Writing well

I’m currently managing a real live communications team. It’s been a great experience to work with people who care about communicating and in particular, care about writing.

For many people, writing well is not important. Most people don’t view the ability to write well as critical to their career path. They regard writing as something that everyone can do. If you can speak, you can write – right? I don’t think this is true. Good writing is required in every profession.

I come across some very poor writing every day and sometimes my own writing is less than perfect, especially if I’m tired or stressed or in a hurry. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words and put them in the right order. I would never claim that writing is easy, but I am grateful that for me, writing isn’t scary. I know this isn’t true for other people. For them the blank page can be terrifying and being asked to write a report can be overwhelming.

One piece of advice that I always give people is that you should write with the expectation that you will need to revise. Don’t ever expect that your first draft will be perfect. Good writers are good editors. They change, polish and review their work. They know that getting the words down on the page is the hard part, editing and revising is easy once you’ve made a start.

Another tip is to stop thinking that your ideas have to be fully formed before you put them down on paper. Writing is a process of thinking and learning and you don’t need to know exactly what you are trying to say when you write your first draft. You can be ruthless later. And make sure you are, because no-one wants to read your waffle.

The saddest part about managing a team of good writers is that their skills aren’t necessarily recognised by other people in the business. We are frequently asked to publish material that is poorly written or confusing. It’s very frustrating to go back to clients with an offer to improve what they’ve written and be told that they don’t want it changed. They think that we merely want things to be shorter, when we really want them to be clearer.

Good writing isn’t necessarily simple (or simplistic). Good writing is concise, lucid, nuanced and compelling.

 

Don’t be a grammar snob

Grammar policeEvery time I write about language or grammar I worry that people will think that I’m a grammar snob. You know, one of those nasty mean people who delight in pointing other people’s writing errors and mistakes.

I often correct errors in other peoples’ writing, but not because I’m trying to prove a point or to show that I’m somehow superior.

I do it because it’s part of my job and I like to think that I’m being helpful. But am I?

This is a question that troubles me greatly and I know there are times when it doesn’t matter and that I should just restrain myself. My husband is still annoyed about the time that he wrote a poem for me and I corrected the spelling. How awful of me.

People will judge you

I think it does matter when you are writing documents at work because it reduces your credibility if your documents are littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s really just a case of looking as if you don’t care.

I’m fully aware that everyone makes errors when they are rushed or tired. I do it all the time and don’t expect to be humiliated or hauled over the coals for this. I’ve probably made an error somewhere in this post. I usually do…

I try hard never to be cruel or unkind when I’m reviewing documents. Most people are doing their best and want a bit of support, but I also don’t think it’s helpful to let obvious grammatical errors slip by. I figure that if people are asking for help with their writing then they really do want to learn.

I try not to be a grammar snob

I prefer to think of myself as a word nerd – a person who likes words and language in all its forms.

I don’t know that much about grammar actually. I often can’t remember what the parts of speech are called (subject, verb, object, adjective, adverb etc.) although I was pretty pleased with myself this morning when my husband asked me what the word ‘the’ was called and I knew it was a definite article. Actually, I was just guessing, but it turned out I was right. It’s the only definite article in the English language so it’s not that hard to remember.

My mother taught me everything I know

Most of what I know comes from having a mother who insisted that we spoke properly when we were growing up and this has been very helpful over the years. If I’m not sure about something, I just go with my gut feelings and this has been a pretty good policy. Keep in mind that there are also some situations where you can be technically correct according to the rules of grammar, but you will sound like a complete weirdo, so I suggest that you try and stick with the most common usage. Only a grammar snob will pick you up and quite frankly they should find something better to do with their time.

I’d be interested to know if there are aspects of writing that you find particularly challenging?

Being concise is hard work

At my workplace we have a new trend which involves conveying entire concepts and strategies on a single page. This has evolved from the various ‘plan on a page’ and infographic documents that have become commonplace over the past couple of years.

The documents vary in quality. Some look good but are essentially meaningless, and some are ugly but give a fantastic overview of a complex project or proposal. When they are both well-designed and easy to understand, magic happens.

Even though I have a tendency to be super-critical about most of these documents, I am truly excited to see that my colleagues are really knuckling down and have a really hard think about what it is that they are trying to say and how they can best convey their ideas. I saw a fantastic example today which explained (in one page) the contents of two and half folders of information. It was an awesome piece of work and a credit to the author.

It reminded me of the joke about being concise which goes…

I could have made this shorter if I’d had more time.

Being concise forces you to clarify your ideas in way that just doesn’t happen when you have the freedom to write a long document. I’m not against long documents per se, but they can often lead to fluffy writing. Short documents impose discipline. You have to get your ideas in order and provide just the right amount of context for the reader.

This can be really hard work, but it’s worth it.

Cole Nussbaumer has this to say about being concise in her latest post.

There might be a lot you want to say about a given topic, but if you can’t condense it crisply and clearly in a way that can be understood and remembered by your audience, you’ve not positioned yourself for success.

I think this is good advice. Check out the complete post.

Hopelessly addicted to grammar

As a follow-up to my last post about ditching my accountant on the basis of poor punctuation, I’d like to share an amusing post from the Grammarly Blog which will appeal to a lot of my friends (and family) who love language and who champion the proper use of grammar.

I freely admit that I am one of those people who likes to point out the mistakes of newsreaders and radio announcers to anyone within earshot and I fully appreciate that it can be very annoying. It’s nearly as irritating as me correcting the spelling on my husband’s shopping list.

However, those of you who do share my passion and interest in grammar will really appreciate the Grammarly blog. Think about signing up for their weekly newsletter, it’s fun and informative and a great way to learn.

Another great blogger and podcaster is Mignon Fogarty, also known as Grammar Girl. Grammar girl posts short articles on various aspects of grammar and punctuation. Here she is doing a TED talk on why language changes.

Where does this love of language come from?

I’ve had a lot of discussions with my sisters over the years about where our love of language comes from and we all agree that we should thank our mother. Although she left school at a fairly young age, both she and my grandmother were great readers and they passed this on to all the children in the family. We all think it’s normal to visit the library at least once a fortnight and come home with an armful of books. I get slightly anxious when the pile of unread books on my bedside table dwindles to less than two.

This doesn’t explain why we are passionate about grammar in particular. Many avid readers don’t know or care about proper sentence construction and modern writers are much less concerned about the rules of grammar. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell you much about the rules of grammar either. Most of what I know has been learnt by being constantly corrected (thanks Mum) when I was a child. This is the way all the children in my family learnt that it wasn’t okay to say “I been to the shops”.

Good grammar = clear communication

I think that grammar does matter and I’d like to borrow these words from the author William Bradshaw to explain why.

Grammar, regardless of the country or the language, is the foundation for communication — the better the grammar, the clearer the message, the more likelihood of understanding the message’s intent and meaning. That is what communication is all about.

I couldn’t agree more.

 

How to make your short report more interesting

stephanie everygreenToday I thought I’d share this blog post from Stephanie Evergreen. She has a business (and a great blog) where she teaches people how to display information in meaningful ways.

This particular post is about short reports. We develop a lot of these at my workplace and we try to make them as interesting as possible, but I’m not sure that they always hit the mark.

Check out Stephanie’s advice and see what you think.

 

Using plain English

I have lots of conversations with people at work about using plain English. It seems as though everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but people are less sure how to go about it, and even more importantly, how to get other people to use plain English instead of ‘government speak’. I work in a government organisation, so we see plenty of examples of long wordy documents filled with jargon and buzzwords.

It’s worthwhile thinking about why people don’t use plain English. Apart from people wanting to hide their true purpose, many people think that they need to write in a stuffy convoluted way in order to sound ‘professional’. This is far from true. Being professional is about being clear and writing clearly can be hard work.

As Woody Guthrie said… “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make something simple.”

So next time you start writing something, think about how you make yourself as clear as possible. If you’re writing an important document or email, get someone else to read it before you send it. Be open to feedback about how you can improve your writing and practice as much as you can.

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How to write a sentence

I’ve just been reading a fantastic book by Stanley Fish called How to write a sentence and how to read one. At the start of the book he describes the way words ‘slide into their pre-ordained slots’ in a well constructed sentence. I think this is an accurate description of the writing process. I’m sure that you’ve experienced writing a sentence, hitting the delete button and re-writing the sentence repeatedly until it feels just right. Not only do you need to hunt for the perfect word, you need to arrange the words in the perfect order and this is often a matter of trial and error.

Good writing is not just about choosing the right words, the relationship between the words also matters. This is called syntax. Where grammar is concerned with rules, syntax is about how words and phrases are arranged in a well formed sentenced.

Striving for well formed sentences can be hard work, so where do you start?

First of all, you need to accept that you will need to edit your work. (As a case in point, that sentence started off as ‘first of all, you need to accept that you will probably need to write and re-write every sentence numerous times’).

Secondly, remove any fluffy parts of the sentences that don’t really add anything of value. For example, I originally started this post by talking about how much I like reading, but I deleted it because it was irrelevant. (Also, it’s quite obvious that I like reading or I wouldn’t talk about it quite so much!)

Thirdly, use active voice. This is much less complicated than it sounds. You just need to get the subject in your sentence (usually a person or thing) to do something, rather than having something done to them (that’s why its called passive voice).

Here’s an example…

Passive: The ball was thrown by Ben.

Active: Ben threw the ball.

And another one…

Passive: The activity needs to be completed by all staff in the organisation.

Active: Everyone needs to complete this activity.

Or even better: You need to complete this activity.

So there you have it, it’s as simple as one, two, three.

Wan’t to chime in with your opinion? Feel free!

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