One thing you can do to improve your writing

One thing you can do to improve your writing

A few weeks before I started my long leave, I was walking past a coffee shop on my way to work and I had an overwhelming desire to go in and order scrambled eggs and a large flat white and just sit outside in the sunshine watching the world go by.

It seemed like a much better option that going into the office and facing a barrage of emails and work requests, and it was at that precise moment that I realised that I was really a bit over going to work.

Every Monday morning I would sit at my desk and feel slightly overwhelmed at the big “to do” list in front of me, especially since many of the tasks seemed to be the same things that I’d been doing for the last few years, with very little impact.

I started to realise that perhaps I was just going around in circles, preaching the same sermon about the need to simplify projects, systems and services to a mostly deaf audience.

No matter how many times I tried to say that we were making things too complicated, it seemed that there was a strong desire for wordy inaccessible documents and for reports so obscure and protracted that only the most enthusiastic reader would ever make it to the end.

Making things simple and understandable has been my whole life’s work and in reality, it’s been a failure. People like things to be complicated. It looks impressive. It makes you seem smart.

It’s bad for the community, but really, who cares? Apart from the community of course.

Recently, my friend Sue sent me a link to the new strategic plan for our local Council. She had bravely tried to read it (and make sense of it) and was despairing about the poor writing, overuse of trendy meaningless terms and general inaccessibility of the document. It was obvious that although the stated purpose of releasing the draft document was to encourage “community consultation” it was written in a way that clearly prevented this.

We had an interesting conversation about whether these documents are written with the intention of being deliberately obscure, or whether the tendency to write like this is driven by ignorance, or just people thinking that this is what you are supposed to do. A combination of one or all of these I suspect.

My friend highlighted the extensive use of ‘weasel words’ (words that people use when they are trying to avoid telling the truth) and also sent me a link to the awesome bullshit generator which I love for its awfulness.

The tool is designed to generate bullshit for your next meeting, proposal or interview with your boss. You press the button and out comes a stream of unintelligible, meaningless phrases that sound oh so impressive but mean absolutely nothing. What’s really alarming is that I’ve actually seen some of these phrases used quite recently.

I know that writing is hard for many people. The rules of grammar are sometimes confusing and inconsistent, and many people feel daunted by the prospect of writing long documents.

But there’s one thing that you can do to improve your writing straight away.

Don’t try to sound impressive, just try to be clear.

Don’t fuss about your writing style. Don’t try to sound smart. Just say what you want to say.

Often when people write very wordy documents, I ask them to tell me (out loud) what they are trying to say. Unsurprisingly, they are often able to articulate that very clearly. Then I say, just write that down. What you just said was clear and concise, so just say that. It’s easier than you think.

Three tips for clear writing

I don’t really like the term plain English. It reminds me of a plain girl or a plain biscuit, a bit dull and unimaginative and slightly boring. Clear writing on the other hand, can be descriptive, even whimsical but it must be understandable (and therefore clear).

The need to write clearly is more than just a hobbyhorse of mine. I think that we have a responsibility to write as clearly as we can. As Tim Phillips says in his book, Talk Normal.

‘If you’re in government, isn’t it your responsibility to make your language accessible to all the people who need to understand you?’

http://talknormal.co.uk/the-book/

Yes, yes and yes!

It just so happens that I do work for a government organisation and I agree 100% with this sentiment, however it can be hard to write clearly, especially about complex or serious topics.

It’s easy enough to write something simple and engaging about a new product or service – all you really need to do is write about what it can do to make your life better. Explaining the intricacies of a piece of legislation or writing a paper about a complex policy issue is much more difficult. This is where all the big words come into their own don’t they?

My friend Megan says that there are expensive words ($5000) and cheap words ($500) and that you should use the $500 words as much as possible. These are words that are short and to the point. These are not weasel words*. You should only use a $5000 word when no other word accurately conveys the point you are making.

But, I hear you cry… this is easy to say and hard to do. Well, yes and no. Here are a few pointers for you to think about when you are writing.

1. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR MESSAGE

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to be clear in your own mind about what you are trying to say. By this I mean that you should know exactly what the point is that you are trying to make and not be afraid to express it as simply and clearly as possible. I read a lot of documents where people just ramble on. It’s pretty obvious that they are trying to work out what their point as they write.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your thoughts on paper in order to find out what you really think; it just means that all those words don’t necessarily need to end up in the final version.

2. VARY YOUR SENTENCE LENGTH

Secondly, you should try to vary your sentence length. It makes your writing easier to read if you use both long and short sentences. A lot of writing is unclear because the sentences run on and on forever. Keep some of them short. Yes, really short.

You should try to keep to one idea per sentence. Long dense sentences always lead to fuzzy writing.

3. THINK ABOUT YOUR READER

Thirdly, always think about your audience. Do they know what that acronym stands for? It can be terribly confusing for people when you use terms they aren’t familiar with. Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence by using language they don’t understand. Of course if you are writing for an audience of technical experts, feel free to talk the talk. They won’t mind. Just be very careful that you don’t alienate your readers by using jargon.

Are there any writing problems that you face that you would like to discuss? For example, do you need to give other people feedback on their writing and don’t know how to go about this?

I’d love to hear from you.

An image to illustrate weasel words on Wikiped...

* ‘Weasel words’ is the title of a book by Don Watson and refers to words and phrases that are over used in the corporate world and essentially meaningless (for example: innovative approach, optimisation, going forward). See http://www.weaselwords.com.au