Good Practice in Writing

This post is aimed at people who write as part of their jobs; newsletters, reports, articles or blog posts, for example. Though not part of this blog’s usual mission, I think it deserves a public airing. It was co-authored for a private forum with colleagues at the Higher Education Academy.

What are the dangers of neglecting good practice?

  • Wrong tribe. Some academic audiences are turned off by the languages of business or of educational research. They want to be spoken to in their own tribe’s language.
  • Wrong tone. A piece of advice is taken as an order. A quick to-the-point message is taken as impolite.
  • Too long. Readers decide it’s not worth the effort.
  • Point not clear. Readers don’t complete the message because the title and first sentence don’t establish a relevance to them.
  • Too idiomatic. International readers may have difficulty unless the language is simplified.

What specific actions improve your text?

  • Rinse and repeat. Be prepared to rewrite and re-read multiple times.
  • Don’t be precious. Just because you’ve been working all day on a piece of text doesn’t mean it’s as good as it can be. Seek and take advice.
  • Read it out loud. If it’s hard to phrase naturally, then it’s probably hard to understand.
  • Get a fresh pair of eyes. Someone who knows very little about your work is a useful proofreader.
  • Subtraction method. This was recently described on a TV programme about script-writing. Remove one word at a time and ask if the meaning is changed.
  • Cut out any words which serve no purpose. I mean, eschew excess verbiage. No, I mean economise.
  • Prefer sentences to clauses. You sometimes get “You should do A, this is important; it will prepare you for B.” Those should be three separate sentences.
  • Precis at every level. The first paragraph of an article should be a summary of the whole article. The first sentence of a paragraph should state the idea of that paragraph (in as far as this rule doesn’t straightjacket your text).
  • Adopt a style guide. This needn’t constrain what you say but brings consistency and professionalism to a big project, especially when there are multiple authors.
  • Make things easy for the reader. You might have a captive audience because people have to read your output for their jobs. You can still avoid making it hard work for them.
  • Think in terms of questions. Does your text answer the questions of What, When, Where, Who, Why, and How?

How can we improve our writing skills?

When you start telling yourself, “It’s just not possible to make this message any more clear and succinct than I have it here,” that’s probably not the case. Challenge your own habits and assumptions and you may well find a better phrasing. There are a number of exercises to cultivate the habit of critiquing your own text at a very fine level. Since these are fun, you can do them outside work.

Constrained writing

See how you write within a particular rule, such as a rhyme scheme.

  • Express an idea in Haiku. This is seventeen syllables, arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern. E.g.

Twice five syllables
Plus seven, can’t say much but
That’s haiku for you

  • Words of one syllable. See Douglas Hofstadter’s explanation of the Theory of Relativity in monosyllabic English.
  • Forbidden letters (lipograms). Some writers try to avoid a particular vowel as an exercise. Entire books have been written in e-less English or other languages (Gadsby, La Disparition, A Void). As an exercise, try writing a sentence or two of your job description in e-less English. You might think that’s impossible since your job is in educational development, but work at it. “If an institution in my locality wants to train its staff, I am its first point of contact. Book a slot in my diary, and I turn up with support and information.”
  • The Annals of Improbable Research have challenged many scientific figures to sum up their research in seven words. Responses included the memorable, “If it can get infected, it’s Biology.”
  • Pick six words and try to assemble a sentence using all of them

Find and read good, clear text. Stephen Pinker and some of the other great science popularisers present very complex ideas to a lay audience in an admirably clear way, yet have a distinctive personal voice. Tolkein’s and Rowling’s baroque grammar gives a lot of pleasure to readers, but it’s the opposite of how we should be writing to convey factual information or action points clearly.

Read or write pastiche. Humour publications like Private Eye or The Onion stretch styles of language (such as advertising or news reporting) beyond their normal use. Try writing as though you were doing an editorial for the Daily Mail, or the opening crawl text for a Star Wars film.

Look into Plain English. We felt that the campaigns can sometimes be overzealous and work against clarity. Use your own judgement.

Leisure reading versus studying

The key distinction isn’t print versus online. Important online text is often printed out. Magazines and brochures share a lot of presentation features with web sites.

In magazine and web context, avoid the wall of text.

  • Shorten sentences. Sentence length plays a large part in readability.
  • Use pull-quotes or photos to break up text.
  • Don’t fully justify– a varying right contour will help eye movements.
  • Vary font weight. Frequent use of bold text in a printed book would look mad, but it helps someone scanning a web page.
  • One idea per paragraph. This simple rule adds a lot to readability.
  • Avoid “click here”. Write web text that makes sense when printed out.
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  1. #1 by nickskelton on January 28, 2009 - 2:47 pm

    This is very useful advice which I shall try to take on board. An education in science taught me to write in the passive voice. I’m still trying to unlearn that and write more directly for a general audience.

    I’ve added a few more thoughts about writing on my own blog:http://ideasandohdears.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-to-write.html. My top tip which I’ll share here: try writing something in printed form or to a very strict word count – it forces you to be concise.

    A thought for discussion: sometimes I don’t write something as I’m too worried that it will be misunderstood, or I haven’t got the time to rewrite it carefully. Is that a missed opportunity? Should I just write anyway and fix afterwards, or only release when every word is honed?

  1. Improbable Research » Blog Archive » Relativity, in simple words

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