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The whistleblower knows how to write

His complaint offers lessons on how to make a point

Jane Rosenzweig | NYT 


I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to his blockbuster complaint about the president’s behaviour, 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 US 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 US 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:

  • The 25 July Presidential phone call
  • Efforts to restrict access to records related to the call
  • Ongoing concerns
  • 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 organise 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.

The whistle-blower uses active verbs. Among other revelations in the complaint, we learn that “the president also praised Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko” and that “senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call.”

Contrast that with versions of those sentences that he could have written, which might read like this: “Ukraine’s Prosecutor General was praised” or “all records of the phone call were locked down.”

Passive constructions leave us hanging about who did what, which can be useful if you’re trying to deflect responsibility for something. But if you want to keep your reader focused on who is accountable for what, tell them by making sure your sentences feature real people performing actions.

Every semester, I encounter students who tell me variously that they hate writing, that they’d rather not write, that for the careers they aspire to they won’t need to write. I explain that no matter what careers they choose, they will have to write — reports, strategic plans, proposals and, if nothing else, many, many emails.

But I also tell them that learning to write matters because some day they may have something to say that really matters to them and possibly to the world — and they will want to convey it when the moment arrives in writing that’s clear and concise.

May they never have to blow the whistle. But in case they do, by studying the whistle-blower’s complaint, they’ll be a bit more prepared to write their own.

Jane Rosenzweig is the director of the Writing Center at Harvard

© 2019 The New York Times

First Published: Sat, September 28 2019. 01:08 IST