Spotlight

Columnist Advice: Writing Tips for Superintendents

Superintendents with long experience writing columns say the key is to keep it simple when the audience is the readership of the community newspaper.

William Cirone, county superintendent of Santa Barbara, Calif., says it helps him to keep in mind the styles of Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Reader’s Digest magazine. Moreover, he adds, “I try not to use any words you wouldn’t find in an 8th-grade dictionary.”

The point, Cirone says, is to discard the hats of researcher and lecturer and focus instead on clear communication through conversation.

“I stress the common-sense approach,” Cirone says. “I’m not trying to overpower people or to convince them my opinion is the right opinion or the only opinion. I’m simply trying to start a conversation about topics that are germane to what we’re doing.”

Getting Started
For those considering getting their hands dirty in printer’s ink, consider the following:

  • Write tight.
    Stay simple and focused, concentrate on getting your point across in four or five paragraphs, says Susan Dudley, superintendent in Edinburg, Ill., adding, “People read in short increments.”

Straightforward is the way to write, regardless of the nature of the piece or its topic. “I don’t take a very intense approach,” says Larry Clinefelter, superintendent in Conway, Mo. “Fifty percent of the article will be about a personal thing happening at home, and I’ll tie that into an issue.”

  • Avoid jargon.
    It helps Gary Burton, superintendent in Wayland, Mass., to keep in mind that most of his readers do not have children in school.

“I try not to use a lot of jargon and I use humor whenever possible,” he says. “I make it less lecturing and more personal and conversational.”

William Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland, Vt., Northeast Supervisory Union, sees himself as “a translator of research.” With two decades of writing behind him, he stresses that it has taken him “years to learn to write simple, simple, simple.” The key, he advises, is to steer clear of education jargon.

“I give statistics,” Mathis says, “but the style is centered on the heartstrings.”

  • Stay above the fray.
    For Burton, timing is everything. “I don’t wait until something happens and then the very next week write about it,” he says. “It’s not a rebuttal column. I try to stay above the fray.”

Clinefelter warns against self-promotion. “You’re walking a thin line if you ever use the word ‘I’ in an article, at least in terms of accomplishments,” he says. “You never want to write about yourself as having accomplished anything. It’s always, ‘We did it.’ ”

  • Don’t shortcut the editing.
    Meticulous with the language, Mathis on average will go through seven drafts before he is ready to submit an article.

“Make sure you write well and don’t have grammatical errors,” he says. “Make sure everything is proofread and critiqued well by good writers who clearly understand your message. I have two or three really good, trusted people who know writing, who can give me a really good, critical outside read. And that’s essential. An outside person is going to see things you don’t.”

  • Be open to feedback.
    Superintendents say they use their newspaper articles to open a two-way line of communication, offering at the end of their pieces a phone number and e-mail address. If the column deals with a controversial topic, be forewarned.

“People are likely to say mean and nasty things about you and write letters to the editor and quite frankly you better be prepared for that,” Mathis says. “But that’s the price of leadership. If you’re not making somebody mad, you’re probably not doing your job. Otherwise you’re just the status quo.”

  • Don’t overreach.
    Retired superintendent John Whritner has been writing for decades, but admits that it is not for everyone. “If it’s a struggle to do it, then don’t bother,” he says. “Or if you have a good PR person or someone else who can write, go that route, possibly as an interviewee. But I think it’s better if you can do it with the personal touch of the superintendency.”

It typically takes Clinefelter about an hour to 90 minutes to write a column and give it a quick edit to ensure it is reader-friendly. He cautions, however, that column writing isn’t a required exercise for every superintendent.

“Obviously, it needs to be someone who has a bit of a flair for it,” Clinefelter says. “My own experience from a place far, far away in a time long ago, when I tried to write as an elementary school principal, is that I was too professional. I came across with something even I didn’t want to read. I learned to keep it light, not too intense. From that point of view, the experience has been very successful.”

  • Learn more.
    For further suggestions on writing for a public audience, visit the website of the National Conference of Editorial Writers at www.ncew.org. The organization offers a publication titled “Beyond Argument: A Handbook for Editorial Writers.”

— Linda Chion Kenney