Writing with words is similar to programming, to be good at it and successfully execute a computer program you must learn by its rules (then that’s when you can play with it).
Two most important things: START and always with the reader on your mind.
The following notes are taken from classes of Dr. Quentin McAndrew (University of Colorado Boulder) and Professor Tamy Chapman (University of California Irvine) for writers and editors.
1. FACE THE VOID BY WRITING YOUR PURPOSE
Ask: Have I started with my most important point?
It is hard to write without the “muse” — but unfortunately, it always isn’t there. One important thing I learned to keep self-discipline during the pandemic is to dive right in and confront the terrifying blank page by writing the purpose of my document and let everything that follows to be in service of that purpose (considering that you do not duplicate points). Good writing always has a good reason.
Do not expect to have a perfect output when you sit down for the first time. Instead, just do your best to create an outline or first rough draft and promise yourself to edit later. It feels much better to have started than not at all.
2. SCAFFOLD WELL TO WRITE WELL
Ask: Did I outline my document well that the ideas are coherent?
“Good organization can overcome poor writing. Good writing can’t overcome poor organization.” — Dr. McAndrew
Introduce by saying what you are going to say (describe), the destination (your purpose), and how to get there (summary points). The body paragraphs are where you say it (expand your arguments). Finally, conclude by reminding what you just said — contrary to the usual temptation to have an ending “tada” moment.
3. CLARITY ABOVE ALL
Ask: Have I been as clear as I possibly can?
After clarifying your document’s intentions, flow, and supporting points, zoom out to see if it communicates the message you are trying to get across well.
4. WASTE NO TIME
Ask: Have I kept my reader’s schedule in mind?
Knowing the purpose of your writing means knowing your target audience. It does not matter much how beautiful you can write; you should make it easy and concise for your intended reader.
5. BE THE AUTHORITY
Ask: Have I been confident enough to use my voice?
(a) Do not write to sound smart; BE SMART — do not make your document about your writing. Rather, make it about your ideas. Complexity detracts from your goal and it takes more time to decipher.
“Say what you mean, simply and directly. You are smart!”
(b) Own your ideas — Have the confidence and do not rob your authoritative voice. Cut the wishy-washy words: Should, maybe, could, might, think, etc.
Ex. “I think our team should switch suppliers from A to B to cut costs in X department.” to “Expenses of X department can be cut by 25% if we switch to supplier B.” — You can hear the confidence and knowledge more.
6. GRAMMAR MATTERS
Ask: Have I checked how my grammar directs the reader experience?
Grammar, especially punctuations, controls the reading experience. The following are the COMMON GRAMMAR MISTAKES and THINGS TO BE REMINDED ABOUT:
(a) Verb tenses
(b) Sentence types — knowing the difference in the structure of simple, compound, and complex sentences are the basis of conjunction and comma rules.
(c ) Proper placing of commas and semicolons
- 3 or more nouns
- learn oxford comma
- Before conjunction for compound sentences
- After introductory phrases
- Before and after interrupting phrases
- Before transition words in the middle with a comma after. e.g. I have eaten breakfast; therefore, I am already full.
- Very closely related compound sentences (as a substitute to “and”)
(d) Pronouns — They must refer to the closest/anchoring noun, otherwise it will sound confusing.
- When to use I and me (especially when you list multiple people) — “I” is always the subject while “me” is an object word.
- Difference between that and which — “That” is used for essential information and does not require a preceding comma, while “which” needs a comma and used for inessential information.
(e) Learn proper placing of the apostrophe
(f) Variety of conjunction and transition words and when to use them.
(a) Learn parallel structure rule — phrases before and after a conjunction must have the same grammatical structure.
(b) Implore sentence variety
- Create a mixture of sentence types
- Start with different adverbs and/or prepositional phrases
- Utilize transition words, a variation of sentence length (Short sentences, Medium sentences (10–15 words), Long sentences (20–40 words)
- Use synonyms.
7. GOOD WRITING IS GOOD REVISION
Ask: Have I said merely what I meant to say?
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
(a) Aim to cut your writing by a third or half. As Blaise Pascal briefly put it: “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”
(b) Recheck your scaffold. Maintain one idea per paragraph and every paragraph must begin with a strong topic sentence (otherwise, cut it or put it somewhere else).
(c ) Cut generalities in favor of specifics — It saps energy and easy to disprove. e.g. “success” or ABSOLUTE WORDS: very, always, everyone, many, society
(d) Edit for brevity and clarity — It gets confusing when we add more ideas — SAY MORE WITH LESS! Don’t overstate, overload, and confuse.
(e) Try to read your writing out loud and listen if you start to get bored at some point.
(e) Activate your voice by getting rid of passive voice — it is indirect and it takes more words (science researches that require a passive voice to maintain objectivity is an exception). Try to limit crutch verbs (to be and to have) as they usually become repetitive.
8. IF APPLICABLE, DESIGN YOUR DOCUMENT
Ask: Does the appearance of my document reinforce the goals of clarity and wasting no time?
A good design invites a quick reading experience and it reflects an impression of a well-organized professional.
(a). Utilize white space (provide enough breathing room), use bold for a call to action, and bullet points if appropriate.
(b). The choice of typeface is a message too.
NOTE: It is important to have an editor or a writing buddy. Accept the feedback and get better
1. Feedback is essential to improve.
2. Everyone gets too close to their own work.
3. Being a professional means be willing to accept feedback.
“Don’t ask me to make you better and then tell me not to hurt your feelings.” — Jadi Tension
FIND MENTORS AND EDITORS WHO PUSH YOU TO BE BETTER.
Seek to improve and advance at what you do. Have a complete sense of self (who are you?) and communicate it to the world. It can be daunting given there are plenty of writers out there but you have a message and your unique manner of talking about it counts. So START.
These tips can be translated to other skills you are getting better at. Turn fear into excitement, explore! 😊
CHECKLIST TO GO BACK TO:
CLARITY: The paragraph contains readable prose that is easy to comprehend.
CONCISE: The paragraph is concise and to-the-point, with no further reductions needed.
AUTHORITY: The paragraph is written with authority and avoids wishy-washy words such as “in my opinion,” “could,” “might,” “should,” “think,” or “maybe.”
TOPIC SENTENCE: The topic sentence gets straight to the point and reveals the topic of the paragraph, and all subsequent sentences relate back to it.
VOICE: The paragraph is smart, rather than trying to sound smart. This means that it avoids unnecessarily complicated grammar and vocabulary.
GRAMMAR: The paragraph uses pronouns, apostrophes, punctuations (especially comma) correctly.
DOCUMENT: The document is well-organized with adequate white space.