By Alex P. Vidal
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” —Benjamin Franklin
BOTH talking and writing are the most effective means of communication since the antiquity.
In this modern time, it’s not enough that we write, we must try to also talk or write the way we talk vice versa.
Writing consultant Rudolf Flesch, creator of Flesch-Kincaid readability test, once lamented that 99 percent of the people who come to his writing classes were born non-writers and have stayed that way all their lives.
He observes that for them, writing has always been an unpleasant chore; answering a simple letter looms ahead like a visit to the dentist.
“But they have to do a certain amount of writing in their careers,” Flesch writes in Word Power. “And knowing their writing was poor, they decided to do something about it.”
No doubt when we think about improving our writing, we think of grammar, rhetoric, composition,–and all those dull things we learned year after year in school.
“But most likely,” Flesch points out, “these things are not your problem. You probably have a pretty good grip on these essentials. What you need is instruction in the basic principles of professional writing.”
Why professional writing? Because we now write as we did in school, unconsciously trying to please the teacher by following the rules of “English Composition.”
“You’re not really writing a letter to the addressee, or a report for your vice president,” Flesch contends. “The pros-magazine writers, newspapermen, novelists, people who write for a living—learned long ago that they must use “spoken” English and avoid “written” English like the plague.
The Austrian-born author of Why Johnny Can’t Read enumerates the following:
TALK ON PAPER. The secret to more effective writing is simple: talk to your reader. Pretend the person who’ll read your letter or report is sitting across from you, or that you are on the phone with him. Be informal. Relax. Talk in your ordinary voice, your ordinary manner, vocabulary, accent and expression.
You wouldn’t say “Please be advised,” or “We wish to inform you.” Instead, something like this, “You see, it’s like this,” or “Let me explain this.” One helpful trick is to imagine yourself talking to your reader across a table at launch. Punctuate your sentence in your mind, with a bite from a sandwich. Intersperse your thoughts with an occasional “you know,” or the person’s name.
So talk-talk on paper. Go over what you’ve written. Does it look and sound like talk? If not, change it until it does.
USE CONTRACTIONS FREELY. There’s nothing more important for improving your writing style. Use of don’t and it’s and haven’t and theirs is the No. 1 style device of modern professional writing. Once you’ve learned this basic trick, you can start producing prose that will be clear, informal and effective.
Take the standard opening phrase: “Enclosed please find.” What’s a better way o saying that? Simply, here’s”!*
LEAVE OUT THE WORD “THAT” WHENEVER POSSIBLE. You can often omit it without changing the meaning at all. Take this sentence: “We suggest that you send us your passbook once a year.” Now strike out that. Isn’t this better and smoother? Again, this is something we do all the time in speaking.
And while you’re crossing out thats, also go on a witch hunt. For some reason people think which is a more elegant pronoun. Wrong. Usually, you can replace which by that, or leave it out altogether—and you’ll get a better, more fluent, more “spoken” sentence.
USE DIRECT QUESTIONS. A conversation is not one-sided. One person speaks, then the other interrupts, often with a question, like “Really?” or “Then what?” A conversation without questions is almost inconceivable. So use a question whenever there’s an opportunity, and your writing will sound more like talk.
You don’t have to go out of your way to do this. Look at what you write and you’ll find indirect questions—beginning with whether all over the place. “Please determine whether payment against these receipts will be in order.” No good. Make it: “Can we pay against these receipts? Please find out and let us know.”
Or take another sentence: “Your questions and comments are invited.” Again, this is really a question: “Do you have any questions or comments? If so, please let us know.” There’s nothing like a direct question to get some feedback.
USE PERSONAL PRONOUNS. A speaker use I, we and you incessantly—they’re part of the give-and-take of conversation. Everybody, it seems, who writes for a company or organization clings desperately to the passive voice and avoids talking the slightest responsibility. He doesn’t say we, never says I, and he even avoids using the straightforward you. So we find phrases like “It is assumed…” “it will be seen…” “it is recommended…” Or sentences like: “An investigation is being made and upon its completion a report will be furnished you.” Instead, write: “We’ve made an investigation and we’ll furnish you a report.”
Normally, when writing for an organization, there isn’t too much opportunity to say “I.” But do use “I” whenever you express feelings and thoughts that are your own. Often it’s better to say “I’m sorry” or “we’re pleased,” than “we’re sorry” or “we’re pleased.” And call the addressee you. The idea is to make your writing as personal as possible.
IT’S ALL RIGHT TO PUT PREPOSITIONS AT THE END. For 50 years, English-language experts have unanimously insisted that a preposition at the end is fine and dandy. H.W. Fowler, in a Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926, defends it enthusiastically and cites examples from
Shakespeare and the Bible to Thackeray and Kipling. Yet schoolteachers still tell pupils they should never commit such a wicked crime.
Put the preposition at the end whenever it sounds right to do so. Instead of “The claimant is not entitled to the benefits for which he applied,” write “The claimant isn’t entitled to the benefits he applied for.” Remember, grammatical superstitions are something to get rid of.
SPILL THE BEANS. There’s a natural tendency in all of us to begin at the beginning and go on to the end. When you write a letter, it’s the easiest way to organize your material. The trouble is, it’s hard on the reader. He has a problem, or a question, and wants to know whether the answer is yes or no. If he has to wait until you’re willing to tell him, his impatience and subconscious resentment will increase with every word. Rather than stumbling your way through some awkward introduction, start right in with the most important thing you want to get cross.
USE SHORT WORDS. Long, pompous words are a curse, a curtain that comes between writer and reader. Here are some familiar sayings as they would appear in a business letter. “In the event that initially you fail to succeed, endeavor, endeavor again.” “All is well that terminate well.”
Everybody has his own pet pomposities. Banish them from your vocabulary. Replace locate with find; prior to with before; sufficient with enough; in the event that with if. After those simple substitutions, weed out such other words as determine, facilitate and require whenever they up. You’ll find that it’s possible to live without them. And you’ll learn to appreciate the joys of simple language.
WRITE FOR PEOPLE. By far the most important thing is to give your letters just the right human touch. Express your natural feelings. If it’s good news, say you’re glad; if it’s bad news, say you’re sorry. Be as courteous, polite and interested as you’d be if the addressee sat in front of you. Some human being will read your letter and, consciously be annoyed if it is cold, pleased if you’re courteous and friendly.
A bank got a letter from a customer who’d moved from New York to Bermuda. He wrote to make new arrangements about his account. The bank’s answer started: “We thank you for your letter advising us of your change of address.” Now really! How stony and unfeeling can you get? I would at least have said something like “I noted your new address with envy.”
Flesch suggests: “You’ll find there are rewards for improving your written work. This is the age of large organizations where it’s easier to catch the eye of a superior by what you write than by what you say or do.”
He adds: “Write the way I suggest and your stuff will stand out. Beyond the material rewards are more personal ones. When you write a particularly crisp, elegant paragraph, or a letter that conveys your thoughts clearly and simply, you’ll feel a flow of creative achievement. Treasure it. It is something you’ve earned.”
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two daily newspapers.—Ed)