“Write for yourself, edit for your readers”

2009-09-04

in Internet matters, Rants, Writing

Ductwork on brick

This great bit of advice comes from Copyblogger. When it comes to the proper use of language in online communication, I think the key issue is one of respect. Being respectful of your readers means taking care to express yourself well, as well as avoid spelling and grammatical mistakes. Taking a slapdash approach to editing suggests that you value a few seconds of your own time more than the time of everyone who will subsequently read whatever you are producing. From my perspective, that is rather rude.

Other good resources include George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” This includes concise and excellent advice on how to improve prose (apologies for the inappropriately gendered language):

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

These basic ideas can also be reformulated as six ‘rules:’

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These apply just as much to corporate, government, and academic documents as they do to blog posts or personal letters.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily September 6, 2009 at 3:49 pm

These rules are especially important, when you are very deliberately breaking them:

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls

BY E. E. CUMMINGS

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
…. the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

zoom September 6, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Good post. I try to edit all my blog posts down to 500 words or less after I’ve written them. They almost always benefit from this.

Banksy91 September 6, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I really think the passive voice gets a bad name. Of course if using the passive voice makes the sentence awkward then you should avoid using it in a sentence. The question is not whether one should use the passive tense or not but that one should always avoid awkward sentences.

I really just hate blanket rules and I can think of many circumstances where all the rules above could and should be broken.

. September 6, 2009 at 5:36 pm

“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

. April 30, 2011 at 11:54 am

VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

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