.

I’m addicted to crossword puzzles, the TV show “Wheel of Fortune” and compelling phrases wherever they appear.

For many years, at bedtime, I would read aloud the poem “God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English Jesuit priest in the second half of the 19th century. It starts:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil


Hopkins honored the mantra of his contemporary, the writer Joseph Conrad.

“My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see,” he said. “That — and no more — and it is everything.”

See the shining foil; see the oozing oil.

My mantra: “Make what you write say what you mean.”

To meet that standard, we focus on precision.

The following imprecise sentence recently appeared in a national newspaper: “That [principle] ought to go in journalism as much, if not more, than in any other profession.”

If we eliminate the words between the commas, we get, “That [principle] ought to go in journalism as much than in any other profession.”

Clumsy and unclear.

The writer made a leap too far.

The line should read: “That [principle] ought to go in journalism as much as, if not more than, in any other profession.”

Good writing requires work.

By Gary Gilson first published at FEBRUARY 20, 2021

Gary Gilson is a Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner. He also teaches journalism at Colorado College. Gilson can be reached through his website