‘Become a Better Writer’ – A concise how-to book to help you improve your craft
Donald Powers and Greg Rosenberg’s new book ‘Become a Better Writer’ contains principles, examples, anecdotes and tips that you can adopt to improve your non-fiction writing.
“What a great read – I could feel my writing strengthening as I read it. Clear, concise and helpful.” – Ferial Haffajee
The premise of Become a Better Writer is, simply, that you can write better. We all can. Improving the quality of our writing starts with rethinking our assumptions and developing healthier writing habits. This book aims to help you do both.
The three most common problems in non-fiction writing are using too many words, being unnecessarily complicated and not thinking about who you are writing for. Non-fiction writing is rarely an exercise in self-expression. Chances are that you’re not writing for yourself: you’re writing for your readers. Understanding who you’re writing for is just as important as knowing what you want to say.
Albert Einstein is sometimes credited with having said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Challenging yourself to write as clearly as possible will help you to think more clearly.
In this excerpt from Become a Better Writer, we help you get started. See the end of the article for ordering information.
Chapter 1, Breaking bad writing habits
All too often writers try to impress rather than inform. This bad habit usually results in writing that is needlessly complex. Why? Because if your priority is to show how much you know and the big words you can use, you will be less concerned about ensuring your reader understands your meaning.
Consider this unfortunate example of South African political-speak:
“The public sector intellectuals and practitioners are currently engaged with finding responses to the pervasive question on whether it is entirely appropriate in all respects, given the difference in circumstances, values and goals between the public and private sectors to have borrowed so heavily from the tools, techniques and approaches of the private sector? … What we can say without fear of contradiction is the fact that some of the approaches and management techniques that have found its way into the public sector through that paradigmatic shift of thinking that has come over the discipline of public administration, have resulted, to an extent, in improved operational effectiveness. I would like to be so bold as to categorically state that project management is one of the approaches that we have extended to the public sector that have much to offer to our effective functioning. And I can say this even in the knowledge that the full potential thereof have hitherto not been taken advantage of.”
South Africa’s then-Minister of Public Service and Administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, uttered these unmemorable words at a 2003 conference in Johannesburg. This mélange of buzzwords, truisms, jargon and pseudo-intellectual phraseology can thankfully be reduced to its essence as follows:
“As the discipline of public administration has evolved, so have management techniques. Project management approaches, including those borrowed from the private sector, have helped to improve public-sector effectiveness – and we can do more with these tools.”
This example shows how much waffle can be cut away if you care about making your point clearly and concisely.
Even if your subject matter is complex or technical, you can still write about it clearly. What matters is your attitude to the reader. You need to connect with them, sharing what you know rather than making them think, “Wow, this person seems to know so much – but I’m not sure I understand what they’re saying.”
We often learn by example. Sometimes we learn to write in a way that is suitable for a very limited audience – for example, for your manager or the person who marks your assignments. The same is true if you work in an organisation where all your colleagues, particularly those more senior than you, are determined to sail the seas of jargon.
Take academic writing. It’s common for first-year university or college students to get back their initial assignments heavily marked up with their tutor’s red ink. And so students quickly learn to write in a more formal way – after all, your marks depend on it! You learn to avoid the first person (“I”) and colloquial expressions. You lengthen your sentences and use more academic phrases. You qualify every point you make. You hesitate to voice your own opinions. Your essays become a forest of references. In short, you imitate how your teachers write and, in the process, sacrifice clarity on the altar of complexity.
A major reason academic writing is often unfriendly to the reader is that academics aren’t trained to write simply and clearly, nor do they generally care to. As linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his article “Why academics stink at writing”, they have spent years writing things in a complex way and have been rewarded for doing so. They write for their peers rather than students or non-specialists. If they keep doing this for years and nobody ever challenges them to write more accessibly, there’s no incentive for them to change.
This is true not only for academics, but for art critics, engineers, economists, lawyers, policy specialists – in short, anyone who specialises in a complex subject. It’s often easier to write in a convoluted way using a lot of jargon than it is to write simply. In some cases, the writer may not fully grasp what they are writing about and finds it easier to obfuscate than to clarify. It takes time and effort to write clearly; it also requires changing one’s attitude so that the reader’s understanding comes first.
Fortunately, there are signs of progress. Academic writing published on open access platforms (such as The Conversation) needs to be written in accessible language if it’s to be understood by a general audience and shared widely.
Sharpening your ability to write clearly will serve you well, whatever your line of work. One of the most valuable intellectual skills is to ask questions – and your questions should extend to how you and those around you communicate. Even if you consider yourself a strong writer, some of the writing habits you formed at school, at university and in the workplace may need to be reconsidered and adjusted.
Let your incentive be this: your readers will be impressed not by how grand you sound but by how clearly you’ve communicated your ideas – and they will want to read more of your work.
The global standard: Plain language
When we talk about food, “plain” is generally accepted as a euphemism for “flavourless”. Many of us prefer things to be tasty rather than bland. But when the topic is technical writing, “plain” is a positive, highly desirable quality. A document written in plain language is one where the content, no matter how complex, will be accessible to a reader who is not an expert in the field.
Globally, there’s a trend towards communicating in plain language in business and government. Plain language communications use everyday words and clear sentences to present information in a way that’s easy for the reader to understand. This helps make technical or complex subjects accessible for a wide audience. Plain language is becoming increasingly common in fields such as law, insurance and finance, which are trying to shed their reputation for using highfalutin words and complex sentences to confuse, intimidate and exclude.
In Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, plain language is championed in the law. For example, the US Plain Writing Act (2010) requires federal agencies to use clear language to ensure the public can understand what they publish. The US Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook (1998) provides guidelines for writing financial disclosures. It notes that the most common problems in disclosure documents are:
- Long sentences
- The passive voice
- Weak verbs
- Unnecessary words and detail
- Legal and financial jargon
- Abstract words
- Unreadable design and layout
The authors explain that, in contrast to such documents, “[a] plain English document uses words economically and at a level the audience can understand. Its sentence structure is tight. Its tone is welcoming and direct. Its design is visually appealing. A plain English document is easy to read and looks like it’s meant to be read.”
One caveat: plain language and clear language are not always the same thing. You won’t always be able to use plain language, particularly when you’re writing about a complex subject. But you should be able to write about any subject, no matter how complex, in a way that is clear. Where plain language is not an option, ensure that your writing is lucid. If you fail this test, you are not communicating.
Transparency and protecting the interests of citizens
Using clear language isn’t a matter for arid academic debate: it has real-world consequences. After all, if your key message is lost on your audience – not because they aren’t paying attention, but because they can’t identify what your message is, or can identify it but can’t understand it clearly – then your writing is not fulfilling its purpose. And if the purpose is to inform and prompt action – for example, to advise people of their rights or to explain their income-tax obligations – then the consequences can be serious indeed.
Using clear language is particularly important in societies marked by high levels of inequality. Unambiguous, lucid writing helps citizens understand and exercise their rights.
In South Africa, the National Credit Act (2005) and the Consumer Protection Act (2008) advocate for plain language because it protects the consumer, particularly the poorer consumer who is at higher risk of exploitation. The consumer protection legislation says that a document is considered to be in plain language:
“…if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance and import of the notice, document or visual representation without undue effort.”
Curiously, this clause takes a wide legal detour around plain language. But leaving aside the unnecessarily complex way it is presented, this passage gets across a valuable idea: all citizens should be able to understand what companies and governments communicate. An organisation risks costly litigation and damage to its reputation if it fails to comply with legislation protecting the rights of consumers.
In a 2012 court case, the Durban High Court ruled in favour of a customer who had purchased (and later returned) a defective vehicle. The court stated that the bank’s credit agreement had not sufficiently informed the defendant of his rights and obligations as a consumer, because one or more clauses in the agreement were deceptive.
Organisations need to ensure that consumers can easily understand the terms and conditions in the contracts they sign. Clear language supports transparency and accountability, safeguarding the trust of the reader.
“Transparency” doesn’t mean your document should become a data dump, where every last detail is included for fear of leaving something unsaid. One way to lose or confuse your reader is to overwhelm them with information. Transparency, as the word suggests, is about providing relevant detail in a way that is clear and meaningful to the reader. DM/ ML
Become a Better Writer is currently available in print from Loot (ISBN: 9781928466161) and as an e-book from Amazon (ISBN: 9781928466178). It can also be purchased through the Clarity Global website www.clarityglobal.net.
About the authors:
Donald Powers is a senior editor and head of training and development at Clarity Global. He has two decades of experience as a writer, editor, lecturer and tutor in South Africa and Europe. He holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Cape Town.
Greg Rosenberg has more than three decades of experience as a journalist, writer and editor. He is the co-founder of Clarity Global Strategic Communications in South Africa and the United States, and serves as a global advisor on public financial management communications.
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