I sat looking at all the red markings showing my grammatical errors. So much red was embarrassing, not because it was a college term paper, but because it was an all staff business memo I wrote early in my first job out of college. While embarrassing, I was, however, encouraged by a note written in the corner: “You are responsible for effective communication in your assignment. I hope you will work diligently at this craft.” It was a turning point for me, a clarion charge to tackle the rules of grammar and effective written communication with vigor.
Over 30 years, I have worked at communicating effectively through the written word. I have learned that this craft takes commitment, time, constant learning, and above all practice. I have also found that the practice is in everything I write, not just in manuscript length work, but in every place words are put on paper or computer screen. An email to my colleagues may take 20 minutes to craft or a letter to a student four or five rewrites to make it precise. These practices are not based in fear or that I might get another response from the grammar police, but founded on a desire to effectively share ideas and meanings in ways that are clear and engaging.
This attention to detail in the simplest of business communication has served me well in the larger works I have written over my lifetime. Practicing in an email or a one page letter has shaped the work I have completed for much longer writing projects. When I submitted my first book manuscript, I was delighted in the telephone call from the editor who said “you have really worked on this project. It will need some editing, but not what we normally see in the book manuscripts we receive. Nicely done.”
Here are a few tips I incorporate in all the writing I do, even if it is a simple email or letter.
*I focus on the content as I write the first time. The idea is the driver in writing. I focus on what I want to convey in the first draft. The time for editing comes later.
*I then reread what I wrote in the first draft. This is the initial step for me. I reread each sentence and paragraph carefully to determine if this is what I wanted to express. I reread each sentence making changes along the way and then I read each sentence in the paragraph. Do the sentences hang together and create a precise paragraph? If that is true, then I go on to the second paragraph and sentences. Once this is done in a particular writing, I reread the draft in its entirety for content.
*The third time through I look for redundancy of words. All writers develop a certain way of expressing themselves over time. A familiar and predictable pattern emerges. The challenge becomes watching the predictability or redundancy of the words chosen in a sentence or a paragraph. According to the ”Second Edition of the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary” if one counts all the distinct technical uses, derivatives, tenses, and inflections of words, there may be a total amount of words in the English language “approaching three quarters of a million.” I learned this long ago from a well published author. It was good advice that continues to serve me well. There are thousands of words to choose from in the English language. Find them and use them to eliminate writer redundancy and predictability.
I then begin the editing process. Yes that’s right, another edit. I have learned that a manuscript starts to get clearer after the fifth or sixth edit. This is time consuming, yes, but this is what effective writers do in crafting their words and works. Edit, edit, and edit again should become a writer’s mantra. (Note: I don’t do this for emails, but may do this for a letter. It is my technique for published works. I recently wrote a two page article for a newsletter that took me about three hours of writing and editing. Precision and economy of words are the hallmarks of effective communication.)
*As a caveat, I work at economy of words. An effectively written English sentence has about seven to twelve words and is action oriented. I work at this intensely. Can what I have written be said more succinctly? This practice cleans up many writing foibles.
*Now to the gifts from “the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified)” or the Muses: use the spelling and grammar check programs available on any computer. I have been teaching for over 25 years in the college classroom. I know beyond an educated guess that most students do not use one of the basic tools available to them on the computer they purchased. If while typing that squiggly line shows up under a word or sentence, right click on your mouse pad AND USE THE ADVICE! In all email programs the same technology exists. USE IT! With today’s software, there is no reason to misspell words or have poorly constructed sentences. Use the writing appliances Strunk & White would have killed to have at their disposal. (And if you don’t know Strunk & White, find a copy, buy it, read it cover to cover, and then read it five more times).
*Finally, if you want one more step to help you write, particularly if you are thinking manuscript, utilize the Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level tools on your computer. These are not automatic and have to be set on your device, but they are incredibly useful. (They are listed as “readability statistics.”) These tools for checking your work show the percentage of passive sentences in your document and the reading level. The lower the percentage of passive sentences the more action oriented your writing. The reading level delineates the educational level that a person would need in order to follow your content. Most newspapers use 6th grade reading level. A decent manuscript will use the 10th through 12th grade reading level. When I work on a manuscript, after each major editing, I utilize these tools and keep a record of the improvements. When I get to the desirable range, I know the manuscript is getting shaped into its optimum format.
Stephen King has been asked numerous times about being a writer (and I get asked this on occasion, too, because of my own publishing). You can find King’s advice via an internet search of the “seven writing tips of Stephen King.” Two of the items that I find essential are these:” Read a lot and Write a lot.” Take King’s advice and do both if you want to become a more effective writer and for that matter a precise communicator. Writing in the end is like most things….practice, practice, practice and then practice some more.
Blessings to you as you seek to become effective communicators whether in your next email or book. P.S. The Flesch Reading Ease on this blog is 64.7 (13-15 age of reading), Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8th grade, and a readability of 8%. And it took me over 2 hours to write.