The Value of the Reboot

You may occasionally find yourself in a situation where you write a piece and don’t like the finished product. For some reason, it just doesn’t sit well with you. Maybe it doesn’t express your point as clearly as you’d like. Maybe the writing seems dull and lifeless. Maybe you get the impression you’re taking the wrong angle on your topic. The place to take up these concerns is in the editing phase. So, if you’re concerned that your piece is lifeless, you can analyze your use of language and figure out how to make your writing livelier. The same goes for enhancing clarity. But sometimes you can edit in earnest and still not like the finished product. What then? Sometimes, the best thing to do is walk away from the existing draft and start again. This is an unappealing option, to be sure, given the work you’ve already done. But it’s possible to exhaust yourself when editing, especially if you have been trying to manipulate your document into something it doesn’t want to be. You don’t want this to happen. Suppose you get the impression you’re taking the wrong angle on your topic, as mentioned above. It’s possible to rectify this problem through editing. But this is a much more labor-intensive project than revising for clarity, and it may not be worth it, especially if it is a shorter document. Provided you have the time (and only you can be the judge of this), the better option is to start again. Even though it sounds like more work up front, it may actually take you less time in the...

The Legacy of Rudolph Flesch

You probably haven’t heard of Rudolph Flesch, but there’s a good chance you’ve encountered his work while using a word processor or other digital applications where writing plays a role. Given that The Art of Plain Talk was published in 1946, and that the studies of writing and language have changed considerably since then, it’s impressive that he is still taken seriously today. So what did Flesch say then that still makes him relevant now? He argues that writing improves when it’s made simpler and easier to read. Flesch tries to approach English scientifically, generating a formula to calculate how writing can be made more readable. He identifies three key attributes to serve as the basis for what he calls “Plain Talk,” his version of clear and accessible writing. First, it has short sentences (he argues that a text becomes difficult to read when sentence length increases beyond 17 words). Second, it is unencumbered by affixes (either prefixes or suffixes or both). Affixes, he believes, negatively affect the readability of a text and should be either minimized or eliminated. Third, it has many personal references (in the form of personal pronouns), as this increases the accessibility of the piece. It’s important to see that the attributes are quantifiable. A tally can be generated for each, and these numbers can be plugged into a formula to generate a readability score. This is the science of Flesch’s work. Typically, evaluations of writing are highly subjective, but by allowing for these attributes to be quantified, a text can be viewed completely objectively, at least in terms of its readability. The readability score...

Zakaria & Writing

Chapter 3 of Fareed Zakaria’s latest book In Defense of a Liberal Education has some important remarks about writing, ones that are worth exploring here. Very often, proponents of Liberal Education say that it teaches students how to think. This is fine, but for Zakaria, thoughts only begin to take shape once pen is put to paper. Or, put slightly differently, thoughts become more shapely and coherent once they are worked out and groomed by the writing process. Zakaria writes about an influential English teacher from his youth. Authoritarian and liberal in his use of the red correcting pencil, he impressed upon Zakaria the importance of concise and well-articulated prose. While many today might object to the methods employed by this teacher, few will take issue with the core belief that’s at stake here, namely that ideas don’t come out of the head fully shaped and ready to go to press. Consider Zakaria reflections on his own writing:   When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of a column or essay is an expression of self-knowledge—learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand.   A few things should jump out at you after reading this. First, someone as established as Zakaria still produces “jumbles” of “half-formed ideas” when he first sets out to write something. And...

Resources For Your Discipline

The first thing you must do if you are looking to improve your writing, even before you start establishing goals, is ask yourself how much time you have to dedicate to the task. And be honest and realistic with yourself. Are you looking to improve your writing just enough so that you can get into the best business school possible with no intentions of working to better yourself after that? Are you looking to improve your writing because your boss has demanded it with threat of punishment? Are you interested in improving your writing over the course of many years because you have ambitions of writing a memoir? In each of the above examples, there is motivation to improve. What each of the above questions attempts to stress is not that writing should be the most enjoyable thing in your life (this is perhaps what some teachers in your past may have stressed); rather, that there is a connection between writing and time. In general, the more time you can commit to writing, the more improvement you will see. This is why quick fix solutions tend not to work. Writing is a skill that takes time to acquire. This is the simple truth. In addition to the practicing and reading that I talked about last time, there are a few things you can do to take an active approach to your writing discipline. The challenge for many of us is that we may be working with gaps in knowledge, or, worse, incorrect information that we picked up somewhere along the way in our education. Combine this with a lack...

Practice and Discipline

I have a confession: I was never especially fond of keeping a journal during my school years. They always felt somewhat forced. Mainly, what I ended up doing was chronicling a given day’s experiences, and this was always seemed boring to me. Predictably, the writing turned out pretty boring. Sadly, I’m not sure I ever really understood the whole point of the exercise was for me to practice a skill in an environment where a premium wasn’t put on grammar and syntax. Any self-respecting writing teacher will tell you that one improves as a writer through practice and by reading quality writing. The first of these should be self-evident. Why would you expect to improve in any activity without practice? For example, your golf game will not dramatically improve unless you make an effort to play more rounds of golf, or to practice specific aspects at the range. Furthermore, by reading quality writing, you will begin to take notice of the techniques accomplished authors use to express themselves. If you are diligent, you will increase your vocabulary by looking up the definition of new words that you don’t use in your everyday speech. There is no reason you can’t begin using them in your own writing to improve conciseness and eloquence. The most common excuse that surfaces once it becomes clear that a good amount of effort is needed to make a change is that there’s not enough time. We use this excuse a lot in our lives, and it’s true that time is a precious commodity. Just be honest with yourself about the goal you’ve set out to...

Don’t be Lazy!

Business leaders constantly decry the quality of writing in the workplace. Most of the time, comments are directed towards the education system and its failure to produce a young working class who can write competently. The blame game is a nasty one indeed. What I’m interested in here is how we present ourselves formally in writing and more specific, the reason for our mistakes. While the rules of grammar and punctuation may have loosened up over the last century, mistakes still exist. If an error is made in writing, it can often be unclear as to whether the writer is ignorant of the grammar or is just being lazy with respect to its application. To further compound the problem, some writers may have been taught poorly when they were students. Perhaps they were given incorrect examples of what constitutes a participle, for example. They’re neither ignorant nor lazy, then, but there is a problem nevertheless. These writers, if there writing is to prosper, must be willing to unlearn what they have been taught and then learn correctly. This requires considerable effort. The fact of the matter is that you simply cannot afford to be present yourself as a lazy writer, even you are willing to acknowledge that laziness marked your approach to writing at some point in the past. You must start by developing a discipline when addressing the practice, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. Chances are you bring discipline to something else in your life: a sport, a musical instrument, exercise, cooking, work. The trick is to begin translating some of this focus to writing. Not...