Chatting, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp – we have such quick and wonderful ways of keeping in touch! But, convenient as they are in chatting up with friends and family, they have definitely corroded our writing skills. But as quick as chatting helps you communicate, it’s not going to help you carry out serious correspondence – write a convincing email to a client. Pitch to an investor. Appease an angry customer. Send a motivating message to your remote teams. While we’ve found our way out in colloquial conversations, writing skills are still as critical in formal communication. And it will do us all good to learn the principles that make a good written message and practice to get the best out of it. Here is your guide to better writing:
Learning good writing skills is more difficult than learning to speak a language. Use of correct grammar and appropriate words is crucial or it can lead to miscommunication. When we speak, the tone of our voice, the facial expressions, eye contact etc make it easier to understand in the right sense. Written English is more challenging since words and sentences alone have to be able to convey the meaning.
These principles of good writing should help you practice the art. Work on each of them regularly and you will get good at writing.
1. Grammatically correct: Grammatical errors are an unpardonable sin! Have you ever seen a building with slanting walls jutting at odd angles instead of a straight structure supporting the edifice? Grammar, in writing, is like the straight walls that gives the piece its beautiful, erect structure. Good to look at and sturdy in construction. With the basic structure gone wrong, the intention and feelings behind your words don’t matter.
2. Active voice: Makes communication clear and direct. No one can forget the “The cat ate the mouse” and “The mouse was eaten by the cat” example from our school time. Yet, we usually put the rat at the beginning of our sentence even though we are actually talking about the cat. Doing this confuses the reader and he realises midway through the sentence what you are really talking about. Active voice, apart from making the meaning clear, also helps forms less wordy sentences.
3. Concise: Nothing kills written communication like long winding sentences. William Zinsser, in his book, On Writing Well – which is my Bible on writing skills – talks about simplicity and clutter. He says that one needs to edit and re-edit one’s work to ruthlessly strike out every single word that does no service to your thought or language. We do tend to use a lot of unnecessary words and have a lot of scope for making our writing more concise and clear.
4. Structure: A clear beginning, middle and an end. Let’s look at the building we mentioned earlier. How would it look if we had floors stacked haphazardly instead of neatly piled up one on top of the other? Structure is the like the floors that lead you logically to each floor of thought. And also tells you where it’s leading you to. It is more challenging to understand the chain of thought in written communication than when it is expressed verbally. Hence, it is our duty to stay on track to be able to guide our readers better.
5. Choice of words: Simple or complicated? The words that you use determine your style. Your writing could be easy on the reader or have lot of long, hard words just for embellishment, hampering the readers‘ comprehension. What is more important is to be able to use the right words that convey the exact meaning. Words can convey positive, negative, strong or weak messages depending on what you choose to express yourself. Hence, building your vocabulary is important.
6. Audience: The most important element of your writing! Unless you are writing your personal journal, you need to constantly keep your audience in mind. Whether you are writing for a bunch of 5 yr olds or for science scholars – the style will differ. You can’t treat all audience equally.
7. Punctuation: Yes, it still matters! Thanks to all forms of instant chat, we seem to have forgotten that commas and semi-colons exist for a reason. But when you communicate formally or are writing meaningful prose, you cannot afford to ignore this important principle of writing. “Let’s eat, grandpa” and “let’s eat grandpa” is the huge difference that punctuation can make, or the lack of it.
8. Proofread: Always! Twice! Heck, as many times as it is required to get it perfect. I am paranoid when it comes to proofreading. And trust me! This has only helped me send out error free communication all the time, even if it is one liners on email. After you finish writing, read and re-read and check for typos and grammar errors. Check for concision and cut out every single word that doesn’t add meaning or obscures it. And check for meaning – does it convey exactly what you want and has no scope for miscommunication.
Suggested activity: Pick up a topic and write a few lines or paragraphs on it. Start by planning the structure and write a few lines or paragraphs. You can then proofread for other elements like grammar and concision.
If you need any help with your writing skills, drop me a line in the comments.