Flatlander Faith

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Writng tips #2: 10 tips for writing more simply

[I have borrowed, translated and adapted these tips from a French website. That explains the references to French authors, in case you were wondering. These tips are intended for use in writing for the web, but would be useful in many other types of writing as well.]

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1. Thou shalt write short sentences.

You are not Proust! So do not write sentences of more than one or two lines. If you hesitate between several constructions, always choose the one with the fewest words. Your texts will be more rhythmic.

Tip: exchange semicolons for periods.

2. Thou shalt limit thyself to subject, verb and object.

The subject + verb + object scheme is the simplest grammatically. It is instantly recognizable and understandable to the reader. So avoid complex grammatical constructions, subordinate clauses, interpolations and parentheses within the same sentence.

Tip: turn most subordinate clauses into independent sentences.

3. Thou shalt write one idea per sentence.

One idea per sentence, one point per paragraph, one subject per article. Don’t try to say everything at once, at the risk of drowning your reader. Prioritize your ideas and start with the most important.

Tip: If your article is too long, divide it into several articles grouped by folder or series.

4. Thou shalt simplify thy vocabulary.

You do not write to amuse yourself but to make yourself understood. Don’t try to dazzle your readers with exotic words or literary style. Favour simple words known to all.

Tip: use only words that you know how to spell.

5. Thous shalt translate jargon.

You don’t need to eliminate all trade or professional jargon, but ensure the first occurrence of such a word is translated into plain English, including all acronyms and words from other languages. Not only will your readers thank you, but it will be easier for search engines to find your page because you will broaden your semantic field.

Tip: imagine you are writing for your grandmother.

6. Thou shalt avoid negations.

It is forbidden to forbid! It is not always easy (as in this article which intends to be educational), but avoid negative terms as much as possible. Opt instead for positive constructions, more involving and more direct. Flee double negatives that need to be read twice to get the meaning.

Tip: always replace “do not hesitate to do this” with “do this”!

7. Thou shalt avoid the passive voice.

Better to write “The cat eats the mouse” than “the mouse is eaten by the cat.” Not only does the passive use more words than the active form (7 words against 5), but it is also more complex to analyse. Therefore reverse passive sentences, transforming the object into subject.

Tip: choose action verbs like create, produce, decide, etc.

8. Thou shalt avoid adjectives and adverbs.

“Journalists (…) who want to use an adjective come see me in my office. Those who will use an adverb will be shown out the door,”wrote Georges Clemenceau in a memo while he was editor of L’Aurore. Years have passed, the media have changed, but the counsel remains valid.

Tip: first remove all useless instances of “true” and “genuine” from your texts.

9. Thou shalt avoid the subjunctive.

Avoid the subjunctive: limit yourself to the indicative. Also avoid the tenses we learned at school like the pluperfect, future anterior, etc. Try to stick to the present, the past, the imperfect, the future and the imperative.

Tip: use the infinitive as much as possible.

10. Thou shalt read thy article out loud.

Proofread your text carefully before publishing it. Locate the long sentences, overly complex constructions, etc. Check that you have applied all the above rules.

Tip: re-read aloud to identify difficult to read sentences. Flaubert called it the gueuloir test, you will see, it works!

(I presume Gueuloir was Flaubert’s invention; it’s not found in any dictionary. Gueuler means to speak very loudly, to yell.)

If you read French, the original article is found at: http://editoile.fr/10-astuces-pour-ecrire-plus-simplement/

Less is more (and more is less)

Too many new writers have the idea that they have to use interesting words to entice others to read their prose. They load up on colourful adjectives and adverbs, the more syllables the better, and replace simple nouns and verbs with ones that are larger and weightier. Readers get weary trying to wade through that stuff and soon head for the exit.

We should not try to impress the reader with our grandiloquent vocabulary, just take him gently by the hand and show him what we see. The adverbs, adjectives and big words get in the way of that view.

Stripping away the useless words forces us to describe what we see. Don’t write “A magnificent vista opened before my awe-struck eyes,” describe what you see. Don’t make yourself and your feelings the focal point, the reader wants you to paint a word picture.

Some writers think that it gets boring to continually repeat “he said,” “she said.” They opt for “Eleanor sighed,” “George growled,” Nancy wailed,” “Eddie mumbled,” “Vickie sobbed,” and worse. There are two mistakes in this kind of thing. “Said” does not hinder the flow of the story, it is the simplest way to tell your reader that someone said something. Replacing it with something more creative may stop the reader in her tracks to contemplate this strange object on her pathway through the story. Secondly, if someone is shocked, hurt, surprised, it is more effective to describe the changes in that person’s face. Do her eyes grow wide, or narrow? Does her mouth fall open, or are her lips pressed together?

The goal in writing is to tell a story, describe an event, give instructions or give reasons why something should, or should not, be believed. It is not to draw attention to ourselves. There are times when a big word is the most appropriate word to use, but most of the time big words, adverbs and adjectives are just ways of saying “Look at me! See what I can do!” Cutting those words out will make our writing more effective, leaving them in could cause verbal indigestion in the reader.

Effective Words

It is not a simple thing to learn how to use words to say exactly what one wants to say in the most effective way possible. But the words themselves should be simple. Here is some of the best writing advice I have come across. The first two were written by Canadians, the third by an Englishman and the fourth by an American.

In all ages pompous people use a pompous language, half-educated people an over-educated speech, and people of small intellect run to words a size too large.
Stephen Leacock, How to Write, © 1944

Too many writers have the habit of purchasing, utilizing, requiring when they need, acquiring when they get — all the time. The simpler word seems inadequate. This is an illusion. Use the simplest, most everyday words you can. . . . One way to put it into practice is to imagine that instead of putting words on paper. . . you’re talking to someone you know. If you can work that way, you’ll be bugged a little less by the inclination to lapse into bigger words than you need.
Bill Cameron, A Way With Words © 1979

It need hardly be said that shortness is a merit in words. There are often reasons why shortness is not possible; much less often there are occasions when length, not shortness, is desirable. But it is a general truth that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour.
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, © 1965

If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any other meanings that you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What is the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”?
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, © 1976

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