Writing is Communication

Monday, February 8, 2016

I am blog master for a nonprofit writers’ organization, and it is my responsibility to take any unfilled slots. So when a new semester rolls around, I appreciate receiving posts from our college interns.

But I wish they knew how to write.

The funny—or rather sad—thing is that these are English majors. It may be that they write heart-rending poetry and decent short stories, but they don’t know how to convey factual information or advice so that readers understand it.

There have been exceptions, of course, and I’m expecting great things from one of this year’s interns. But the other two are unknowns, and I’m not hopeful.

Writing is communication. In blog posts, or any other attempt to convey factual information or advice, clarity is key. So here is my advice.

  • Make your sentences and paragraphs flow. I don’t agree with people who say they shouldn’t ever convey more than one thought, but the thoughts must be related and each one must be kept together. Oh, wait. What did I just say? In the second sentence, what does “they” refer to? Technically, it refers to the people, but I meant it to refer to sentences and paragraphs. And what does the reference to other people add? Not much. These two sentences are much clearer: Make your sentences and paragraphs flow. They can convey more than one thought as long as the thoughts are related and each one is kept together.
  • Don’t try to show off your knowledge. It makes me think you are pretentious rather than smart.

o   I like to be challenged, but I don’t like to search outside the page for the meaning of a word. If you use a word I might not know, place it in a context that defines it for me. On those rare occasions where an actual definition is necessary, make the definition fit like a puzzle piece that disappears into the picture. If either the word or the definition causes the reader to pause, find another word.

o   The same is true for references to books and phrases and movie characters. If I don’t understand the reference, I am not likely to go looking it. In fact, I may not bother with the rest of the piece. If you want to add a second layer of meaning by using a particular reference, fine, but knowledge of that reference had better not be necessary for the sentence to work at the surface level. Assume, for example, that you have a young character who reads whenever she is bored. If the primary purpose is to show her state of mind, any book will do. But reading Alice in Wonderland, which tells the story of a girl escaping boredom, adds another dimension.  

  • When in doubt, keep it simple. A paragraph that covers half a page is rarely effective. Variety is good, however. A string of short sentences is choppy, and a string of long ones is boring, so mix them up unless you are after a particular effect. A chain of short sentences can show panic, and a series of long ones may be just what you need to convey a character’s blandness. But when in doubt, keep it simple.

Without clarity, your words are as effective as the blanks in a game of hangman. Some people may be able to figure out the missing letters based on the context or previous knowledge, but others won’t. You don’t want to hang your reader up.

So write as if someone’s life depends on it.

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