The letters on your computer keyboard can be used in an almost infinite number of permutations and combinations to create just about anything. From the works of Shakespeare to a dense scientific tome; from a heart-warming love song to the instruction manual of a microwave, the same 26 letters of the English language form the building blocks of understanding.
There are, however, limits to the use of English. Even the most creative pieces of writing adhere to rules and principles. For example, although he was famous for inventing new words and twisting the meaning of others, Edward Lear’s ‘nonsense verse’ still makes sense because he also used capital letters, punctuation, and enough conventional verbs and nouns to communicate with his readers.
It is important to remember that the advice contained in these blog entries does not restrict what you can write about nor what point of view you can express. The purpose is to help you say what you really want to say while also demonstrating to the reader that you are an effective, expressive and reliable communicator.
This blog entry covers nine basic principles of good writing and the next entry will look at style. In both cases, the advice is intentionally brief and if you want more detailed guidance, there are plenty of books and websites that explain grammar and style in much greater depth. Alternatively, you can sign up for FEU courses on writing, which will be coming up in the next couple of months.
1. Write for your reader
It is absolutely fundamental that your words, and the overall meaning of your writing, are understood by your reader. This means that you should always use the appropriate language and write about ideas and concepts your reader will easily comprehend. Do not, for example, use terminology that is specific to your profession or trade in emails to a general readership. Your primary mission when writing is to engage your reader so that they want to continue reading.
2. Learn how to punctuate
Thanks largely to text messaging, Facebook and Twitter, punctuation is often deemed to be optional. While it’s true that full stops and commas are not that important in a short, personal message, they are essential in longer, more formal communications because they divide your message into intelligible portions. Long, rambling sentences are boring to read and can be confusing, so break them up into shorter, punchier phrases using commas and full stops.
The misuse of apostrophes is extremely widespread and yet the rules are very simple: you should only use an apostrophe in two circumstances: possession (‘Number 10 is David’s house’) and contraction (‘David is at home’ becomes ‘David’s at home.’) If you are ever tempted to use an apostrophe for a simple plural, don’t.
So long as you use commas, full stops and apostrophes effectively, you can pretty much forget about other punctuation for the vast majority of your writing. Semi-colons and colons are appropriate in very few instances (and people often use them wrongly) so it’s best to avoid them completely. And don’t add exclamation marks to emphasise a point. If you choose the right words, they will speak for themselves.
3. Don’t overuse capital letters
Sometimes people use capital letters because they want to stress the importance of a particular word, such as ‘Police’ or ‘Hospital.’ But the only words that should have capital letters are: at the beginning of a sentence; names (David, England, Downing Street, Thursday, September, etc); titles (Mr, Ms, Doctor, etc); and abbreviations (FIFA, BBC, UN, etc.)
4. Avoid txt spk
If you use text messaging regularly, you might be tempted to employ the same conventions in more formal writing. Your reader might forgive small lapses in stylistic judgement, but some will begin to doubt your professionalism if you insist on using text speak. Do not, for example, use lower case ‘i’ or any of the various abbreviations (such as LOL, OMG, etc) when writing to work contacts. Also make sure you start and end emails appropriately: ‘Dear David’ is far preferable to ‘Yo!’, and ‘best wishes’ is much better than ‘TTYL.’
5. Be careful with homophones
The English language has numerous words that sound the same but have totally different meanings. The most commonly cited homophones are there/their, but we also have: bear/bare; deer/dear; tail/tale; who’s/whose; compliment/complement, discrete/discreet, and many more. So long as you remind yourself to be vigilant, you will spot most homophones. Remember, the spellchecker will not pick them up.
6. Check names and places
Spellcheckers are essential for removing errors from your writing but they are not much help with names of people and places. This is particularly true of foreign names, so you need to consciously focus to make sure they are correct. Some names are effectively homophones and their owners can become agitated if you choose the wrong one. Examples include: Davis/Davies; Stephen/Steven, and Clare/Claire. Likewise, some first names have female and male versions - for example, Frances/Francis, and Lesley/Leslie.
7. Proof read meticulously
Before you send your writing to the recipient, carefully read your words from start to finish. It can be difficult to proof your own words so, if something is important, try to get someone else to have a look at it with a fresh eye or give yourself a break and come back to it when you’re more detached.
8. Read every day
Just like a musician who listens to other people’s music and a sportsperson who watches others playing sport, writers need to habitually consume words. In doing so, you will see how other people construct sentences; your vocabulary will improve; and you will pick up new techniques. Conversely, if you read critically, you will begin to spot bad writing and learn how to avoid making the same mistakes.
9. Dealing with writer’s block
There are times when even the best writers are lost for words, so don’t feel like a failure if you suffer from bouts of writer’s block. One approach is to have a break and return to your keyboard with a clear head. But this is not always possible, particularly if you have a tight deadline. Alternatively, try to forget about constructing perfect sentences and just write in very basic phrases or make lists of bullet points. In this way you will be making some progress and you will often find that the inspiration returns in its own time.