Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Brief is best: reflections on the art of writing

Andrew Tink gives his talk after formal dinner

Former NSW shadow Attorney General and professional writer, Mr Andrew Tink AM, shared highlights from his public life when he delivered a wide-ranging talk at the College on Wednesday 25 May 2016.

But one thing Mr Tink emphasized more than anything else was the urgent need for young people, including university graduates, to learn the art of writing clearly and concisely when embarking on their careers.

He pointed out that despite being a barrister and member of parliament, he had only begun to learn about the art of writing when he was required to write his own press releases as shadow Attorney General and went on to develop his skills further when he launched into a serious, full-time writing career after retiring from parliament.

Mr Tink admitted that when he began to write he was “not a particularly good writer”, but he nevertheless succeeded in publishing four successful books:  William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s greatest native son (which won ‘The Nib’ CAL Waverley Award for Literature); Lord Sydney: the life and times of Tommy Townshend; Air Disaster Canberra: the plane crash that destroyed a government; and Australia 1901–2001: a narrative history.

“When I started writing I was a common or garden lawyer, and lawyers are not very good writers at all,” he said. “They tend not to be able to make up their minds and they go: ‘On the one hand… and on the other hand.’ Instead of giving a strong opinion, they tend to couch everything one way or another, and it’s very hard reading.

“And I found in politics and in the public service a lot of writing is very hard to read and it is getting quite chronic. When I was in parliament looking for research assistants, people would apply with degrees and initially I would just accept people with a degree.

“And then I realised they could not actually express themselves in writing to convey an opinion. It wasn’t that they didn’t have an opinion. It wasn’t that they weren’t intelligent. They just lost the sort of skills, or never had the sort of skills, to actually express themselves in writing.”

Mr Tink said the main point was that it is really important to spend time focusing on writing because out in the workplace there are “many people with degrees and many people putting up their hands all over the place, who cannot express themselves in writing”.

“If you want to separate yourself from the field when it comes to employment applications and so forth you need the capacity to express yourself on paper. It is a really, really important skill to have. Whatever degree you might have, you still need to be able to write.”

When he was a shadow minister, Mr Tink was required to write his own press releases but found he could never get into print. When he asked journalists what was wrong with the press releases he was told they were too long and took too long to get to the point.

A journalist he consulted explained: “If you can’t make your main point by the end of the first paragraph I am not reading any further.”

Mr Tink said he was not suggesting that there is not a market for bad writing. He offered the example of former prime minister Paul Keating’s speechwriter, Mr Don Watson, who he said had made it very clear “in a humorous way” that many people write so that they can’t be understood “or so that a particular opinion is not apparent”.

“You can find this sort of writing in the public service,” he said. “Don Watson had a word for it – ‘weasel words’ and you find it all over the place. You can find it in legal opinions, you can find it in medical reports where somebody actually wants to obscure a particular opinion because they are afraid to express it, or because they know that their bosses won’t want them to express it.”

Mr Tink added: “So I got the sense then that it is really important to focus in and be relevant and put the most important things up front in a press release.

“The other key thing I learned is that less is more. So something that is expressed more concisely actually had a greater impact. But if you are going to express yourself concisely it is actually harder work.

“It is actually harder work to cut out words rather than to include them. What I am saying at the end of the day is that it is well worth the effort to do so.

“You are all pretty bright. You wouldn’t be in this College and at this university if you weren’t. So it is not as if anybody in this room doesn’t have the capacity to do it. But it takes a bit of effort and it takes a bit of practice and the conviction that it is worth doing.”

Mr Tink shared a quote from a classic book on writing techniques – The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.

“They wrote it in 1913,” he said, “but I think it is still relevant and it says: ‘Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all necessary sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’

“So you can’t have a lazy word in a piece of work. If a word is not working, if a word is there just for the heck of it, it should go. Every word has to bear a load. Every word has to be doing something, or take it out.”

Mr Tink said young people who move it this direction will find themselves miles in front of other people in the employment queues because good writing is now in very high demand.

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]