The Whistle-Blower Knows How to Write
His complaint offers lessons on how to make a point.
By Jane Rosenzweig
Ms. Rosenzweig is the director of the Writing Center at Harvard.
27 September 2019
The New York Times.
I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to his blockbuster complaint about the president’s behavior, but I can tell you that the whistle-blower’s college writing instructor would be very proud of him.
As a writing instructor myself for 20 years, I look at the complaint and see a model of clear writing that offers important lessons for aspiring writers. Here are a few:
The whistle-blower gets right to the point.
We know right away what his purpose is and why we should care. He wastes no time on background or pleasantries before stating that he is writing to report “an ‘urgent’ concern.” And then he immediately states it:
“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
The whistle-blower uses subheadings to make sure we can connect the dots.
Most subheadings don’t do much to enhance a document. The whistle-blower’s subheadings do what the best subheadings do: They structure the complaint and provide a clear outline of what the document contains:
I. The 25 July Presidential phone call
II. Efforts to restrict access to records related to the call
III. Ongoing concerns
IV. Circumstances leading up to the 25 July Presidential phone call
The bonus of good subheadings is that they serve as a guide for writing the rest of the document. Even if you’re writing something less formal, you can use subheadings to organize your document and then remove them before you share it.
The whistle-blower gets an A for his topic sentences.
Strong persuasive or expository writing features topic sentences that tell the reader what to focus on. You can see the benefit of a good topic sentence in this paragraph from the complaint:
“Multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call informed me that, after an initial exchange of pleasantries, the president used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests….”
With that first sentence, we know that this is going to be a paragraph about how the president used the phone call. And indeed, the sentences that follow flesh out that picture.
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