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seven tips to effective writing

seven tips to effective writing

practical tips for a more effective writing style


Avinash Chugh

February 05, 2015


  1. 1 ON WRITING WELL Practical tips for a more effective

    writing style

    scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? ! - George Orwell, 1946
  3. 3 THE POLITICS OF LANGUAGE “But if thought corrupts language,

    language can also corrupt thought” ! - George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
  4. 4 THE ACTIVE VOICE 1 Never use the passive where

    you can use the active. be direct. use the active tense. A hit B says it more concisely than B was hit by A
  5. 5 WHAT DO WE MEAN? ! ! (Active) Ms. Smith

    gave Bob an A. ! (Passive) An A was given to Bob by Ms. Smith. ! (Passive) Bob was given an A. The subject performs the action. The subject receives the action. Who’s responsible for the action?

    the action rather than the voice. e.g. After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by the planning committee. To describe a process, the actor is irrelevant. e.g. Nucleotides are added to single strands resulting in two identical strands of DNA. To be tactful by not naming the actor. e.g. Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children. To stress the condition, the actor is unimportant. e.g. Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with having prostate cancer. To say it with an authoritative tone. e.g. Trespassers will be prosecuted.

    you take responsibility for what happens to you? do you make things happen or do things happen to you? are you in charge of your destiny or are you a victim of circumstances?

    the action into the verb. Don’t bury the action into a noun or blur it across the sentence.
  9. 9 BEWARE OF NOMINALIZATIONS Take a perfectly good verb, and

    smother it with a noun ending. agree vs. reach an agreement decide vs. come to a decision consider vs. give consideration to experiment vs. conduct an experiment on conclude vs. arrive at a conclusion exemplify vs. provide an example of investigate vs. conduct an investigation into invite vs. extend an invitation to indicate vs. give an indication
  10. 10 LETTING YOUR VERBS BREATHE FREE Find the smothered verb.

    The board reached an agreement to finally sell the company. Exorcise the sentence of verbs in ‘to be’ form. The primary focus of the workshop is recent developments in 3d printing. Purge the occurrences of ‘of the’ phrase. This experiment is a good example of the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Watch out for expletive constructions. There was strong disagreement between both parties over who was to blame for the accident. Ask what the likely action could be. The engineers could not provide an explanation for the malfunction.
  11. 11 OPERATORS OR VERBAL FALSE LIMBS An unnecessarily long verb

    construction that replaces a simple and direct verb. ‘give rise to’ vs. generate ‘make contact with’ vs. connect ‘has the impact on’ vs. affect ‘militate against’ vs. fight ‘be subjected to’ vs. suffer ‘have a tendency’ vs. tend ‘is cognizant of’ vs. knows ‘render inoperative’ vs. break or kill ‘plays a leading role in’ vs. ‘contributes to’ or dominates or ‘essential to’
  12. 12 TRADING PUFFERY FOR CLARITY 3 Prefer simple conjunctions &

    prepositions to wordy phrases. Reduce phrases that add nothing to the meaning of the sentence.
  13. 13 WORDY PHRASES CAN BE REDUCED due to the fact

    that, owing to the fact that, in light of the fact that, considering the fact that, on the grounds that, this is why, the reason for, by virtue of the fact that because, since, why despite the fact that, regardless of the fact that, notwithstanding the fact that although, though, even in the event that, if it should transpire/happen that, under circumstances in which if on the occasion of, in the situation in which, under circumstances in which when as regards, in reference to, with regard to, concerning the matter of about
  14. 14 WORDY PHRASES CAN BE REDUCED (CONTD.) it is crucial

    that, it is necessary that, there is a need/ necessity for, it is important that, it is incumbent upon, cannot be avoided must, should is able to, has the opportunity to, is in a position to, has the capacity to, has the ability to can it is possible that, there is a chance that, it could happen that, the possibility exists for may, might, can, could prior to, in anticipation of, subsequent to, following on, at the same time as, simultaneously with before, after, as
  15. 15 BEING STRAIGHTFORWARD 4 Favor simplicity over pretentious diction. Don’t

    be stuffy. Use the language of everyday speech, not that of spokesmen, lawyers or bureaucrats.

  17. 17 PHRASES YOU CAN OMIT all things considered as a

    matter of fact as far as i’m concerned for all intents and purposes for the most part in a manner of speaking in a very real sense in my opinion in the case of in the final analysis in the process of the point I’m trying to make

    needle in a haystack cool as a cucumber pushing the envelope dead as a doornail easier said than done leader of the pack face the music horns of a dilemma stiff upper lip ladder of success open and shut case stand shoulder to shoulder fishing in troubled waters no axe to grind Achilles heel toe the line order of the day different ball game now plain sailing over the moon window of opportunity living legends push the panic button burst the bubble real-life super heroes

    or meet their maker or gone to eternal sleep bombing raids or surgical air strikes armies or peace-keeping forces garbage collector or sanitation engineer terrorists or gunmen or rebels or insurgents or militants or radicals or extremists janitor or custodial engineer murder or bombings or shootings or terrorist attacks unplanned killings or collateral damage or civilian casualties prostitute or lady of the evening killing or neutralizing the enemy or curtailing the right to oppose torture or refined interrogation techniques kidnapping or special rendition shell shocked or battle fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder
  20. 20 IT TAKES COURAGE TO… ! be direct (i.e. say

    what you mean) not hide from the truth or defend the indefensible
  21. 21 KEEPING IT REAL 5 Favor concrete illustrations over vague

    abstractions. …and be specific when you do this!
  22. 22 HERE’S TO THE ABSTRACT ONES… Intangible qualities, ideas, or

    concepts - things we know only through our intellect. truth, honor, kindness, grace, love, success, freedom, democracy, racism, socialism, justice, reality, totalitarian, science, equality, … ! Can we ever agree on one definition? fascism is evil? democratic regimes are desirable? love is good? => prostitution should be legalized? freedom? => divorce? loose pants? debt-free? your own car? turning off the life-support machine? protection against illegal wiretapping?
  23. 23 AND THE CONCRETE ONES… Objects or events that are

    available to the senses things which you can see, hear, smell, taste, feel, point to, measure, … ! You’ll have little trouble with their meaning. I want to be successful. or I want a gold Rolex and Mercedes in my driveway. I’d like ice cream. or I’d like a double-scoop waffle cone of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream.
  24. 24 VARYING DEGREES OF ABSTRACTION furniture chair rocking chair La-Z

    Boy rocker recliner lime-green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm and a crushed jelly doughnut pressed into the back edge of the seat cushion dull, vague, lacking emotion, hard to pin down interesting, specific, can associate with it, easier to pin down
  25. 25 IN OTHER WORDS… ! Favor descriptions that create tangible

    images with details the reader can visualize (concrete language) ! Avoid terms with imprecise meanings, especially when they can be understood differently. (abstract language)
  26. 26 MORE WORDS THAT DECEIVE… romantic plastic human dead sentimental

    natural living free progressive reactionary immoral patriotic ! ! epoch-making epic historic unforgettable triumphant age-old inevitable inexorable veritable
  27. 27 PARALLEL STRUCTURE 6 Expressing similar parts of a sentence

    in a consistent way. Elements alike in function should be alike in construction

    faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. - Dr. King, Jr. Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. - William Shakespeare Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. - John F. Kennedy If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward. - Dr. King, Jr. ...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. - Abraham Lincoln And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man. - John F. Kennedy
  29. 29 AND SOMETIMES GREAT MOVIES TOO… …Soldiers! don’t give yourselves

    to brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate - the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” - not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power - the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then - in the name of democracy - let us use that power - let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work - that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will! - Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
  30. 30 PARALLEL STRUCTURE HELPS TO… ! organize your ideas make

    your passage easier to follow create a satisfying rhythm in your language
  31. 31 THE PURSUIT OF LUCIDITY 7 I see but one

    rule - to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing. - Stendhal
  32. 32 BE LEAN… “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should

    contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” ! - William Strunk Jr.
  33. 33 TREAT YOUR SENTENCES WELL “At times he may indulge

    himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won't be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.” ! - Mark Twain
  34. 34 A PARAGRAPH IS… “…a unit of thought, not of

    length; it must be homogenous in subject matter and sequential in treatment.” ! - H. W. Fowler
  35. 35 BE LUCID ! ! be concise simple sentences help

    keep complicated constructions to a minimum avoid gimmicks long paragraphs, like long sentences, can confuse
  36. 36 YOU MAY SOUND… arrogant …if you’re telling people what

    to think, instead of making an argument and backing your opinions/assertions with facts/evidence. too many ought’s, should’s, must’s? pleased with yourself …if your cleverness gets in the way of your ideas and thoughts. chatty …if you’re relying heavily on phrases like ‘and lo behold’, ‘wait for it’, ‘would you believe it’, etc. didactic …if you’re starting sentences with ‘compare…’, ‘consider…’, ‘imagine…’, ‘remember…’, ‘think about…’
  37. 37 THE SEVEN TIPS - RECAP ! 1. Prefer the

    active voice 2. Put the action back in to your verbs 3. Reduce wordy phrases to simpler alternatives 4. Use the language of everyday speech 5. Favor concrete terms over abstract ones 6. Use parallel structure to organize your ideas 7. If it hinders your pursuit of clarity, shun it

  39. Do send your questions, suggestions, or comments to: ! avinashc@thoughtworks.com

  40. 40 REFERENCES ! ! •http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit •http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/ •http://www.economist.com/styleguide/introduction •http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/contents.html •http://www.cliffsnotes.com/writing/grammar •http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/

    ! !