How To Write Right
by: Harold Taylor
I recall as a child being encouraged by my mother to study “Word Power” in the Reader’s Digest to improve my vocabulary. “If each week you were to learn to use one more big word correctly in a sentence, by the time you graduate from high school,” she began, “nobody will understand what you’re saying,” she should have finished.
But she didn’t. That, plus my discovery that many quality magazines paid by the word, created a perfect storm of rejections.
It wasn’t until the late 50s or early 60s that I learned the truth via a letter replacing the usual cryptic rejection slip. The magazine editor, among other criticisms too humiliating to mention, said “You are not writing for our reader; you are writing for yourself.”
In other words, I sounded like a pompous ass with my three-syllable adjectives and adverbs and high sounding phraseology that skyrocketed my writing to a fog index approaching university level. Reluctantly, I must admit, I started writing more like I speak – and to my surprise, started to see my name in print.
At a “Lunch ‘N Learn” session last year at the Sussex and District Chamber of Commerce, I had the privilege of facilitating the session on “How to write articles for self-promotion.” Here’s basically what I shared in one of the handouts – some hints on effective writing – with my apologies to both my late mother and the Readers Digest.
Whether you are writing reports, articles or e-mail messages, the same principles of effective writing apply. The objective is to communicate clearly and succinctly so the reader can grasp your meaning quickly without having to re-read a sentence or paragraph. Below are some suggestions to liven up your writing and maintain your reader’s interest. Avoid long, confusing sentences. Write in the active voice. Stay away from clichés. Don’t be redundant. Don’t convert verbs to nouns. And leave out unnecessary words.
Use the active voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the acting as opposed to the passive voice, where the subject is acted upon. For instance, the active voice is being used in the sentence, “The president held a meeting,” as opposed to the passive voice in “A meeting was held by the president.” Using the active voice makes your writing come alive. It usually shortens the sentence, clarifies the meaning and makes the action move along faster. See how much clearer and crisper the sentences become when they are written in the active voice.
Don’t convert verbs to nouns. Verbs are exciting; nouns are boring. You can liven up the action and reduce the verbiage in the process if you make sure you don’t disguise verbs as nouns. “He decided,” is shorter and livelier than “He made a decision.” The second version uses twice as many words and in writing we want to decrease the number of words, not increase them. It’s the message in our articles not the length of the articles that make them valuable to the reader.
Watch for redundancy. So many words in the English language mean the same thing or are so close in meaning that we have gotten into the habit of including them in pairs, such as close proximity, basic fundamentals and end result. The length of many messages can be reduced by a third or more simply by deleting all the needless repetition. For example, Larger in size (how else could it be larger?) becomes simply “Larger,” and Regular weekly meetings (as opposed to irregular weekly meetings?) becomes simply “Weekly meetings.”
Get rid of wordy expressions. You can also reduce word clutter by avoiding wordy expressions that collectively, form gobbledygook. Avoid clichés that simply add to the word count and frustrate the time-pressured reader who is interested in meaning, not words. Examples of clichés, those over-used, boring expressions that gives the impression that the writer is too lazy to have an original thought, include “Assuring you of our prompt attention … “In the not too distant future …and “It has come to my attention …”
Substitute shorter words and phrases. We don’t want our book or article to read like a kindergarten book (unless we’re writing to that age group.) But why use big words when small words will do? Smaller, simpler words are just as good as long, multi-syllable words, and take less space, less time to write and read, and are less likely to be misunderstood. They move the action along faster, reduce word clutter and increase readability. For example, write “many” instead of “numerous” and “do” instead of “implement” and “rest” instead of “remainder.”
Keep it simple. Groups of words or expressions can often be simplified. This will help readability and reduce the danger of coming across as a pompous writer. Substitute “If” for “In the event of,” and “Like” for “Along the lines of.”
Henry Malgreen was his name. The editor who critiqued my writing, that is. We had no Internet in those days; but I recently googled his name. He died in 1989, about 30 years after he sent me that letter. Any success I have had in writing or publishing, I owe to that man.
And of course my mother, who never stopped encouraging me.
It’s not the device as much as it is the mindset.Harold L Taylor, owner of Taylorintime.com, is a member of the Sussex & District Chamber of Commerce and a columnist with the Kings County Record, tj.news/kingscountyrecord.