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.