Monday, April 20, 2015

How not to write badly (3)

3. Write tight

Most of what I have to tell you is covered by this commandment. Be concise and avoid redundancy. As a writer, your task is to convey your meaning in as few words as possible. Less is most definitely more.

Of course you already know that you should not write "in order to" (just "to" or sometimes "so that") or "prior to" ("before") but do you get tempted into deploying "with the intention of" ("meaning to") or "having made an agreement to" ("having agreed to")?

And do you think a "collaborative partnership" is different from a "partnership"? It isn't. "Partnerships" are for collaboration in one way or another. Take care not to use combinations of words that one of the words imply. "Joint meetings" are "meetings", "team meetings" are also "meetings" unless you also have "personal meetings" but context is usually enough to clarify which type of meeting you refer to. Don't write "could potentially". "Could" implies "potentially". Don't write "ended finally".

If you write "some people consider that", you may as well have put "some think". "It is the intention of those people with different ideologies to introduce their strategies to change the world in particular ways" is the same as "People with different ideologies want things their own way". Results are always "end results" and if you just wrote a sentence with "process" or "situation" anywhere in it, you shouldn't have.

Words must do work. When you reread your writing, you should be able to justify every word in it. If you can't, rid yourself of the passengers. This isn't necessarily easy. If you knew the most succinct way to put what you wanted to say in the first place, you wouldn't have written that garbled mess. But you can help yourself by following a simple process. For each sentence, ask who did it and what they did, and express that in the simplest way you can, as though you were explaining it to a child.

You'll then find that instead of writing:

The collaborative effort of the team led to a strategy to complete the eradication of excessive meetings.

you write:

The team found ways to cut meetings.

or even:

The team cut meetings.

You can also help yourself by asking whether you have too many clauses and whether you could instead have written more sentences. The rule is to have one thought for each sentence, which can be equally well understood as one verb for each sentence. At base, a sentence includes someone or something who does something, what it does and who or what it is done to. Sometimes there's an adverb or adverbial phrase that you can't live without because it situates the action in time or place or creates an idea of modality. This idea is why I dislike "however". Writers are fond of using it to extend sentences to torturous lengths when ideally they could have expressed the same idea in separate sentences. If sentences are contrastive, they often do not need to be contrasted.

Be wary of "while" and "when". The first introduces scene setting that is often unnecessary or confusing (and often you would in any case be better off tacking on the contrasting element with "but"); the second adds whole landscapes of bullshit that you didn't need to indulge in. "And" is also your enemy. You can easily fall into the trap of creating quasi-run-on sentences by stringing together clauses with "and" that would be better as separate sentences.

Writing tight runs deeper than being concise and avoiding redundancy, of course. You should also avoid padding if you can. If you are writing an essay or assignment, you should include only what is to the point. Your work should move from point to point in a remorseless march of meaning. Avoid digressions that aim only to show how much you know. Your knowledge is implied in your mastery of what you choose to include. Don't neglect planning for this type of writing. One method I think is useful is to set out what you intend to say in five or six plain English sentences. Use these as heads. Then for each head, write five or six more plain sentences that lead through the argument you plan to make. These are your subheads. This disciplines your writing and helps put you into the mindset of expressing yourself plainly.

Words to avoid

hence -- hence means "from here" and you should almost never have cause to use it. If you mean "because of this", write "therefore". Sometimes what you want is no more than "so". By the way, "thus" means "in this way" and a careful writer does not use it as a synonym for "therefore". For instance: "He used the screwdriver to lever out the nail. Thus he avoided damaging the plaster" is fine; "He used the screwdriver to lever out the nail. Therefore he has a spare nail" is fine. Using "thus" in the second sentence is horrible.

actor when you mean actress -- I'm all for nonsexist and nonracist language where possible but you can take it too far. I don't particularly mind "actor" for women who act. However, you should be aware that sometimes you need to use the word "actress". Many films have two leads, a man and a woman, and it's unnatural to describe the female lead as the "lead actor". You could say "one of the leads" but whenever you use periphrasis to avoid the natural expression, you are probably going wrong.

dangling participles -- Do you see what is wrong with this sentence: "Being so young, cancer was far from my mind." Yes, we are saying the cancer is young. I think we all know this is an error in English, although it's a common idiom in speech. But it's hard to be quite so clear in more complex sentences. The best way to avoid mismatching participles and subjects is to recast the sentence if you're not sure ("Cancer was far from my mind because I was so young"). Not that avoiding this mistake is an impossible task. When you read back your work simply note on a separate piece of paper each time you have a participle and then note the corresponding subject. Does the participle refer to the subject? No? You messed up.


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