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11 Effective Writing Tips

June 22, 2014

My workload this past year gave me very little time for other things, as is evident from my total neglect of this blog. A sample of what I’ve written this year can be seen here.  I’m now taking four weeks off to spend with family. During this break, I want to consolidate and share a few writing lessons that people who are starting in the fields of documentation, report writing, or communication might find helpful.

I’ve learned a few things from my experiences i) helping Karnataka Health Promotion Trust evaluate candidates and select a finalist for a position of documentation officer for KHPT’s India Learning Network, ii) lecturing on effective writing and mentoring participants in the Population Council’s scientific writing courses for grantees of the Gates Foundation’s Avahan program, and iii) working with the foundation’s grantees to document the Ananya program in Bihar. Through this exposure to many people’s writing, I observed some common issues that I now guard against in my own work.

I’m inspired to write this by Daniel Odio, who encourages the readers of his blog to use the Internet to share what they know, as he does. In his posts about his quest to learn to take great photos, Daniel invited readers to contribute their suggestions and experiences, which resulted in some enlightening contributions and exchanges. In the hope of doing something similar, I urge readers of this post to share thoughts, links, and advice on documentation and effective writing. I’ll be very grateful to learn from you.

Another person who has influenced me is John Griggs, whose blog posts are always enjoyable, informative, and inspiring. I appreciate John’s work because he shares not only tips about techniques and tools that work well but also accounts of mishaps in the field. In his posts about documenting a hot air balloon festival and a night-time football game, John revisits some instructive bloopers and challenges that he encountered. I find such candid disclosures extremely valuable because they are rare and because I’m extremely prone to make such errors myself.

Here’s my list of recommendations for effective writing:

1. Write with Clear Purpose

Start each piece—be it an essay, article, report, or story—by composing a clear and concise purpose and message of the piece. Writers should be clear in their own mind about their central or primary purpose and message before they begin writing. This purpose and message should be written down before starting and then reread occasionally while composing and revising the story to make sure that the story is achieving its purpose and communicating its central message.

It’s helpful for readers if the story’s purpose and message are presented in the opening.

I know this sounds obvious, but I suggest this because I’ve seen too many pieces in which it was evident that writer had either given little thought to or forgotten their story’s purpose or message. Such stories were not just ineffective: in some cases such ill-conceived essays actually conveyed the opposite message of what was needed—instead of showcasing progress and improvement, they illustrated dysfunction, which did little to inspire confidence in the program being documented.

2. Know Your Audience

It is additionally helpful if writers are clear about their primary audience. If you are writing for a specific audience, then you should clearly understand what you want the audience to learn from your piece. Also, if you are writing to inspire your readers to take a particular action, then you should clearly and explicitly describe that action to the readers.

If you wish to influence a specific audience, I recommend explicitly stating in the opening of your article who you are writing for, so that readers will easily recognize whether your article is relevant or intended for them.

3. Never Mystify Your Readers

Rather than writing uninformative or vague things, such as “etc.,” “and other things,” “certain essentials,” “all the facilities,” or “many benefits,” writers should specify what they are referring to. Vague claims and terms are deadweight and should be replaced with precise details during revision.

4. Avoid Jargon

David Meerman Scott and Tony Proscio have written excellent essays on the sin of using jargon. Communication is most effective when words are plain and common. Tony Proscio’s essays are essential reading.

5. Use Linear Sentences

Another bit of advice from Tony Proscio is to always clearly explain who did what to whom. In this advice we see linear sentence structure of subject, verb, and object. Linear sentence structure is the easiest to comprehend.

6. Discriminate When Choosing Words

The English language is full of synonyms, but synonyms don’t necessarily have identical meaning. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus to choose words very deliberately so that your writing says precisely what you mean.

7. Be Concise

It is easier to comprehend short sentences than long sentences. As a thumb rule, I try to keep sentences under 25 words. Many people don’t have the mental stamina to comprehend two 50-word sentences in a row. I also suggest limiting each sentence to a single point, rather than trying to make multiple points in a single sentence.

8. Inform Readers

Try to tell readers something that they didn’t know. Do research to find evidence from scientific studies that puts your story in context and demonstrates the significance, scale, and urgency of your topic. Much of the world’s research is at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet. Although some scholarly articles are published in journals that are behind paywalls, many articles and research reports are available for free.

9. Bring Your Story to Life with Quotes

Rather than merely telling readers what happened, it is often better to include direct quotes from people who play a role in the story that you are writing. Verbatim quotes or testimony serve to increase the credibility of your claims or assertions, just as you’ll be more likely to believe that a restaurant is good if you hear this from a customer than from the owner.

10. Include Relevant Details

Details make stories informative, interesting, and rewarding for readers, as Cila Warncke points out in a great blog post. Provide details about who, what, where, when, why, and how. Irrelevant details, however, should be omitted. I recently reworked an article about a public health extension worker who improved her knowledge and skills by completing a training course. The article mentioned that she was a native of the same district as a notorious politician. This distracting detail had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and was therefore the first thing that I removed. Details such as this only bloat an article.

11. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

The biggest piece of advice that I have for writers is to revise their work. I recommend giving the draft of your story to a colleague for comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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