Joseph Pulitzer’s 34 words to better writing

October 21, 2009 | Writing

Newspaper legend Joseph Pulitzer – the father of writing’s famed Pulitzer Prizes – summed up the essence of good and powerful writing in one 34-word quote. Pulitzer famously told writers:

“Put it to them briefly, so they will read it; clearly, so they will appreciate it; picturesquely, so they will remember it; and, above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.”

It’s one of the most cogent pieces of writing advice ever put into words. A great amount of content contained in a single statement. It includes the oft referred to ABC’s of writing (accuracy, brevity and clarity).

But his statement pays homage to the impact of each attribute, and it adds a fourth attribute that is the hallmark of the very best writing. Namely, to make your writing “picturesque.”

More on that in a moment.

First, though, Pulitzer advocates brevity in writing so people will be willing to read it. Keep in mind that the Hungarian born Pulitzer died in 1911, many decades before our lives were sped-up and time-pressed by the digital technologies that brought forth a cascading proliferation of information sources. Even then, when human lives moved at a much slower pace, brevity was valued as a tenet of good writing. It is a timeless virtue.

Secondly, Pulitzer calls for clarity, so readers will appreciate what has been written. There is no appreciating writing that forces readers to struggle to decode its meaning. That’s an enervating slog. Communicating with real precision is a human struggle. We have learned from many years of trial and error that all forms of communication – written, verbal, artistic, etc. – are remarkably prone to misunderstanding. Writing must be especially precise since, in most cases, the reader doesn’t have an opportunity to ask for clarification.

Above all, Pulitzer exhorts, make your writing accurate so people will be guided by its light. Yes, Pulitzer was also one of the fathers of sensationalism or the yellow journalism that diminished the industry around the turn of the century while major U.S. dailies battled for circulation gains. Having lived through this dark period of American journalism may have given Pulitzer an even clearer understanding of how inaccuracy erodes the credibility of any writer or publication. First and foremost, get it right.

That covers the ABC’s of writing, but Pulitzer took it the extra step to picturesque wordplay so your writing will be memorable. This is perhaps the hardest of the four attributes to achieve for most people. One of the axioms of good writing is to show don’t tell. By showing we create imagery in the minds of readers, which is what Pulitzer means by picturesque. When readers are transfixed by the imagery of what they read, writing becomes more than communication, it’s elevated to an art form.

In the spirit of show-don’t-tell let’s take an example of picturesque writing from this New York Times lead crafted by reporter Michael Wilson.

Roughly 19 out of 20 officers in the New York City Police Department carry the semiautomatic pistols that have been standard issue for 11 years, a boxy handful of steel and polymer as clean and smooth as many of their young faces.

This story is not about them. It’s about the 1 in 20, and the old, heavy piece parked on that officer’s hip like a jalopy at the top of the driveway.

It’s almost impossible to read this lead without Wilson’s vivid imagery splashing color through one’s mind.

It’s a beautiful and poignant example of the picturesque writing Joseph Pulitzer advocated so many decades ago. And Pulitzer’s accurate, brief, clear and picturesque advice has more than survived the test of time.