Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mon's 3 Golden Rules for better writing

Doesn't the title sound like something from a Reader's Digest book? Anyway, ever so often, I get asked what makes for good writing, especially for school compositions. I'm sure there are 101 suggestions you can find online or in books but I thought I'd give my 2cts.

I have 3 self-imposed Golden Rules for writing that I try to follow, whether I'm writing for my clients or for my blog. (I'm starting to sound like a Methodist pastor - the 3-point sermon!) Of course this assumes that your child already understands the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. While these rules may not necessarily be valid for everything, especially across different fiction genres, they're general enough to apply to most types of writing (corporate included).

Golden Rule #1: Be clear

In my work, clarity is of utmost importance. I'm sure you've come across many company brochures that either waffle on and on or make you maneouver past through piles of irrelevant information. Both show that the company is terribly disorganised and/or have no idea what their target audience is looking for. Frankly, too many corporate writers out there pad their writing because they seem to equate the number of words with quality (and also they're probably paid based on the number of words!) On the other hand, I've been known to brutally slash entire paragraphs into one sentence. That has become somewhat of a calling card for me (and what my clients pay me for).

Who, when, where, what, how - the five standard questions to ask before you write. In business writing, it's important to always be succinct and to the point. Afterall, clients are not interested in fancy writing. For composition writing, descriptive prose is usually required but still, clarity is important - What is the scenario you wish to paint? How do you want the reader to feel? What is the impact you want to create?

I find that long, convoluted sentences are often the death knell of an essay. If a sentence is too long, break it into two. For composition writing, a good mixture of sentence lengths normally works best. After a few sentences of average length (10 to 25 words), throw in a short one for extra oomph. Like this.

Golden Rule #2: Be original

There are too many copycats in writing. Often, if you pick up corporate brochures of different companies in the same industry, you'll find that the writing style is very similar, sometimes down to the exact words. So much so that you can just substitute the name of the company with its rival and no one would be any wiser. In writing, like in everything else, originality is vital if you want to stand out.

Likewise for composition writing, cliches are used far too often. Schools frequently employ the strategy of learning "good phrases" for composition writing. I'm fine with this - I think it's helpful, especially as a teaching technique to show newbies how to express themselves. But once your child has more or less gotten the hang of it, do encourage him to think up his own phrases. For instance, if your kid has learned "He looked as if he had seen a ghost", a common phrase for fear, he can think about what he fears most and create a phrase like "He looked as if he had forgotten to study for a very important exam" (PSLE on my mind lah).

And please, please, never ask your child to memorise entire model compositions to be regurgitated word for word! You're killing creativity with one giant swoop.

Golden Rule #3: Be real

Most people can spot insincerity a mile away. What you're writing about must be meaningful, try not to write about something you know nothing about. I know many kids don't have a choice when it comes to composition topics, in which case they need to read more widely about different scenarios and situations in order to write realistically.

I remember in my Psychology class in NUS, a classmate didn't do any research for his essay topic but thought he could bluff his way through by using lots of jargon and fancy language. The lecturer gave him a big, red "F" and wrote, "This is gobbledegook."

Thankfully in this respect, schools are more forgiving than the working world. I've met too many wanna-be writers who think they are simply terrific because they have a good command of the written word. But once I read their writing, I can tell if they've had any real working experience (and a brain) because it shows in their writing. I had one ex-staff member who used to drive me crazy because he would blend business cliches and corporate speak in seemingly random sentence arrangements that communicated nothing (actually, nothing would be an improvement, his writing communicated nonsense). And he couldn't understand why I didn't appreciate his work.

So those are my 3 Golden Rules for writing well. At the end of the day, the ideas and the language are equally important in writing - do not over-emphasise one at the expense of the other. If you have all the ideas without a competent command of the language, your writing will be incoherent or boring. If you're all language and no ideas, all you have is a piece of empty, pretentious prose.

At the risk of controversy, I feel that many of the Booker and Man Booker award winners fall under the second category. Maybe after the judges have doggedly ploughed through 300 pages of dreary text and paper-thin plots, they figure the book must be really profound since they couldn't follow the half of it. I still feel indignant when I think about the time I wasted reading Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin.

Anyway, that's just my opinion (Margaret Atwood fans, back off!) This is my blog and I'm entitled to it! Writing is to be read... and to be enjoyed. And as with everything, practice makes perfect (cliche be damned)!


Alcovelet said...

Monica, about good writing, I'll just settle for reading your blog :). See? Effortless!

monlim said...

Ad: *blush* that's a great compliment :)

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