Saturday, 10 February 2007

Good writing

The Problem

I thought I'd write about language. It irritates me. People abuse it terribly. Whilst I am far from perfect, I do think that I am far from the worst. Some may consider applying what I suggest to their 'blogs'. It could be beneficial.

You might think that I am about to write about apostrophes, spelling, 'text-speak' and all of that form of language. I am not. I wish instead to comment upon bad writing style.

The Absolutes

At risk of permitting the return of flowery bullet points, I would like to set out the very basics of reasonable writing:
  • Originality is obvious. If you quote, reference. If you do, do not do so excessively. And always make it relevant to support the point you wish to make. Make the point in your own words, or do not write at all.
  • Accuracy is simply decent courtesy. Check for spelling. There is a checking mechanism even on blog posts. Use it. And check for grammar. Punctuation. If you cannot use an apostrophe correctly, learn. If you can, shame on you if you do not. But enough of that, lest I digress.
  • Interest is important. Write if there is something worth writing about. Naturally, not everything will be of interest to everyone. If it is of interest to you, it is legitimate. Provided that it could reasonably be of interest to others. If not, do not write.

Good style

I hope that there is no dispute on what I've written so far. They were the absolutes. What follows are suggestions for good style. They are open to dispute. That is why they are suggestions. They can be summarised in two words:

Plain English

Our language is beautiful. As Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote in his preface to the Oxford Book of English Verse:

'Our fathers have, in the process of centuries, provided this realm, its colonies and wide dependencies, with a speech malleable and pliant as Attic [Greek], dignified as Latin, masculine, yet free of Teutonic guttural, capable of being precise as French, dulcet as Italian, sonorous as Spanish, and captaining all these excellencies to its service'

His point is, perhaps, exaggerated. But the essence is correct. We have a lovely language. And his use of it is inspirational.

The blunted tool

Our beautiful instrument has become blunted. What could be perfectly precise is instead crippled by misuse. The reason is the attitude of the author. The writer is too oten thinking of himself. He ought to be thinking of his readers. He uses a word in the meaning he understands it to have. But he should be using it in the meaning that his readers can be expected to put on it. He may be incorrect.

Now doubt you find this too harsh on the writer. But I do not mean you to take my point to the point of absurdity. Consider: in my house, one may well not use the phrase 'to the point of absurdity'. One could use 'ad absurdum'. The Latin phrase, used in English, is not unreasonable. In my first draft of that sentence, I used the Latin. I removed it. I could not guarantee that it would be understood.


Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll, contains a delightful allegory. I would venture a little longer on your time by quoting it for you:

"'There's glory for you!', said Humpty-Dumpty.

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ...'Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me, please,' said Alice 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'

'Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark. "

In Summary

I have wittered on long enough about good writing. I should like to summarise it all into a brief list. And add the closing touches.

Good style

  • Don't use long words unless you are sure your reader will understand them. If a reader must look a word up to understand it, you have failed.
  • Don't use long sentences. If a reader must read your sentence twice to understand it, you have failed. It demolishes the effect of your point.
  • Split up long passages. Use bullet-points, and headings. Short paragraphs are better than long ones. Especially on computer screens.

The Absolutes

These must be remembered. Or else good style is lost.

  • Originality
  • Accuracy
  • Interest

The axiom

At all times, remember the aim of writing. It is to communicate the writer's thoughts to the reader. If your writing does not do this, it has failed.


Francis said...

I am very pleased to see a post about language here. It's something close to my heart, and something that I seem to encounted every time I open my mouth. However, there are several assertions that I cannot agree with:

'If a reader must look a word up to understand it, you have failed' - how so? Surely you've succeeded in teaching them a new word and quite possibly expressing your idea in a more accurate way

'Use bullet-points, and headings. Short paragraphs are better than long ones' - this only applies to certain types of writing. If you really want to analyse a point or get anywhere interesting, this just doesn't do the job in my opinion

'I have wittered on long enough about good writing. I should like to summarise it all into a brief list. And add the closing touches.' - why the full-stop? argh! I'm afraid that for me this isn't 'broken up' or more accessable, it's rather irritating and incorrect

'At all times, remember the aim of writing. It is to communicate the writer's thoughts to the reader. If your writing does not do this, it has failed.' - no, no, no! honestly Phil, so shallow!

I must desist now or either I'll die or Phil will hit me when he next sees me. Although this comment has been inspired partially by a desire to provoke, I do disagree with a lot of the points made. Writing in one set style is in itself abuse of language.

I need a lie down.

Phil' said...

You're right on many of these points, but I would disagree still on others.

Certainly, with critical essays, short paragraphs are not sufficient to develop an argument.

I should observe that my post, too, was written provocatively.

I decided to use a hyperbolic approach in order to get a response. Naturally, you're correct on most points where you've highlighted this.


Phil' said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Apocalypticat said...

Goodness. Exploring Francis's link list is certainly profitable. I concur with most of what you say, except with certain stylistic points Francis pointed out, plus your assertion that one should only write about something which is worth reading about. My personal livejournal is virtually never read, but it was not written to be read. It was written to be written - expressed to be expressed (therapeutic poetry!).

But bravo! Abuse of English is enough to drive me to apoplexy.

Tom said...

I think that style is unique to the author and his readers are only his readers if they appreciate his style. Although you may argue it is the duty of a writer to make his writing readable, it is at the same time his right to write in the manner he chooses.
As far as spelling and grammar go, I agree wholeheartedly. Errors in spelling or grammar give a text a feeling of ugliness. It is wild and unsightly. However, I have learned to live with this through many a Messenger conversation.
As Francis has said, using a word that is unrecognised by the reader is a good way to introduce language to someone. However, I take your point that it makes for confusing reading. Perhaps it is better to say that one must find a balance between fascinating new words and common English so that the reader is encouraged to find out what the new words means, but it not deterred because they're looking for the dictionary every other word. I keep a dictionary next to my bed so that when I find a new word, I can leisurely pick up the dictionary, thumb through to the word and discover the meaning of that word. Then follows a feeling of satisfaction at having understood and in the process, learnt a new word.

Tom said...

How beautifully ironic that I should make two spelling mistakes :D *mean and *is

You are granted permission to debate my use of the word 'irony' Phil :P

Gavin said...

Phil, just remember that language is not absolute. It if it was, we would all be speaking Anglo-Saxon or some other Germanic dialect. I appreciate that this is slightly off the point, but language is not a science, it is an art. You could argue that there are no real rules - much contemporary poetry deliberately uses a totally ungrammatical style in order to break free of language conventions that can be restrictive for artistic purposes. However, as in art, classical conventions are adhered to when a classical result is desired. It's the same with music.