“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
Looking back, I always struggled with writing. I felt pain every time I try to fill a blank page. I could bear the pain of writing in high school, but I almost gave up in university. I could read many books and understand the lectures, but give me a writing task? My mind went blank as if I never understood any of the concepts. Maybe I do not understand what I learned and the struggle to write is a symptom. Or it could be that I have been reading bad writings in university, which affects my thought process. Or maybe some concepts are complex, and I struggle to communicate them. Nonetheless, writing is my major weakness.
I tried to search for help with my writing. Reading books on writing did nothing. Most books tend to give generic advice such as “Don’t use passive voice” or “Be clear”. These are bad advices, similar to how “just be yourself” is the worst dating advice. Everyone knows you should do it, but no one tells you why it works.
How do I isolate the mechanics of writing and focus on each component one by one, thereby improving my writing? After further research, I have explored the potential answers to these questions. This article will outline the aspects of good writing namely clarity, cohesiveness, emphasis and conciseness.
Table of Contents
1. Good writing is clear
2. Good writing is cohesive
3. Good writing has emphasis
4. Good writing is concise
Good writing is clear
Clear prose is one that a reader can understand. But it is not enough merely to be understandable. A statement can be easily understood yet tells nothing interesting to the reader. That is a common flaw in clickbait journalism like BuzzFeed. Readers can understand it, yet it does not captivate anyone. So, what makes prose clear and good? Clear prose is good when it tells a story. A story has two components – characters and actions. The characters are the subjects of the sentences that name the cast of the characters. Meanwhile, the actions are the verbs that go with these subjects.
Every prose can be simplified using these two principles. When your prose seems too complex, locate the cast of characters and their actions. Remove the unnecessary information and focus on these two components. Once you have clear subjects and their action, add more information if needed.
A prose may also be difficult to read when it has unnecessary nominalisations. Nominalisation is the process of making a noun from a verb or an adjective. Since nominalisation is a noun, it does not carry the same weight to the prose like an action word. Prose that contains a subject and a nominalisation lacks the element of a good story. Consider the following examples:
1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance.
2. Because we know nothing about the local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that need the most assistance.
Readers will find (2) clearer than (1). Not only (2) relies on fewer nominalisations than (1), it also uses more verbs that express actions. (2) also tells the readers a story. There are clear subjects (we, committee) and the actions know, determine and allocate. This creates a clear story in (2) and makes it more interesting than (1).
Good writing is cohesive
Cohesive prose means that the separate sentences that form the prose flow into a single, unified whole. Williams and Colomb (1990) illustrate the principle of cohesion:
“Put at the beginning of a sentence those ideas that you have already mentioned, referred to, or implied, or concepts that you can reasonably assume your reader is already familiar with, and will readily recognize.”
The principle suggests that we focus on one concept at a time. Prose that does this will have a consistent topic string, which will make it feels more focused and cohesive. Prose that breaks this rule, such as an arduously long sentence usually does not focus on one topic. Hence, the reader will struggle to assemble these concepts into a cohesive discourse. Consider the following examples:
1. The hotel is famous. It is one of the most well-known hotels in the country. The latest international dancing competition was held at the hotel. The hotel spent a lot of money to advertise the event. Because the hotel wanted to gain an international reputation. But not many people attended the event.
2. The hotel, which is one of the most well-known hotels in this region, wanted to promote its image around the world by hosting the latest international dancing competition. Although the event was widely advertised, not many people participated in the competition.
The first paragraph has inconsistent topic strings, such as hotel, international dancing competition and people. These topics strings are not introduced properly, hence, it feels disjointed. Furthermore, the characters do not have any actions attached to it, making the paragraph lacks a story. The lack of story and the inconsistent topic strings make the paragraph confusing.
Compare this to the second paragraph, where it has only two topic strings, hotel and event. The character, hotel has an action wanted. The combination of a character and an action creates a story in the sentence. In addition, the second sentence starts by repeating the event, which the writer has mentioned in the first sentence. Therefore, the second paragraph has a story and consistent topic strings. As a result, the paragraph feels more cohesive.
Good writing has emphasis
Prose has a good emphasis when it ends itself well. To emphasise, Williams and Colomb (1990) suggest readers to:
“Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress – perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence.”
Most writers struggle to write well when the subjects use technical terms. Technical terms are confusing when they are not introduced properly. This technique is helpful when communicating complex information that requires technical terms. When you introduce complex information, design the sentence that it appears in, so that you can locate that term at the end.
Why does this work? When you end a sentence with a good emphasis, the readers know what to expect in the sentence. A sentence that does not end with an emphasis, will feel monotonous. Also, putting the emphasis at the end has more impact on the reader’s feeling. Consider the following examples:
1. My friend John commented, “The movie Captain America was thrilling”.
2. “The movie Captain America was thrilling”, my friend John commented.
In the first sentence, the word “thrilling” is the emphasis, which is a strong endorsement for the film. In the second example, the sentence ends with the word “commented”, which does not carry any impact. Meanwhile, the word “thrilling” is buried in the middle of the sentence. This diminishes its impact to the readers.
Good writing is concise
Prose is concise when it gives a lot of information clearly and in the fewest words. Williams and Colomb (1990) outline two principles to be concise:
a. Compress what you mean into the fewest words
b. Don’t state what your reader can easily refer
Principle (a) means writers should remove any redundancy or unnecessary wordiness in the prose. Principle (b) means that we remove attribution that does not add anything to the prose. One way that a writer can violate these two principles is by using an attribution. An attribution tells the reader the source of ideas or facts. When the attribution does not add anything to the point, it should be removed. Consider the following examples:
“Regular patterns of drought and precipitation have been found to coincide with cycles of sunspot activity”
which can be simplified to:
“Regular patterns of drought and precipitation coincide with cycles of sunspot activity”
Not only the phrase “have been found” adds nothing to the prose, it also does not state the subject. Removing the phrase will make the prose above more concise.
To conclude, I have identified the aspects of good writing, which are clarity, cohesiveness, emphasis and conciseness. Any writer who aspires to improve their crafts should practice these aspects. Nonetheless, these are not the panacea for all your struggles with writing. There are many other aspects of good writing. And only with continuous practice and the iterative process of writing will help you to improve this craft.
Books and resources on writing well
- Style: Toward Clarity and Grace
- The Craft of Writing Effectively (YouTube)
- Ohio State University: The Function and Value of Academic Writing
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