Sunday, April 19, 2015

How not to write badly (1)

Writing well is a skill that can only be acquired by working hard at it. You cannot overnight become a good writer. But you can quite easily avoid being a bad writer by following simple rules. I'm going to write a few posts in which I set out some of those rules. I won't be schematic: I'm just going to post whatever occurs to me as I go along. Mostly they can be summed up as: write short sentences, write simply, write tight, use common words, aim to replicate the flow of speech.

Of course, most rules are there to be broken and there are times and places for not doing what I suggest. But you need to know what the rules are to know when you can safely break them.

At the end of each post, I'll give a few words and phrases to avoid and give better choices.

1. Use verbs not nouns

Possibly the quickest way to improve writing is to understand that nouns are your enemy. Everyone knows you shouldn't use adjectives much but most people are unaware that it's nouns that clutter your sentences.

Look at the following:

They made a joint effort in the establishment of a team.

Yuk. In this sentence your meaning swims away from you in a morass of nouns. There are four. You needed to write: "They came together to build a team." Just two nouns (we are counting pronouns as nouns).

"Made a joint effort" feels more formal to the novice writer than "came together" (or simply "joined") but the aim of formal writing is not to feel formal. You don't seem cleverer when you are harder to understand. You convey your knowledge by leaving the reader in no doubt about what you're saying.

Verbs such as "do", "make", "grow", "build", "take" are your friends. They are short words that convey solid meaning. You don't need to "implement" things. You can just "do" them. You don't need to "formulate" things. You can "make" them. And so on. Notice that I substituted "build" for "establish" in this sentence. Where possible, this is what you should do. Use the commoner, simpler word.

Try this:

We began the implementation of a strategy to diversify our products.

Write instead:

We began diversifying our products.

Or this:

The lessons we abstracted from the process of the interviewing of the study participants facilitated our understanding of the differentials in their processing of social situations.

OMG: What we learned from interviewing study participants helped us understand how they saw social situations differently.

"The --- of" is your enemy. Eradicate it. At worst use the verbal noun instead. "The interviewing of" is just "interviewing".

Worse still:

They were engaged in the building of understandings of personal dynamics.

Which means:

They built an understanding of how people worked together.

I often sub real estate pieces and the journos love to say a house "is located in close proximity to a park". They mean to say "is right next to a park". Note another error in the journos' rendering, which you should avoid. "Is located", "is situated", these say no more than "is". People like these quasi-passive constructions but they are clumsy (and they break the rule to "write tight", which I'll refer to later). Similarly, "we found ourselves unable to" is an egregious rendering of "we couldn't". If you find yourself tempted by complex verb phrases, resist the temptation and stick to the simple verb.

Words to avoid

enhance -- it's probably a losing battle to fight against the encroachment of "enhance" on "increase", "improve", "better" but I still think it's worth fighting. "Enhance" means "improve or increase the quality of". You enhance flavour in food with salt. You enhance pain by rubbing salt in a wound. If you mean "increase", write "increase". If you mean "improve", write "improve".

"I enhanced my understanding of French by learning vocabulary"? Nope. You just "grew" it.

foster -- you can nearly always replace "foster" with "grow" or "encourage", sometimes spread. It's become a vogue word in quasi-academic writing but you look like an idiot if you use it.

on a regular basis -- if you find yourself writing the word "basis" with any kind of adjective, you've made a mistake. "On a regular basis" means "regularly". "On a daily basis" means "daily". The same goes for "fashion", which you should nearly always restrict to clothes, and "manner", which you probably could live without ever writing at all. For some reason people think using adverbial phrases is more elegant than using adverbs but they're wrong. You can nearly always use the corresponding word ending in "-ly". "In a different fashion" is "differently". "In a hopeful manner" is "hopefully". Yes, I do know that "he did it timely" feels awkward to you and you want to write "in a timely fashion". But don't. You'll get used to it.

as when you mean because -- "as" means "at the same time as" (and if you find yourself writing "at the same time as", you probably want "as"!). It's often used to mean "because" but avoid that usage if you can. It can create ambiguity that is easily avoided. "He handed them sweets as he liked them" says "he handed them sweets while liking them", when what you meant was that his liking them was the cause of handing them sweets. "He left as he was hungry" does not say hunger made him leave. It just says he was hungry as he was leaving. Learn to love "because" for causes. Also, while we're on the subject, learn to love "because of" too. "Due to" has a fairly restricted meaning. I won't get into it here because all you need to know is that if you just wrote "due to" you probably meant "because of". You might have meant "owing to" but I think that distinction has pretty much died and isn't worth fighting over.


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