Monday, March 23, 2009

7 Tips to Write in Plain English


This is a guest post by Cynthia Rankin. Cynthia Rankin is an American who lives in Chennai. She is married to an Englishman, Stephen Rankin. While in England, Cynthia qualified as a TESL instructor and learned to teach English with a British accent. Coming back to America, she helped develop a TEFL teacher training program where her students taught Vietnamese boat refugees in Massachusetts. She became a Fulbright Scholarship candidate: her proposal was to analyze Business Indian English. At Towson University in Maryland, she got her Master's in Professional Writing and began publishing articles on Indians in America. She taught various English courses at Harford Community College.

The Rankins missed the kaleidoscope of life in India and moved to Bangalore as trainers. They moved to Chennai and shifted into their beach flat on December 23, 2004, three days before the Tsunami hit. Cynthia continues to write and develop training material for business communication, technical writing and cultural orientation, but most of all, she likes to learn from others.

How to Write in Plain English

Some think that the way to show that they are intelligent and educated is to make to the length of their words, sentences, and paragraphs as long as possible. They learned this technique of academies in university when they read badly written text books. It was also a good technique to bulldoze the dozing professor who marked their papers.

In the real world, business people have to say what they mean. Here are some tips to help you in your business communication. Remember, many people to whom you write have English as a second or third language. Even if English is their first language, they may speak a different dialect and live in a different culture where the same words may mean different things. Read these tips before you send that email, that letter, that memo.

  1. Less is more. The fewer words you use, the better chance your reader will understand what you are trying to say. There is less chance your reader will misinterpret your message. So before sending your message, play a game. See how many words you can take out of each sentence without loosing the main thought. Remember, you are not writing literature here. Lose the adverbs and adjectives. Fewer the words the readers have to keep up in the air until they get to the end of the sentence, the better they will understand what you are trying to say. They will read faster and find it more enjoyable.

  2. Before you do anything else, find actors. Even if you are writing the most dry business communication, you are still writing to a human being. Now all people like stories. No matter what you write, remember this concept. In all stories, there are characters. Make sure you don't use passive sentence unless you have to. Think. Who is responsible for the action in that sentence? Be specific.

  3. If you have good actors in your sentences, then you have a good start for the rest of your sentence. The next stage is to think about the action. What is the actor doing? Be specific. The team did not conduct an investigation. They were not in front of an orchestra. They didn't conduct. What did they do? Look at that nasty -tion word. That will be your clue. Yes, they investigated. When you say that the team conducted, you have an empty verb that your reader has to juggle. This is a word that does not give meaning.

  4. But if you use the verb "investigated," then you have to say what they investigated. See why people like using language that covers the truth? The verb "investigated" requires you to reveal to the reader what they actually investigated. Imagine if more government bureaucrats were required by law to write like this.

  5. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, sweetheart. Now play another game with your message. See how many words you have where you can find a simpler word-usually one with only one or two syllables. Get rid of Latinate words-those ending in -tion. If you have cleaned up your empty verbs, you may not have so many long words left over. English is a special language because it has about 800 Anglo-Saxon one syllable words. That's why pop music works well in English.

  6. Now see if you can make your sentences shorter. Every sentence is a thought. When the reader gets to the period or full-stop, he breathes a sigh of relief. He can stop the juggling of your words. They should all make sense. Beware of too many prepositional phrases in a sentence which you are writing in your memo for your boss in the afternoon on the computer from the office. Confused yet? That's prepositional phrase overload.

  7. You guessed it. If shorter sentences are better, then shorter paragraphs are better. Your paragraph should make one point. If you make another point, then you make another paragraph. When the reader looks at your memo and sees one paragraph that is as big as the page, her eyes glaze over. You'd be surprised how many sentences you can murder. Look for sentences where you have repeated yourself. Look for sentences that need to really be in another memo.

I'll stop here, and see if I followed these tips!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Views on Good Writing...


This post is written by Sonali Malik

Tony’s article took me back to my school days when we used to write essays as part of the English subject. In school, we learned about the basic grammar rules - using correct grammar, not making any grammatical errors, and everything around it. However, I do not remember any of our English teachers teaching us any ground rules about “good writing” or “how to write good English”. While writing, our only focus was to write “correct English”; not necessarily “write well”. In fact, we never formally learned the rules of good writing. I remember that I always used to write very long sentences, though grammatically correct; however, I was never taught about ‘brevity’ or its importance in writing.

I learned new rules about “good writing” while learning about instructional designing at the workplace. Here, I learned more about how to write short yet effective sentences - that which also conveyed the correct meaning and the context. I believe one of the reasons of this change was also because:

  • we were now “in business” (i.e. writing for a business purpose),

  • writing for an American audience (unlike in school when we only learned British English and simply used to write correct English to pass exams),

  • we had competition (with peers) to write better

  • we were trained on the rules of how to write better (through various training/workshops in instructional designing)

Our Comfort Zones

I think for “writing good”, one has to constantly be in practice and try to write better. If you stop writing, you lose touch and may not be able to improvise on your writing or do better. One of the reasons we do not strive hard to better our writing is to remain in our comfort zones.

I recall one of the effective workshops on instructional designing that I attended in my initial days at the workplace. The workshop was conducted by one of our senior instructional analysts. She gave us a small piece of writing and asked us to rewrite it using the instructional designing principles. When the participants got back with their work, about 90% of them had not done many changes to it except making it “slightly” better or change the way it was organized. This is simply because everyone wanted to remain in their comfort zones of not making too many changes to the given writing.

“I write this way, it’s understandable, so its fine!” one may think. But this doesn’t work too well. We need to constantly learn and practice ways of writing better.

Writing for Skimming

I liked Tony’s ideas about writing for skimming; however, I am not completely sure about whether or not we, as writers, should always write for skimming. Not all reading is “Skim, dive, skim” type. There is information that sometimes needs to be read at length. We should be clearly able to demarcate “when” and “when not” to write for skimming. And when we are writing for skimming, the pointers that Tony mentioned in his writing are worth pondering over.

Rubrics for Good Writing

Now the bigger question is, “what are the rubrics of good writing”. The rubrics for good writing are not easy to define. Every writer has his or her own style. The way one writer writes may be liked by many people while the writing of some other writer may not be liked even though both the writings are grammatically correct. There are no set rules to say “yes, this is good writing”. In my view, while writing, if we at least take care of the following points, we’ll be close to writing well:

  • Be clear about the objective of your writing

  • Organize your ideas before you start writing

  • Write one idea per paragraph; do not clutter too many ideas in one paragraph

  • Brevity: see if you can make your sentences short while still conveying the meaning

  • Take care of grammatical issues (missing commas, subject verb agreement, pronouns, punctuation, and so on)

  • Most important: proof read your work before finalizing

Am sure there would be several other rubrics that could be identified and defined for writing better; here I have presented what I thought were one of the most important ones.


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