Good writing is functional writing. Whether you are writing something for publication, such as a book or an article, or something for internal use such as a report or a letter, the principles of writing remain the same: clarity, conciseness and style.
The purpose of writing is to convey to another what is in the writer’s mind. ‘Good writing’ therefore, is writing which does this effectively. Every organisation needs to encourage good writing for the following three reasons: it is efficient, economical and finally, good writing gives a favourable impression of the organisation.
In most organisations, writers rarely decide what the organisation writes or prints for the public. Nowadays, many if not most documents are drafted on personal computers by a group of different writers. Drafts may be passed to one another by email, whereas formerly it was usual to send a handwritten text to a typist and then circulate the typed version. If each person involved writes according to the three principles, everybody’s job is made easier.
It is obvious that the most effective way of conveying one’s meaning to someone is to write clearly, but clear writing requires time and care. Lack of clarity can waste your time, as well as other people’s.
Before you start writing you should spend some time considering precisely what you want to say. Be sure about what sort of document you are preparing. Replying to someone’s letter is very different from writing a press release. Those who receive the letter or documents require clear and direct answers regarding what they first requested. Similarly, it is important to be sure whom you are targeting through your language and style. Be clear about who you are and what your role is. Responsibility towards an organisation includes caring about the impression you give to other people.
Once you are clear about what you are required to produce, reduce your thoughts to a few words. This helps to clarify what you want to say. If the document is to be long it is a good idea to outline a logical structure in headings. An example is this article you are reading. Once you have organised the structure, it may help to summarise what you want to say at each stage of the discussion under the headings.
Choosing the best words
Clear writing has a lot to do with choosing the right words and expressions that convey your meaning directly. It is often possible to choose between alternative words which mean the same thing. For example; love, commitment, passion, tenderness, affection, etc. The word you choose depends on which is clearer. Generally speaking, shorter words are clearer and stronger than long words.
Choosing the correct words
Using the right words means using not only the clearest ones but also those that are correct in sense and form. Writers often forget the differences between words which overlap and occasionally can be interchanged but still have different meanings. For example, the words convince and persuade, can be interchanged. But when used for the correct meanings it is also good sense to say: You have convinced me (that you are right), but you have not persuaded me (to do what you want).
Some books urge writers to avoid the passive voice, to use the active voice whenever possible. However, there may be times where you cannot avoid the passive voice. So a good writer will always think carefully about which is best. But note that is it often possible to avoid the passive by using the second person (you) instead of an impersonal passive.
Positive versus negative
In general, writers should choose positive expressions rather than negative ones, if there is a choice. Negative expressions sound defensive in comparison with positive statements (which in turn will more likely get best results).
String of nouns
One useful characteristic of English is that you can string nouns together to make new phrases: wheelbarrow, toothbrush, clock radio, CD player and so on. But writers should be careful as if this is overdone, the effect can be clumsy and tedious.
Standard expressions / Jargon
In an organisation, it is often convenient to use expressions everyone understands. But those outside your organisation may not be familiar with these terms. A writer needs to be aware of who they are writing to and whether such expressions will be helpful or confusing. Even worse is the use of other people’s technical language. When using jargon, it may seem to readers that the author is trying to impress them with her/his superior knowledge, obscuring the meaning.
Clichés and Slang
Clichés are overused expressions that have lost their freshness. All of these should be avoided in ‘good writing’. Slang and colloquialisms belong to speech or to light literature. They should be avoided in other forms of writing. Colloquial forms such as can’t and won’t sit awkwardly in formal writing.
Euphemisms, i.e. words that make things sound better than they really are, may have a place in rhetoric but should generally be avoided. They seem harmless enough but those that hide the truth can be dangerous – for example, the word ‘pacification’ used in wars by authorities to conceal the reality of mass killing.
Foreign words and phrases
The use of foreign words and phrases often seems pretentious, especially if there is an English equivalent. Some commonly used words and phrases are: de rigueur, sine die, noblesse oblige, joie de vivre
Vogue words and phrases
Official writing is often characterised by the use of a special set of words or phrases that happen to be in vogue at the same time. A writer may want to show he is up with the latest fashion, or impress the reader with high-flown language. But vogue words and phrases make the sentence simply vague or at worst obscure. One commonly used vogue word is the verb ‘to address’. This doesn’t commit the subject to any kind of action, therefore says virtually nothing.
A sentence is clearest when it makes a single statement. To refer to other matters, or to qualify a statement, it is best to use a separate sentence or footnote. Where a sentence has to list things, it is best set out in point form. It is no longer fashionable to write long, involved sentences. It is better to make a long sentence clearer by breaking it up.
Some points of grammar
Sentences must be grammatically correct. Participles, for instance, are often misused. When a participle is used as an adjective it refers to the subject of the main verb. Adjectives can be misused. They should not be used as adverbs. Adverbs used wrongly require lengthy sentences to justify the use of the word. Many New Zealanders have never been taught to use grammar. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the key to clear writing.
Long-windedness tires the reader and makes it more difficult to get your message across. Writers will find that condensing their thoughts will result in more effective communication. Clarity and conciseness go hand in hand: the clearest words, expressions and sentences often prove to be the shortest.
Draw attention to important items by:
• bold type
• box it
The great enemy of conciseness is rambling. Sentences that go on too long leave the reader wondering what you are trying to say. A mixture of long and short sentences adds variety and makes your text more readable.
The word ‘style’ is commonly used to refer to two different, but overlapping, aspects of writing.
• ‘Style of writing’ refers to the words an author chooses and the way in which he or she puts them together in paragraphs or sentences to create a tone or impression.
• ‘Written style’ refers to the set of conventions used in print to make the meaning clear. These include spelling, punctuation marks, spacing, symbols, underlining and many other conventions.
Style of writing
In organisations, it is generally undesirable for writers to have a personal style or writing that is distinctive. However, that doesn’t mean writers should retreat into a stuffy, official style of writing, that gives the reader an unfavourable impression of the organisation. The question of style will largely solve itself if you are careful about clarity and conciseness. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask whether what you are writing is the sort of thing you would want to read if the roles were reversed.
The following paragraphs provide further hints on how to produce a good style of writing.
• Address the reader rather than using impersonal constructions. This can be achieved by using the word ‘if’.
• Use figures of speech sparingly, especially if they border on the cliché. Most current fads should be totally shunned. However, your style will not suffer from the occasional use of familiar figures of speech if they convey vividly what you want to say.
• Avoid words, phrases and constructions which may make your reader pause to puzzle over your meaning, such as:
• Vague statements
• Unnecessary technicalities
Technical expressions should be used only in a technical context.
• Unusual words; your vocabulary does not need to be deliberately limited but neither should your readers have to reach constantly for a dictionary.
• Mixed metaphors: don’t let metaphors or similes make your writing seems absurd.
• Pompous wording: do not try and impress your reader with a pompous style of writing when ordinary words would do perfectly well.
• Incongruities: styles should be as consistent as possible. Mixing colloquial expressions with factual or technical creates an incongruous effect.
• Tautologies: words which repeat an idea without adding anything new to the sentences.
• Redundancies: words which are not needed to aid the sense of the sentence.
Correct spelling is essential, if only because spelling mistakes give a bad impression of the organisation which produces them. Use a spellchecker. The advantage of spellcheck is that it will pick up typing errors and words which you may unknowingly have spelled incorrectly.
Punctuation and other marks and signs such as quotation marks and dashes etc are conventions which attempt to convey what in speech would be conveyed by emphasis and body language. Sometimes conventions change so, regardless of the preferred convention in your organisation, what matters is to be consistent and to adhere to the convention wherever possible.
Revising the draft
Checking what you have written is an important part of responsible writing. Here are some problems to look out for:
• lack of logic or continuity
• rambling sentences or structure
• unduly long paragraphs, sentences or words
• clichés, jargon, ambiguous expressions
• incorrect grammar or punctuation and spelling
• unnecessary repetition
• tautologies and redundancies
• a monotonous style resulting from the use of too many sentences of the same length or structure.
It is wise to get someone else to read your draft. Feedback will give you the opportunity to improve your text.