Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Fundamentals of Effective Writing

Neither More Nor Less
(August 30, 2006)

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."--Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


May I have a word with you?

All writing is creative writing, because all writers create something from nothing. Even technical writing requires as much creative thought as does a novel, short story or poem, because technical writing is nothing more than writing about a technical subject.

However, the task of writing--the steps involved in putting words on paper or in a computer file--can be the same, regardless of whether you are writing a technical report, magazine article, scholarly paper, news story, poem or book. If you follow these six steps, you will eliminate a lot of worry and frustration whenever you want to write anything effectively.

First, choose a subject. Decide what you are going to write about. Even if you have been assigned a topic, you can still consider the subject in depth, examining all aspects and choosing which ones you want to emphasize.

Even if you work for someone who always assigns your subjects, many opportunities exist to write about something on your own. You should always take them, because you become a better writer when you keep writing and practicing as often as possible.

Second, decide on a form. Even if the form has been determined for you, there are variations on every form, and every variation you can think of is worthy of consideration.

For example, if you are assigned to write an operating guide for a new computer and your employer has an existing set of guidelines, you can still play around with the form in terms of a better variation, perhaps just a slight rearrangement of the topics.

Third, plan your piece as best you can. Even if you are writing according to a formula, you will save time and worry if you consider carefully how you are going to do it. A schedule might help by giving you a deadline by which to finish certain topics, sections or chapters.

Even if you are given an outline you must follow, examine it carefully. Can it be improved? An outline lets you know where you are going before you start writing. If you are creating from scratch, you should think about it, plan it, and outline your piece before you start choosing words and stringing them together so they best communicate what you have in mind.

Fourth, write down the words you choose, so you won't forget them and so you can keep them in permanent form for your readers. Picture your audience and write in their language as much as possible. Use words they will understand, and explain everything they won't understand.

Fill this draft with as many details as you can. You will discover that you can delete extraneous material more easily than you can add to it, because the words that need deleting are already there staring you in the face. Although some people believe that all a writer does is think of some words, put them down in permanent form, and never look at them again, you should not consider writing in this way, especially if you want to become a better writer. Putting the words down is the easy part of writing. Now comes the hard part.

Fifth, rewrite your work and be your own, harshest critic. Put it aside for a while, so you can reread it fresh without being influenced by both the words you have written and the effort taken to write them.

As you rewrite, change some of the words. Read your draft out loud, and replace a phrase with another one that means the same thing, but sounds better. Prepare a fresh copy without the deleted material, and you will probably agree the writing is better and not even miss the deletions.

Sixth, have someone else read what you have written and ask for comments. Better yet, submit it to a trained editor. Now you want a reaction to your draft from someone not as close to it as you are.

If you are writing for publication or simply for dissemination of your information, never be afraid to show your work to someone else. After all, the whole point of writing is for someone else to read it, and an editor is merely a knowledgeable, surrogate audience.

The fundamentals of effective writing are the same for any kind of writing, together they constitute six steps that describe the task of writing and following them will make you a better, more effective writer.


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