Writing a good article or blog or longer report is a matter of knowing where you’re going (see prior post), keeping your sentences short and crisp, and keeping to one idea or one point only.
This structure works well:
- The crux
- The context
- Key takeaways
- The last word/ so what?
The crux is quick. It has three parts: the hook (1-2 sentences), the point (1-2 sentences), and the key finding recap.
Open with a hook: The first few sentences should entice the reader to read the full story. They should be concise and lean forward. Say something new (don’t restate the obvious or the well trod news of the day) or counterintuitive or fresh. Or maybe something should have happened but didn’t. Or something big is on the line. Or just get to the point.
No history. No string of statistics. No “anecdote.” Don’t ramble. It doesn’t have to be clever or sexy. Readers are impatient.
If trends continue, we risk losing another generation.
We knew housing vouchers worked—we just didn’t know how well.
Turns out Zoom isn’t as great as it seems for business.
State the point: The second sentence states your main point. It’s called “the nut” in journalism.
Recap the key finding: No need to withhold the main finding. Boil it down and let readers know what you found, and why they should care.
EXAMPLE: [hook] Zoom works for some things but not for sharing business know-how, it turns out. [the nut]:Face-to-face business travel is directly tied to economic growth, according to new research by Harvard’s Growth Lab. [the recap] Without business travel, the researchers find, countries share less know-how and as a result grow and innovate less. If international business travel were to shut down completely, global GDP would shrink by more than 17 percent.
You’ve started with a tight camera shot, now it’s time to pan wide. Back up and set the stage. What’s the context? In the above example about business travel, you might talk about the importance of know-how to innovation versus documented information. Or you might talk about how much business travel happens each year and why it persists even when videoconferencing exists. The point is to tie the context to the main finding. Keep it short.
Now it’s time to outline the three or so main points you want to make. Use bullets if you can. Use short topic sentences before expounding. For topic sentences, use active verbs (no “is” “are” “be” verbs). Action: spur, alter, jumpstart, reduce, cut, … Keep all sentences short and concise. Ideally, the bullets should be a march through the logic of your argument. This + this = that.
The Last Word / So What?
End meaningfully, don’t just peter out. If you’re writing for policymakers, give them the “so what?”—what will it mean to their policies, what will it mean to their constituents? If there are next steps or things we can do to address issues raised, include those. Or end with a call to action generally. This is the last words your readers will read, so make sure they are convinced, impressed, encouraged, moved somehow and ready to pass the word about how good the piece was.
Writing is hard. It’s hard for even the best writers. But it can become easier with a few simple steps.
The first goal is to devise a plan of action. No more writing and hoping a theme will pop up. (Busted). Here’s three steps to help you get started. I’ll add future posts about the nuts and bolts of good structure.
Step 1: Identify your audience. (Pro tip: It’s not “everyone” )
Why is this critical? Because it will determine the tone, how deep you’ll go with details, and it will save you from writing an encyclopedia because you don’t know where to stop.
And academics out there–write for your audience, not your peers. Too often, we write as if our peers are staring over our shoulder. To impress them, we opt for jargon or high-falutin words and tie ourselves up in pretzels trying to sound like what our field supposedly demands. Lawyers write incomprehensibly. Economists end up saying things like, “dis-optimal decision making.” It can get ugly out there.
Step 2: Identify the big idea (What is the piece about?)
Identify the one idea that can carry the report. Not twelve. Not even three ideas. One. The big idea.
To figure that out, step back. Ask the writing-101 question: Why should my reader care? What is the value of this project to my reader?
Let’s say you have to boil down your five-year research project on rising costs of housing into a blog. Impossible, you think. Nah.
I sometimes write a newspaper headline to figure out what the piece is really about. The first word in any good headlines is the key word (aka the theme), followed by an action verb. “Harris Joins Biden,” “Israel Relaxes Border …” “National Chains Abandon Manhattan.” You immediately know what the story is about. By having to decide what the first word in the headline will be and then what the action is, you are forcing yourself to zero in on the most important idea.
In your case, unaffordable housing. “Housing Costs Rise” would work (zzzzz). Or maybe it’s that the rising costs are leading to family struggles. “Family Finances Swamped by Rising Costs” Or if the main topic is rising costs, then: “Rising Costs Swamp Family Finances.” Or maybe it’s that the housing costs are undermining the economy. “Housing Costs Undermine Economic Recovery.” Or maybe it’s really about the impact on children. “Stress from Unaffordable Housing Harms Children.” With that, the piece is about the link between stress and children; a completely different theme.
Whatever it is, do the work and figure out the ONE big idea.
Step 3: Choose a structure
Next up is how to tell the story. Here are three options for how to lay out the information that work well for most things:
- What is, to what should be: the aspirational angle.
- Dark to light, bad news to good: problem to solution
- Chronological: then to now
Start with these three steps and I promise you will have an easier time writing.
Next up, some nuts and bolts for the actual writing part.
I took a highly unscientific survey of social scientists I know, asking them what they’re working on. I asked them because they tend to hone in on topics far before the media picks up on them.
Here’s what they said:
- Inequality: One team is tracking 40 years of private school enrollments to see what role family income inequality plays in education disparities.
- Jobs: Others are thinking about how to make community college more productive for low-income students, and oriented toward a credential that employers actually value. “Tens of billions of Pell dollars are wasted without results to show for it. We need a Race to the Top for states that make their community colleges more accountable, based on education and employment outcomes. We also need to make Pell grants easier to spend on short-term certificate programs that are tied to job demands, and on programs like apprenticeships.”
- Others are looking at the intertwining worlds of the prison industrial complex and concentrated poverty. Relocating to a new neighborhood or city after release provides a fresh start for many parolled prisoners, but lack of income, housing discrimination, and even parole policies make it extremely difficult for ex-prisoners to move away from their old neighborhood.
- Others are looking at a new twist on gentrification—the suburbanization of poverty, and now the suburbanization of ex-offenders. Because of the high costs of residing in urban areas, tight rental markets, and housing discrimination, ex-prisoners are increasingly residing in the suburbs. A decade ago, about 50% of prisoners leaving the Illinois Department of Corrections returned to a Chicago neighborhood. Now, about 38% do, with more living in lower-income suburbs. Given that social services for returning prisoners (e.g., mental health, job training, drug treatment) tend to be located in cities, it may become harder for ex-prisoners to turn their lives around.
- And a twist on the immigration debate. Will punitive immigration policies and practices make it less likely that immigrants will rely on the police? Seems so. They are less likely to report crimes to the police, which makes it harder for the police to do their jobs.
- Even more novel, an approach to health and longevity that moves away from the “disease model” and treatment to altering our biologies to let us lead longer and healthier lives. Simply put, “the choice would come down to the two extremes: (1) the current health-care approach, with most individuals enjoying a relatively long life span but reduced health span and increased, ballooning health-care costs; or (2) the biology-of-aging-based health-span extension, which, if successfully translated to humans, would provide increased health span at a fraction of today’s health-care cost, with a vigorous and engaged older adult population and even a potentially productive older workforce.” Whoa.
- And once we’re living those longer, more productive lives, others are looking at what we might do with all that time. How might we tap the productivity of those over age 60 to benefit society?
- And how might we tap the same among those under age 30? Another group is looking at children’s and adolescents’ understanding of and sense of responsibility for the “environmental commons” – an expansive term that refers to the natural resources on which life depends and the public spaces where people act, discuss, and decide how to defend the commons they share with fellow community members. They’re asking, can an eco-justice model develop kids’ motivation and capacities for collective action? They’ve been collecting data on kids in Michigan (predominantly from low-income and ethnic minority communities) working to preserve their environmental commons (e.g., river stream mitigation, retrofitting of houses for energy savings, etc.).
- Speaking of health care costs, some are looking deeply at the social determinants of health. Hospitals are looking beyond their in-house mission to cure disease to preventing it (and thus lowering costs). But beyond the calls to lose weight and quit smoking, they’re looking at how our communities contribute to our well-being and health, whether that’s access to parks, clean air, housing that is both affordable and safe, or access to good jobs.
All fascinating ideas, and so critical as we enter this new era of rising inequality amid a country that is rapidly diversifying and changing. Expect to be reading about these innovations… in about five years.
Read: Not Golden Yet: Building a Stronger Workforce for Young Children in California (by our own Sarah Jackson writing for New America). Bottom line: progress, but early ed teachers are still abysmally underpaid and too often underprepared to take on this enormous and critical job of preparing kids to be ready to learn. Typical: An op-ed in the Sacramento Bee cherry-picks the research on early education investments with the tired argument that progress fades by third grade. Thankfully Early Edge’s Deborah Kong and David Kirp at the Times counter with the so-apparent-it’s-amazing-we-still-have-to-say-it caveat that quality in the classroom matters.
I spent the day visiting an inspiring community in Atlanta last week. East Lake is living proof that a comprehensive approach to poverty—one that considers more than housing, more than just income, more than just a job, and more than just a good school, but all of those elements combined—can make a lasting impact on children’s lives.
My host was Carol R. Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta, and we were standing on the playground in an Atlanta neighborhood once so awful that it was called Little Vietnam for its war zone qualities. As the former mayor Shirley Franklin told me, “Even I didn’t want to drive through there.”
Read: The War on Poverty: Was It Lost? Sandy Jencks reviews our friend Sheldon Danziger’s new book… with a cliff hanger to boot. A smart discussion, though a conundrum for the Left perhaps? Or proof that the programs do work, and are needed. Also makes a great case for a relative poverty measure—relative to what middle America earns.
Brutal poverty—perhaps one of the most moving pieces of research in years, “Meet Our Prisoners,” [More]
We’re trying something new. Each week (or so) we’ll be writing a recap—ala Ann Friedman— of what we’ve been up to, which given our wide range of clients, we hope will become a regular way of catching up with what’s going on in the social policy field.
Read: A great Pediatrics article on why doctors should think about neighborhoods. Purpose Built success stories in Atlanta and New Orleans (reminds me that yes, we can build affordable, attractive neighborhoods). Urban planning then and now. Then: Slums and City Planning, by Robert Moses, circa 1945 (best word to bring back: “mossbacks). Now: ULI’s toolkit for developers for how to build for health.
Poverty is a hard nut to crack. We’ve been at it (half-heartedly) for more than two-hundred years now, our solutions swinging between “fix them” (“them” in this case being poor people) to “fix the root causes.” Advocates who claim that poverty hurts children are countered by others who say “it’s not poverty, it’s single-parent families or character” or any number of other explanations. And of course, the hoary argument of who is “deserving” of support has a long and storied history, evident still today in the lopsided support for the “working poor” at the expense of those who aren’t.
All of these arguments are not just hot air or academic diversions. After all, if you believe the problem is a single mother’s character, “the fix” will be very different than if you think the problem of single-parent families stems from a lack of marriageable men because good paying jobs have disappeared. Look no further than the difference between Republicans and Democrats in their policy proposals.
To date, it’s been a he-said/she-said argument, and the pendulum has swung regularly between the two camps. The he said/she said persists for a simple reason. It’s very hard to prove either argument. You can’t get very far into these debates with correlational evidence only, which is what we have.
But we may be on the brink of a “smoking gun” of evidence that could put this argument to rest. [More]
As 2015 swings into full gear, with resolutions to keep and pounds to lose (delicious riddance, ye annual box of Frango mints), we want to take a moment to thank all our clients and colleagues for making 2014 a turning point for HiredPen. It was a big year for us. We expanded our staff, hiring two full-time writers, Kathleen and Natalie. We opened an office in Berkeley to join our office in Chicago. And we added several new, exciting projects, including Build Healthy Places, a project at the intersection of public health and community development; the Mindsets Scholars Network; and work with New America and the Packard Foundation on early education policy in California.
It’s a special privilege to get to write about ideas every day, and it’s even more amazing to get to write about ideas that change people’s lives.
So what do these ideas portend for 2015? I’ve been covering US poverty policy for 15 years, and it strikes me that 2014 might have been a turning point for new thinking about this age-old problem in America.
Three trends that took root in 2014 give me hope: [More]
We all like a good story. Even the wonkiest academic with a copy of Thomas Pikerty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century on her nightstand will agree: There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a good tale, with its hook, its tension, its real people and real quandaries, and its resolution. There’s a reason journalists start every story with a human being. We can relate.
And yet, read a research report on social welfare issues—the very issues with human beings at their core—and you can almost guarantee it will start with something like this:
In 2012, nearly 16 million U.S. children, or over one in five, lived in households that were food-insecure, defined as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food.
It is well-known theoretical result that a risk-averse consumer prefers full insurance offered on actuarially fair terms under expected utility maximization without state dependence.
No wonder why research rarely makes it across the bridge from academia to policymaking. [More]