Essential Knowledge: Part XII

Prior to the technological revolution, a common lament from geezers was that the younger generations no longer had a mastery of the written word. Instead of writing letters, they would talk on the telephone. Instead of reading books, they would watch television or go to the movies. The result was that literacy, or what passed for it, had declined. Read the letters of soldiers from the Great War or the Civil War and you see their point. Even the most humble citizen had good penmanship and the ability to express himself in writing.

Ironically, the technological revolution brought writing back to prominence. Word processors solved the penmanship issue, allowing anyone to type out well formatted printed text. Of course, the explosion of e-mail meant that people were back to writing letters to friends, relatives and colleagues. The explosion of websites, providing written information, meant that even the dumbest people were reading. A strange and unexpected result of the internet has been a greater demand for literacy.

Despite the gripes from today’s geezers about the kids and their phones, people are better at communicating via the written word. In fact, we make judgments about one another based on our writing skills. It’s why gold plated phonies like George Will can pass themselves off as deep thinkers. In order to have a successful career, you have to express yourself in writing to your peers and superiors. If you want to get involved in social issues, you better be able to write well. Good writing is essential knowledge.

The most important part of writing is knowing your audience. Writing a proposal to a client is different from sending a buddy an e-mail about your weekend. Formal work correspondence not only needs proper spelling and grammar, it should lack colloquialisms and slang. The client does not want to see “Let ‘er rip, tater chip” in your proposal. On the other hand, if you’re a blogger, you should not get hung up on formalism. The point of casual writing is to be accessible, so the reader can breeze through it over coffee.

Of course, writing should have a point. We are are flooded with e-mail and texts. There are millions of places on-line offering up content. The only reason for you to be writing is that you have a point that needs making. Before you sit down to compose your e-mail, letter to your Congressman, or blog post, ask yourself, “what’s the main point I want to express to the reader?” This not only helps you focus, it helps the reader determine if they should be reading whatever it is you have written. It’s only fair.

If you have ten points that come to mind, then try to arrange them by subject. There’s a good chance you can consolidate them into a few main points. Once you have a clear idea of the main topic, the point of what you’re writing, then the other points should be in support of that main topic. The items that don’t fit, can and should be left out, in order to not take away from the main points you are trying to make. This is especially true in business writing, which needs to be on-point and free of unnecessary chatter.

If you end up with a bunch of important points, that cannot be boiled down to a manageable number, it means you have tackled too broad a topic or you don’t know the material well enough to write about it. The exception is you are writing a book about something like the Civil War and you expect it to be a big book. Since hardly anyone reading this will be writing a book, a good rule of thumb is to have one main point and three supporting points. That keeps you from meandering on the page and losing focus.

Another good rule in this regard is to set limits. If you have a general point and three or four supporting points, put a word limit on the whole thing and then assign equal space to your points. Good proposal writers do this. They know the prospect will look at the first few pages and then jump to the important bits, like the pricing page. Clear breaks in the proposal, between the sections of the proposal, makes it user friendly. An essay that follows this format will quickly cover the material and please the reader.

The key in all expository writing is brevity. A 5,000 word blog post is unreadable, which is why they tend not to be read. If you need 5,000 words, you either picked too big of a topic or, most likely, you don’t know the material well enough to state your case. Humans can read about 1500 words of an argument before their minds start to drift. Similarly, if you are sending an email to a friend, remember that they are your friend. Making them read 5,000 words about your trip to the vet is a rotten thing to do to someone you like.

Then there is the issue of vocabulary. The temptation to use complex vocabulary, or insider language, should be resisted. Studies suggest that readers, when confronted with complex grammar and vocabulary, suspect the writer is trying to hide their stupidity. Never use big words when little words can do the job. Plain language and straightforward sentence structure, gets the point across and shows the reader some respect. The point is to clearly make your points. Leave the thesaurus on the shelf.

As far as resources, you cannot go wrong with a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  Another classic on writing is On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. These are two classics that all good writers recommend for a reason. A personal choice is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. For business writing, this is a great choice. It’s a book that takes its own advise. Of course, using Google for spelling is a good idea too. I like this site for grammar opinions.

Avoid using lists. A list is great for a lunch order, a grocery run or a packing slip, but it has no place in expository writing. The reason is the reader will simply look at the headings and skip to what they want to read. Lists invite skimming. Unless you work for Teen Vogue or some other pop publication, where the readers are assumed to be dull witted, you should avoid lists in writing. Even in business writing, lists are best used as summaries at the end of a document or in a graphic to illustrate a point.

Finally, think about how the reader will be consuming your content. An e-mail to a buddy will be read on a PC or a phone. A work e-mail is most likely being read off a PC at a desk. That proposal will be printed and read as paper. The point is, reading from a phone or tablet is a different experience than the written page. If the reader is most likely using a mobile device, short paragraphs are better than long ones. If it is a web site, then you will have a range of ways to consider. Again, the idea is to make reading you easy.

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78 Comments on "Essential Knowledge: Part XII"

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Member

Was this an attack on Bill Buckley? That phony with his fake accent (mid atlantic or prep school mutation) his long ang pedantic writing , and obscure ten dollar words.

As far as lists, Gavin McInnes has that down to a weekly submission.

jbspry
Guest

While I greatly enjoy reading most of the Z Man’s writings, I have to say that this piece is pretty poor stuff. A didactic essay on the importance of clarity, accuracy and persuasiveness in writing simply should not contain as many grammatical and punctuation errors as this one does.
Those who can’t do, teach; I would advise the Z Man that those who can’t teach should confine themselves to doing.

Alzaebo
Guest

Bah, humbug.

Bet you were leaping at the chance to use “didactic” in a sentence!
My protruding brow furrows with the effort of thought.

Thanks, Zman, this is a saved, and is much appreciated by us sloping forehead types.

Alzaebo
Guest

P.S.- I confess: I had to look up “didactic” whilst chipping my spear points. Curses!

walt reed
Guest

I assume you dropped in “advise” instead of “advice” preceding the Google for spelling comment just for slapstick. Appreciated.

SamlAdams
Guest
Don’t mean to guck up the comments section, but this is the end piece of the Civil War memoirs my gg grandfather wrote at the end of his life. He had, at best. a 6/7th grade formal education-in one room school houses on the midwest prairie and the last labor of his life was to write this all down. At the very end he put in a speech he gave on Lincoln’s 100th birthday to his local GAR. Personally have never been able to write the clarity and directness contained in that little book. A masterpiece of simplicity and emotion.… Read more »
Ganderson
Guest

I personally like Michae; O Donoghue’s “How to Write Good” from the old Nat Lamp. And, I do believe that the ‘listicle’ has its place.

And suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck.

SamlAdams
Guest

Would it be legal to kill the inventors of Powerpoint? And for good measure, the engineers that figured out how to extend the range of a 737 to make it a “coast to coast” aircraft.

LetsPlay
Member
Why such hate at PowerPoint? It is a tool and if used properly a powerful communications tool. Graphics communicate a lot of information “a picture is worth a 1000 words” and is good and easy reference material for later use. I used it a lot in my work with my product lines and businesses and got pretty damn good with it. If anything, I had one higher up complain that I was wasting time with PowerPoint and I replied that it was my tool of choice and I created my presentation on the fly, that is, I didn’t do it… Read more »
Member

Your language becomes clear and strong, not when you can no longer add, but when you can no longer take away. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Member

TLDNR, heh.

Member
Never use big words when little words can do the job. Plain language and straightforward sentence structure, gets the point across and shows the reader some respect. One time when I was a TA in a big intro course in grad school, the instructor had a meeting of the TA’s where some woman from a “writing program” came in to moderate a discussion about grading papers. I got into a big argument with some Palestinian grad student from something like PoliSci. I said that it should be possible to argue any position in simple, clear vocabulary. He took strong exception… Read more »
Severian
Guest

Ahhhh, academia. I remember getting a dissertation chapter rejected over and over by a reader because I “lacked sufficient theory.” (My discipline, of course, is not an overly “theoretical” one, and the chapter in question was about as straightforward a fact presentation as you’re likely to find in a grad student production). So finally I just found the most obscure French “thinker” I could, copy-pasted a paragraph of his most impenetrable gibberish into my intro, and declared this passage the key to my entire work. It sailed right through committee.

Jokah Macpherson
Guest

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a pretty good style guide. It’s pretty modern and focuses on the “why” rather than just throwing out lists of proscriptive rules.

Downsides include his using his wife as an example of good writing and a part where he misattributes the quote “Render unto caesar…” to Shakespeare.

Jokah Macpherson
Guest

*Prescriptive heh heh

Mister M
Guest

John Taylor Gatto goes into much about the literacy within a young, and unschooled, unindoctrinated America. His magnum opus “The Underground History of American Education” is a deep exploration of the deadening effects of compulsory schooling. “The Underground Grammarian” – a professor who wrote extensively (while pulling out the sharp knives) about the absurdities of Academ-ese is also a great internet find.

Member

I have done fine art painting most of my life and make a living in commercial graphics. The best keep it simple, no extraneous filler or extra copy that can’t be bothered to be read. My friend calls a good layout , clean, tight and nice.

My favorite painter is Edward Hopper. Artists can learn so much, don’t add any more detail or brush technique than is needed. His landscapes and urban scenes qualify as still lifes in their use of form.

Dutch
Guest

I think of Hopper as the classic painter of the radio age. Radio programs would spin a story out of the detail of what was going on with the narrators, and do little to fill out the background and environment of the scene, leaving it to the listener to create it with a few aural cues. Hopper does the same thing with his paintings, giving you a glimpse of focused detail and letting the viewer fill in the larger environment with his imagination. Hopper is one of my favorites as well.

Ned2
Member

The internet has improved reading skills, I’m sure.
I still find myself tuning out articles when I encounter bad spelling or grammar (not that my own grammar and spelling is perfect, but I try). That is to me the downside of the typed word; we expect spellcheck to correct our errors and don’t check our written word before hitting “post comment”.
Writing by hand eliminates that problem, almost.

Al from da Nort
Guest
Re Buckley in retrospect: He began writing just as the post WWII WASP elite was being converged by various strains of Marxism from Central & Eastern Europe disguised as academic expertise. He evidently hoped to call his fellows back to God and Country. My conjecture is that, while he knew that his own uber-elite status was necessary for the task, he also knew that it was not sufficient. He risked his fellow Yale Bonesmen dismissing him as a crank throwback to a bygone era. So, from the beginning, it was important to him that his fellow elitists not be able… Read more »
Dutch
Guest

I think of Buckley as the verbal version of the guy who insists on wearing a bow tie. The look is somewhat eccentric, but you can pull it off if you are good at what you do. But if or when you lose your mojo, it comes off as a bit ridiculous.

Al from da Nort
Guest

Dutch;
Yah, at some level, if you’re a self-defined intellectual that’s unsuccessful in your intellectual projects, good intentions ceases to be an effective defense against objective failure: After all, you claimed to be among the ‘best and brightest’.

FWIW, I look at Buckley similarly to the way I (sadly) look at GWB now: Elite guys who meant well and intended to stem the spreading rot, but ultimately failed. Absent God.

TomA
Guest

A good compliment to this blog post would be to teach “defensive reading.” A lot of what passes for exposition these days is really just thinly veiled propaganda, and the repetition of messaging is an insidious form of memetic infection. Rap music isn’t just entertainment, it destroys cognition.

Dutch
Guest
A popular current construct is to claim that “some say” or “some might think” in one’s argument. This is so the writer can make provocative or outrageous claims, get them out there, but not own them or need to substantiate them. In the time of Trump, this sort of thing has appeared all over the place. I believe it is a way to invent stories (“fake news”), but not be held to account for the sources or the reality of the statement. Similarly, I cringe when someone claims “everyone knows” or “everyone thinks” something. What amazing talent gives the author… Read more »
Alzaebo
Guest

Similar to the technique used in a union shop or store: preface one’s offensive statement with “In my opinion…” or with “In some people’s opinion…”

Middle-aged Male
Guest

Read “How To Read A Book,” by Mortimer Adler

Zeroh Tollrants
Guest

I’ve been told for years, “you have amazing stories that you tell, you should write a book.”
I’m still waiting for a time when people are into reading rantings by someone who uses weird language, cannot self-edit to save their life, who tells stories within stories, and eventually meanders into 3 other topics not even remotely related to the original topic.
Perhaps one day my time will come, but so far, I’m not seeing it.

Dutch
Guest
For fun, you should try writing a short story or two. I found that the skill set that would allow you to successfully deliver such work is completely different from the one used in forums such as this one. Making observations and articulating one’s understanding of what one sees as a strong argument, is completely different from conjuring up a story, in which large parts of it, if not most of it, is a fictional construct. I admire those who build strong real world arguments in their writings. I am in awe of those writers who can create a world… Read more »
Member

ok, sign me up.

Ryan T
Guest

i do get a kick out of people calling out spelling and grammar on twitter. to me it’s a highly informal medium typed on mobile phones and calling it out is just plain losing the argument, and i believe i’ve seen Mcinnes do it. Even on this comment section i take non capitalization and a few errors as a given.

Allan
Guest

The shift key: It is the friend and ally of all humans who use a typewriter or a computer with a keyboard. Like any good friend, the shift key makes few demands upon our time and energy but rewards us richly if we interact with it appropriately and without resentment.

StanFL
Guest
Before you do pick the goals of the article/post/… , you need to pick the goal for which you are writing. Your post assumes everyone has the same goal, and therefore should have the same rules for writing. But that is not true. Some are writing for money, some for self-esteem, some out of desperation at conditions, some because somebody suggested they write, and so on. Some are looking for the one reader who is smarter than them, others are looking for the thousand readers who are dumber than them. Each meta-goal has its own tweak of writing choices.
StanFL
Guest

I should clarify to stop short any obvious responses. I am only speaking about those writing blog posts or internet articles. You do mention business writing and so on, but the residual divisions are not fine enough.

Brooks H Goode
Guest

Here’s a link to Orwell’s rules, all 12. The help you hone your writing.
Brooks

Chuck
Guest

Glad you mentioned Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. It is a book I discovered in the summer between my discharged from the Air Force and the start of my freshman year at the University of Vermont. That little red book saved my buns countless times throughout college and has remained in my library ever since. It taught good writing by example; its brevity was its success.

Allan
Guest

I remember The Economist’s Style Guide being both helpful and amusing. There is even some irony in Style Guide. Say’s law is so crudely and misleadingly summarized that “The Bestselling Guide to English Usage” becomes a useful antidote to the delusion, common among college grads of economics programs, that The Economist is trustworthy.

You can download for free a PDF copy of the bestselling guide, but the edition which I found is about twelve years old.

MadSklz
Guest

Hey Zman…Always love your posts…but felt this post had nothing to do with the remaining Essential Knowledge? As if they were focused on history and evolution, and this one is a side blog.

Scott
Guest

Listing Strunk & White first was good to see, raised you several notches in my opinion. 🙂 It’s one of the best guides on concise writing.

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