The Art Of Writing - Style And Structure

Most Writing is a private activity but a public service. You may dash off a protest letter in the solitude of your study, or compile a report in the office after everyone has gone home for the night, or scribble a few secret paragraphs of your romantic novel at the kitchen table while the baby is sleeping, but in each case your attention is the same - that eventually your writing will become the reading matter of someone else, that your private words will 'go public'.

Writing, in other words, is above all for communication - for conveying ideas and feelings from your mind to another mind. Apart from a few oddities - filling out a crossword puzzle, or writing 'LS loves JM' in the sand at low tide - this is true of all writing tasks. Even with such activities as taking lecture notes, or recording a funny incident in your secret diary, you are still writing to communicate… to communicate with your future self.

The hallmarks of good writing, then, are the hallmark of all good communication. The ABCs of both are these:

A - accuracy, appropriateness, attentiveness to your audience, avoidiance of ambiguity

B - brevity of conciseness, brightness or buoyance

C - correctness (of usage and grammar), clarity, consistency, concreteness

Remember Your Readers

Since writing is primarily for communication, you have to keep your reader constantly in mind as you write. This is not always so easy to do. Faced with an intense or convoluted writing task, you may become very inward-looking, struggling to put your thoughts into words and get the words down on paper. You will then need to force yourself continually to emerge from this self-absorption.

"You must keep your eyes forever on your Reader. That alone constitutes Technique." Ford Madox Ford, The English Novel. 

That means more than just typing neatly, or avoiding a personal shorthand that only you can follow. It means taking trouble - ordering your thoughts in the most methodical and logical sequence, and wording them in the most lucid language. If you fail to take that trouble in clarifying your ideas, you will put the reader to a great deal of trouble in deciphering them. 

"You write with ease to show your breeding,but easy writing's curst hard reading." - Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Clio's Protest.

As it happpens, it is not so difficult to think yourself into the mind of another person: you probably do it every day, whenever you speak to anyone.

Think how carefully you pitch the level of you voice and speech according to circumtances. If you are speaking to someone hard of hearing, you tend to speak louder than usual. If you are speaking to a child or to a foreigner, you tend to use simpler words and shorter sentences than usual, and to talk at slower pace. If you are speaking to a bishop, you probably adopt a more formal and respectful tone than you use with your workmates.

In fact, an inappropriate level of speaking often provokes laughter or ridicule - the precocious child who speak (or tries to speak) like an adult; the professor who talks to his family over the dinner table as though he were addressing students in lecture hall; the drag artist who mimics the voice and speech patterns of someone of the opposite sex. 

Most well-adjusted adults, however, are finely tune to the needs of the listener. They unconciously decide on a likely level of difficulty, and then adjust it if necessary with chameleon-like sensitivity to changing conditions. To the listener's frown of puzzlement they respond by slowing down the pace, or repeating the point in different features. To be listener's sigh of impatience they respond by speeding up, or shifting direction.

With writing, things are not so easy: you get less guidance from your 'audience' and they get less from you. Listeners derive information not just from the speaker's words but also from his tone of voice, his pauses, his facial expressions, his gestures, his 'body language', and so on. Readers, by contrast, have only the words to guide them (together with a few crude typographical aids, , such as italics and exclaimation marks). Similarly, most speakers with a live audience enjoy immediate 'feedback', and can modulate their level instantly to ensure that the message is getting across. Writers, by contrast, usually get their readers' feedback only after he act of writing is finished.

When writing a letter or report, then, keep thinking of the readers' likely response to the contents, the style, and the tones. As for contents: don't for example, burst into detailed technical explainations if your reader are all laymen. But if your readers are all experts, then do use some technical jargon, for brevity's sake, and avoid long-winded non-technical explainations. (If the readers include experts and laymen, you will have a tricky balance to strike: you will probably want to lean more towards catering for the laymen.)

As for style: if some of your readers are fairly unsophisticated, take not to use laguage that goes over their head. If all all your prospective readers are higly educated and well-read, on the other hand, don't patronise them by writing in a grossly simplified, plodding style (though you should not resort to a high-falutin style either, in some misguided attempt to impress them.) The constant watchword is: appropriateness. Write simply-bearing in mind that simple writing varies according to the readers level of sophistication.

As for tone finally: pitching it correctly is rather like dressing correctly. A lounge suit may be appropriate for a job interview, but iit would be inappropriate for the Lord Mayor's banquet on the one hand, and for the school picnic on the other. Similarly, Queen Victoria would shudder at any hint of overfamiliarity from a subject, but equally she disliked Mr Gladstone's habit, she said, of speaking  to her as if she were a public meeting. So too inn your 'tone of voice' when writing: pitch the tone too high, and you will come across as pompous, pitch it too low, and you will come across as impudent or discourteous. If all your reders are friendly colleagues of yours, say, use a reasonably familiar or informal tone. If your readers are bureaucrats or managing directors, on the other hand, use an appropriately respectful and formal tone (not a toadying or self-abasing tone, however). Don't confuse formal with stiff. A formal tone still attracts and involves the readr; a stiff tone distances and alienates the reader.

The obvious problem remains: what to do when you do not know who your readers will be? The best policy is to err on the side of caution - assume that they have high status but little technical expertise.

The result should be a fairly formal tone, a fairly non-technical and lucid vocabulary, and a fairly methodical analysis and explaination of the contents, and in the most non-fiction aimed at the general public.

Above all, remember that someone has to do the work if communication is to take place successfully. An inverse proportion operates: the more work you as writer do to get it right, the less work the reader has to do. And vise versa.  If you slack, it will be the the reader who does the bulk of the work - or perhaps not: he may simply view the whole thing as a discourtesy, and give it up as a bad job.


Krisman 'Sayman' Std said...

hello too............

LizMoneyWeb said...

You've got nice tips! Thanks for reminding us the important ABC's. And yeah, we must remember our readers. Hope you enjoy reading my posts as well! See you around.