Writing advice from the late Joan Duffy
(In spring 2012, the late Joan Duffy of the UALR Office of Communications explained her position as the university’s senior writer and gave advice on writing for work in a candid interview. She was a spunky woman with a love of writing. Duffy died Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 of complications from cancer. She was 61.)
When you get a group of journalists together you often hear about the ones who found themselves at a cross roads, continuing in the news industry or pursuing more stability and money, eventually choosing what is referred to as the “dark side” — public relations.
In spite of the fact that Joan Duffy, senior writer in the Office of Communications at UALR, had her office decked with memories of her days covering the legislature, complete with a picture of her and then Gov. Bill Clinton, she didn’t see her choice to leave the newspaper industry after more than 20 years that way. It was more like she had come full circle from what she did as a journalism major working for the student newspaper at the University of Houston.
Duffy did what you might suspect a senior writer would do. She wrote. Most of her time was spent in her office sitting in front of a computer where her days were consumed with finding stories, emailing sources and writing on a demanding schedule, often tackling several stories a day.
Her stories were circulated as news/press releases, then repurposed for the University’s website, newsletter and promotion on social networking feeds such as Twitter and Facebook.
Other writing assignments she worked on included special projects like writing profiles on Faculty Excellence Awards candidates, commencement and other speeches, although she had done less of that lately because the chancellor had gotten his own writer, and coming up with advertising tag lines. But all of her tasks involved writing of some kind.
Faculty and staff from various departments on campus would email Duffy stories or suggest ideas. Two major writing problems she said she ran into regularly were the use of passive voice and vital facts completely left out.
“Anyone writing anything needs to have an active voice,” Duffy said. One way to try to overcome a passive voice problem she suggested is reading the text out loud and trying to write for the ear rather than the eye.
Active writing that pops is especially important when writing for new media, she said, because “it is more alive.”
Writing for the Web or social media was nothing new for Duffy. “It’s the same damn thing as writing for broadcast,” she said. Simply meaning using present tense rather than print journalism’s preference for past tense.
Duffy liked the fact that her phone rarely rang, as most people choose to communicate by email now. She said it saved her time by allowing her to cut and paste quotes and it helped her, as a self-professed disorganized person, to keep track of stories and at the very least not have them disappear in a pile of clutter.
However, the one draw back to using email to communicate, she said, was people would leave out vital facts like where someone is from or their major. When she had to write back to chase down the facts it took time for people to get back to her, whereas in the past when she interviewed someone on the phone or in person she could ask those questions and follow up immediately.
It was her job to aid in the recruitment and retention efforts of the University by promoting individuals, where they come from and what they accomplish. So, when people left out those vital pieces of information it disconnected from that mission.
Effective communication is vital, she said, and ineffective writing leads to confusion.
“A lot of times people will read over what they have written and they don’t even see how the way they are writing muddles up what they are trying to convey,” Duffy said.
To communicate effectively, Duffy said, a writer must be clear, precise and simple.
“The simpler the better, I don’t care if you have a Ph.D. or you work as a janitor. Be precise. Be clear. Simple is better and I think it has more impact,” Duffy said.
Sometimes it took a lot of effort for her to get people to explain why they were doing something or why it was important – the heart of any story. But she always worked to break through the jargon and write for the average reader.
It was not hard for her to come up with something to write about, especially with so much going on at the University. But if she had the time she said she would have liked to do more investigating to find interesting features.
Writing humdrum stories didn’t bother her because it was easy work. She could write a good eight-inch story if she could get three questions answered, she said. But what she really enjoyed was getting “deep in a story that sings.”
For a senior writer at UALR, of course days were filled with juggling writing assignments of all kinds on tight deadlines, dealing with the problems of passive voice and missing information, and even trying to make sense of some academic writers who, she said, “are enamored with their ability to use big words.” But for Duffy it was worth it to have a job that was a reminder of her youth and college days. Every day was something different, and that is what, she said, made it interesting. Best of all, she got to do what she loved – write.