With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!
Sometimes clarity presents itself and you know just what to say to someone in a way that they understand immediately. Other times, well, you have to work at it, as Watterson suggests. Of course, we usually don't think we're trying to be unclear--we think we're communicating in the way we're expected to communicate. The irony is that the result can often be foggy.
What happens to create that fog? As with many things involving words, the answer can be complicated. The heart of the answer, though, is this: clarity depends on a meeting of the minds between the writer and the reader. In other words, it is negotiated and created out of that interaction. That means that being clear isn't totally up to the writer, and that is where things go sideways, at least initially.
Achieving clarity is difficult. Why?
Readers negotiate with writers to decide what a text means. As a writer, you may or may not have a good idea of who will read your work. It could be that your immediate audience is your supervisor at work. Then again, it could be (using this article as an example) that you don't know all that much about who is going to read your document and you have to make a series of educated guesses about them. I'm going to guess that you've got some post-secondary education, that you work in a white collar-type job, and that your job requires you to write--which is why you would read an article about clear and concise writing strategies.
How do you change your writing knowing that readers are jumping around and not sitting still and reading what you write word-for-word? Here are some of the strategies I talk about in a recent podcast:
Conciseness, like clarity, depends on your knowledge of your reader. If you know that your reader already knows something, that means you can skip over that topic or cover it briefly. Knowledge of your reader is the number one way to write less.
Here are four other ways to write concisely:
When I prepared the workshop I delivered on concise writing strategies, I came across these websites that you might be interested in, too:
Purdue OWL on wordiness
APA Blog on wordiness
Plain language equivalents for wordy phrases
Grammarist on wordy phrases
Good luck with your writing. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, if I'd had more time I'd have written a shorter article!
Style and academic writing: joining those two terms could be seen, by some, as an oxymoron. That is, they aren't always thought of together, and for some people they are poles apart. But let's ignore that for the moment and concentrate on the two key terms here: style--what is it, and how do you identify it?--and academic writing--which to some extent requires a variety of writing styles.
In a recent podcast I gave some examples of how style has been defined:
None of these are wrong, but they aren't particularly helpful, either. Let's also consider what style is not:
Some of the component parts of a writing style include:
In another post I shared a document that helps identify these and other features of a written text and prompts you to identify those features either in your own writing or the writing of someone you are trying to emulate.
In the podcast and the slides you can see examples of the three levels of style that classical rhetoricians identified:
Ultimately, you'll want to develop your ability to write at each level, depending on your purpose. I'll examine each of those styles in future articles and podcasts.
Style in writing defies easy definition. That makes it hard to talk about, and harder to master. The ancient rhetoricians grouped style into three categories: the high or florid style (used to entertain, as in literature); the middle or forcible style (used in political discourse); and the plain or low style (suitable for instruction). In a previous article I gave an overview of the three styles; in this article and in a recent podcast episode I focus on the plain style.
First, let's clear up the confusion between style as linguistic element and style as cultural display. Plain style, because it is utilitarian and accessible by most, historically was associated with the lower classes in society. For our purposes, let's just ignore that association. The plain style, as it is used today, dominates communication. Speaking plainly and writing clearly matter across class boundaries.
Most workplace writing should be written in the plain style. But what is the plain style? Here are some characteristics:
How do you get to the point where you can start and finish writing projects efficiently? Many people who have attended my workshops ask that question or some variant of it. Those same people already know of the vast self-help literature on the topic: a search of an online bookseller will turn up pages of listings, many offering "tips" and activities guaranteed to turn readers into writers.
My experience teaching writing for 35 years and running workshops for both students and instructors tells me a different story. For a recent workshop and podcast, I decided to look at the problem of academics who are having trouble getting their writing done from a different perspective. I took as my jumping off point Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: 25 million readers couldn't be wrong, could they? I then combined his ideas with Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Finally, I added insights from research in writing studies about what kinds of knowledge writers need to have to succeed, drawn from Anne Beaufort's College Writing and Beyond.
Here are Covey's habits with my translations of them for writing in parentheses:
In a recent podcast, I took up the topic of online writing tools and what they can, and cannot, do to help you with your writing. What is out there? What might help you?
Let's get started by establishing some baseline ideas about writing. First, writing is a process, that is iterative (repeated) and social: you write, largely, to communicate with others. One more thing: Writing is genre-driven, which means that there are types or kinds of documents that are used to accomplish a variety of specific purposes (resumes are a genre that serves the social purpose of getting hired). At first glance, it isn't clear how online tools can help with those aspects of writing.
We also need to consider the sub-skills that contribute to good writing performances. To write well, you need to understand your writing process and what would help you at each stage of the process. You also need rhetorical knowledge: who are you writing or communicating to and for what purposes? Do you understand and have experience writing the kind of document (the genre of document) that your communication situation calls for? And finally, do you know enough about the topic to write well about it?
So, what online tools can help? At the early stages of drafting a document, some sites can help you add to your subject matter knowledge base. Because these are specific to each person and context, I can't really link to any. But Google Scholar will connect you to academic research, and other sites and search techniques would also help.
After you have a draft, grammar and spell-checker software can help you with sentence-based grammar and spelling. Grammarly is one popular tool; GradeProof is another, free one (an add on for Google docs). There are many others, some of them free. Check out the many reviews to find something that fits your needs and budget. But try to select something that not only corrects the errors but also explains why the correction needs to be made at all.
A key component of improving as a writer is feedback: how can you get it? You might use LinkedIn and Twitter to follow others with a similar subject matter interest or writing consultants that might give answers or advice if you are one of their followers. You could also search out hashtags that identify strings of posts that might help you with a writing issue.
Most important, though, is joining a writing community or finding others who are working on similar documents. If working in a large organization, perhaps you could connect with others in your organization. That would sidestep the problem of sharing work-related documents outside of the organization, and it would help build your network within the company. Writing well depends upon excellent reading skills; if you exchange drafts with others in your organization, you can learn an enormous amount about how to write well from reading and offering comments on those texts. Google Docs, Dropbox, Word, and other file sharing software applications that offer the ability to comment on documents are all tools that can support sharing and commenting.
How can we develop better graduate student writers? In this episode of the Teaching Writing podcast, I discuss several strategies for developing the writing skills of graduate students: mapping out a plan of development over the entire degree program; developing and using specific models of the genres students need to master in order to graduate; and four specific strategies to adopt right away.
For instructors who are not teaching a writing course, how much attention should they give to grammar errors and proficiency in student writing? In a business context, the issue presents itself differently, and I'll talk about that in a future podcast. For instructors at post-secondary institutions, though, this presents something of problem.
Students sometimes resent losing grades for grammar and punctuation errors because "this isn't an English course!" But for instructors who are aware that writing proficiency is part of the graduation outcomes for university degrees, not pointing out errors in grammar and punctuation can seem like they are not helping students achieve that important outcome. So what should they do?
In this podcast I review the research that explores how effective it is to teach grammar to native speakers of English at post-secondary schools. I then review the social issues around enforcing Standard Edited English before offering some positions instructors can take when they prepare rubrics or scoring guides to help them grade student work.
Grammar and Errors in Student Writing
What is the best way to respond to the writing of a student or a co-worker? If you work as a teacher or post-secondary instructor, your main concern might be efficiency: the sheer number of papers may pose your biggest challenge. That workload can take time from your other job requirements and your personal life. If you are working with co-workers or employees you supervise, managing the relationship with that person may well be the number one priority. You want to help them, but if you are too critical you risk offending them.
Let's start with students: In a recent episode on my Teaching Writing podcast, I reviewed the best practices for that context:
In the workplace, the context is much different. I've worked as a writing consultant to help employees learn how to create better documents faster. One of the keys to that work is to translate or even identify for the writers the criteria for good writing in their workplace. Those criteria change from one workplace to another, so building a firm understanding of what makes for good writing is a key starting point. After that has been established, we work on identifying how closely the writer's drafts have approximated the key criteria.
In many ways, best practices for workplace feedback are similar to classroom feedback: focus your comments, understand the key aspects of the documents being written, and make sure you encourage the person doing the writing. In the workplace, though, respect the power structure: you may not agree with the criteria for good writing in that workplace, but whoever is in charge gets to make that decision. Identify what they want, and help the writer give it to them.
How can you improve the writing of those you work with? In this week's Teaching Writing podcast I review best practices for designing a writing prompt for students. In this article, I'll try to draw parallels for the workplace.
New employees, including internship and co-op students, may be at a loss when trying to generate the kinds of texts that are standard in your workplace. One researcher (Doug Brent, University of Calgary), when he interviewed internship students at work, found that a key strategy those students employed was to search the web for example texts. This isn't a winning strategy, but it is reasonable when your back is to the wall.
To help students produce better writing in a classroom context, writing researchers advocate that instructors provide more context for the document: why is it needed? who is going to read it? what is the primary purpose of the document (to persuade? to inform? to analyze?)? what kind of document is required (a memo? a white paper? a one-page summary?)? This kind of detail is immensely helpful, but it does take a few minutes for the supervisor to pull together.
In classroom contexts, best practices require that students be given an explanation of how they will be evaluated. In a teaching context, this makes sense and is efficient because of the large number of students. In a workplace, however, where there are only a few employees who are being supervised by one person the time it takes to identify the hallmarks of a good document may not, at first blush, seem worth the effort. Some people will be able to discern the characteristics of a good text on their own; others might be able to do so much more quickly if they have some help.
Where is that help going to come from? It doesn't have to come from the supervisor. Recent research that examines online peer-commenting systems suggests that students who commented on other students' texts learned more than those who did not. I'd suggest that having peers in the workplace offer comments (short, pointed, focused) on each other's texts will accelerate learning for everyone while adding minimally to the work of the supervisor.
"Crossing Boundaries: Co-op Students Relearning to Write," Doug Brent, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 63, No. 4 (June 2012), pp. 558-592.