Good, effective writing happens when we pay careful attention to what we’re writing, and there are some basic skills that we all need to learn and eventually master to be effective communicators. These skills are the foundations of all good writing. They can be condensed down into three categories: correctness, clarity, and conciseness. Each of these skillsets evolves naturally as we practice our writing, as long as we’re aware of and pay attention to it. Let’s take a brief look at each of these groups of writing fundamentals.
Correctness refers to the essential mechanics of writing standard American English. This category covers a lot of ground, from proper grammar to spelling to sentence structure, and everything in between. Our writing, to be effective and persuasive, absolutely needs to incorporate all levels of correctness, because, in part, incorrectness in these basic elements is the first impression our readers take from our communication, and we all know that we only get one chance to make a good first impression, right?
Knowing how to construct a complete sentence is one key to making our writing correct (see our 12/7/11 blog about complete sentences). Checking our spelling is another basic element of correctness—and we can’t trust automated spellcheckers to catch all misspelled words: they just won’t do it. If we’re unfamiliar with some of the words we’re using (because they’ve always tended to be a problem or because we’re working to expand our vocabulary), it’s imperative that we check their proper spelling; readers will correctly assume that incorrect spelling indicates either laziness or lack of concern about our writing. A third element that is a common issue in our writing is using correct grammar. Faulty grammar is again immediately obvious, and demonstrates either ignorance or indifference, neither of which we want to convey to our audience. Once again, we can’t place all our trust in automated grammar checkers—they are far more unreliable even than spellcheckers.
Fortunately, virtually all of us have a copy of Troyka’s handbook for writers from one of our English classes. This is an indispensable resource for learning how to incorporate all of the Three Cs into our communications. Those who don’t have this book should acquire a copy—it’s far more than worth the price. And of course, the book is much more useful if we actually read it rather than using it for a doorstop.
Clarity has to do with presenting the ideas in our writing in such a way that our readers can understand them. It involves elements like organization of ideas, sentence structure (again), and paragraph development. Our writing should make it easy for readers to follow our meaning. Our readers have a right to expect that our writing will present them with thoughts that are clearly laid out, from individual sentences to paragraphs to the entire essay or paper; if they don’t find this to be the case they will almost invariably turn away from the writing, and they certainly won’t learn from it. Readers should not have to work hard to figure out what we’re trying to say. If they have to do so (and if they even bother to do so) then truly effective communication is again stymied.
One issue to look out for especially in regard to clarity is making assumptions—we tend to expect our readers to know what we know, and that’s almost always a big mistake. Of course, we can assume that readers possess general knowledge (and, depending on the audience, specialized knowledge in a particular area, like Occupational Therapy or Nursing), but we cannot reasonably expect readers to read our minds. Consequently we must be careful to present all the information that readers will need to comprehend our meaning and purpose.
Conciseness is closely related to correctness, so much so that the two are often combined into one category. Conciseness means presenting our ideas in concrete, comprehensible form, without the use of ‘flowery’ or unnecessary language. We should routinely check our writing to make certain that we aren’t trying to enhance it or ‘pad it out’ with empty or meaningless phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs. With a little awareness, we can all pretty easily learn to spot empty language in our writing; dispensing with it goes a long way toward increasing our conciseness.
These three categories represent the essence of good, effective writing. They should be considered as we write, and then reconsidered after we have completed a draft. This reconsideration is known as proofreading (mostly, but not exclusively, for correctness) or editing (usually working with clarity and conciseness). Both are necessary components of double-checking our writing to make sure it’s as effective as possible, and together they comprise the stage of writing called revising. In our next blog we’ll discuss proofreading, editing, and general revising in more detail, and we’ll discover how to use these techniques to produce good writing.
Do you want to learn more about how to utilize greater correctness, clarity, and conciseness in your own writing? Would you like to make your writing more effective and more persuasive? Then come visit us at ASK—we offer professional and peer tutors to help you maximize the effectiveness of your communications, and to develop other academic skills as well. To make an appointment with one of our counselors or tutors, drop in to our office at 301 Hegeman Hall, or call us at 279-5636. We’re here to help you succeed at Keuka College.
Submitted by Jeffery Carter; Academic Skills Counselor, Writing Tutor
Pronouns, those words that stand in for nouns, are indispensable. Just imagine how difficult it would be to write or to read if we had to repeat nouns over and over.
“Joe wanted to clean out Joe’s car so Joe pulled Joe’s car in to the garage and opened the doors of Joe’s car. Then Joe emptied Joe’s car out and dumped the garbage into the garbage can so that the garbage wouldn’t be all over the floor.”
You get the idea.
Useful as they are, though, because they are inherently vague, pronouns need to be used with care.
Even though they are composed (not “comprised”) of many people, we refer to organizations by singular pronouns, not plural: an organization is an “it” not a “they”.
“Keuka College welcomed more than 200 students to its ASAP program.”
“Ford still makes the world’s most popular truck. It sells its F-150 model in every country.”
(It needs to be said here that this is true of American English. In British English, it’s just the opposite:
“Keuka College welcomed more than 200 students to their ASAP program.”
Who or That?
The answer to this dilemma is often a judgment call. But, in general, it just makes sense to use “who” when you are talking about people (especially specific people), and “that” when not.
“Parents who opt to home school their children have a long list of challenges to overcome.”
“Samuel Johnson, who compiled the first English dictionary, was famous for his punning ability.”
“The committee decided to discuss only those matters that could be dealt with on the spot.”
But what about animals? Fluffy is a “who”, not a “that”, surely! The simple answer is the best: if the animal has a name, it’s “who”; if not, it’s “that”.
“The bison that had been so diminished by wanton hunting are slowly gaining in numbers.”
“She brought her cat, who yowled continuously, into the vet’s examination room.”
One thing that will help us all to be better writers is to pay attention to words as words. Several previous Wordworks have focused on what words mean, but this week we’re going to look at, of all things, the sequence of letters in words and sentences. It’s more fun that you might think!
A “hippodrome” is a racecourse. (“Hippos” is the Greek word for “horse”: e.g., “hippopotamus” = “river horse”.)
But that does not mean that a “Palindrome” is a racetrack for former vice-presidential candidates. On the contrary, a palindrome is any sequence of characters that reads the same backwards and forwards.
Certain names are palindromes: Bob, Otto, Lil.
Numbers can be palindromes, too: 101; 23,432; 77; 8,923,298.
(Obviously, each century contains only one palindromic year. Most of us alive now have had the fairly unusual experience of living through two: 1991 and 2002.)
The most entertaining palindromes, though, are those that (even sort of) mean something . . . like the vaguely Napoleonic lament that is the subject line of this post.
Another pretty famous one supposedly refers to Teddy Roosevelt:
“A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.”
Then there’s the theologian’s puzzle:
“Do geese see God?”
Or the exasperated trattoria customer to his waiter:
“Go hang a salami; I’m a lasagna hog.”
Here’s the longest one I know of. It’s not the most cogent, but it is long:
“Doc note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”
Finally, my personal favorite, the anti-commercialism dictum:
“Trade ye no mere moneyed art.”
Generally speaking, most Americans do not possess extensive vocabularies—of the roughly 350,000 words in the English language most of us get by using fewer than 30,000, or less than one percent of the available words.
How can that be, you ask? Well, it’s like this: we need only a relatively small number of words to get by in day-to-day conversation and, even after adding on the vernacular words we use in our particular jobs, we still don’t need to use all that many words to supply our daily needs. Indeed, we often feel as if using more ‘extravagant’ language brands us as pompous or self-inflated.
Further, we tend, in conversation, to use weak, non-specific words to fill many spots that could be filled by more specific, concrete words—how often, for example, do you use nouns like ‘stuff’ and ‘thing(s)’ to describe items that could easily be identified much more clearly and accurately with a little work in applying more definite words? How about the overuse of the verb ‘get’, in place of other, more exact verbs—see below for examples:
The sentence “he got a car” could turn out, by using a more specific verb or verb phrase, to mean:
So how do we go about expanding our vocabularies, and why in the world would we want to bother to do so?
The ‘how’ is pretty easy, really, and you’ve probably heard it all before. Reading extensively, in a wide variety of subjects, is the primary step—as we read we almost always encounter words we don’t know and that we can learn just by looking them up in a dictionary. With the ubiquity of smart phones and Blackberries (not to mention the time-honored print dictionaries) we are seldom far away from something that can look up and define a word for us. So we should look it up, and then remember it, preferably by beginning to use it in our writing, as appropriate; using a word in writing solidifies it in our vocabularies. It’s just plain lazy, after all, to not bother to look up words we don’t know.
As to ‘why’ we should expand our vocabularies, there are three basic reasons:
First of all, don’t we want to be recognized as intelligent, well-educated people? Of course we do—nobody wants to be thought of as a moron. Well, employing an extensive vocabulary is one of the most obvious ways to indicate to others that we are intelligent and well educated. It may not seem fair, but people judge us, and our intellects, by the language we use—the more diverse and appropriate the language usage, the more competent we appear to be.
Secondly, college-level students are in the process of learning how to write (and speak) effectively, and to succeed in these endeavors they need to develop more extensive vocabularies than they (ordinarily) enter college possessing. Additionally, students are learning the specific vernacular of their future professions, which absolutely requires that they expand their vocabularies to include the words that they’ll use every day in their professional lives.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, our spoken and written language is one of the richest elements of our human heritage—and it’s free and available to everyone who wants to claim it. It’s a precious ability. And learning more words—expanding our vocabularies—is an activity that makes us more fully human. How? As far as we know, humans are the only animals that use symbolic spoken language (and are certainly the only ones who use written language). The use of a more extensive set of words to express ourselves—to more clearly and definitely and precisely say exactly what we want to say rather than an approximation of what we want to say, leaving the listener or reader to do the work of understanding what we meant to say—is the act of utilizing the human art of communication to its fullest, to its most complete. How can one be more human than in communicating fully and effectively?
Wow—that’s pretty heavy philosophical stuff for a simple discussion of vocabulary expansion, huh? But it’s all true. Your personal and professional identities are created in large part by the words you use; your ability to succeed in college and in your professional life depends on your use of effective communication; and your full membership in the human race is dependent, to a large degree, on the language you decide to learn and use.
Want to learn more about words? Want to learn to communicate more effectively? Then come visit us at ASK, in 301 Hegeman Hall. Or call for an appointment at 279-5636. We’re always here to help you out!
Submitted by; Jeffery Carter, Academic Skills Counsler, Writing Tutor