Published on February 5, 2014
Writing resources: December 2013 How to write better lists Lists are an important part of your formatting strategy. They are easier to read than blocks of text, and help the reader to take in your information in a logical way. But only if you structure them properly. Learn how to improve your lists here: http://ow.ly/sNpM3 Reminders about plain English It shouldn't be hard to remember how to write plain English, but most of us struggle at some point. So from time to time I think we all need to be reminded about the basics of how to write in Plain English. Here are ten top tips from the Daily Writing Tips blog: http://ow.ly/sNq0A Effective email headings These days we are all bombarded by emails. If the subject line isn't appealing there is a good chance that the message will be deleted unread. So what are the best words to grab attention? Some of the findings of this research are quite surprising. http://ow.ly/sNqLg The Proof Angel is the trading name of Sarah Perkins, freelance editor and proofreader. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
How to avoid getting bogged down when writing You have thought about your audience, you know what needs to be said, and you have planned your structure. Yet for some reason you can't get the piece done. The main causes for slow progress when writing are: • Indecision over detail. • Getting side tracked. • Banging your head against a brick wall when the words just don't flow. The basic problem is that you are trying to get it right first time. That is only a practical goal when you are writing something easy & short. Longer pieces tend to take more than one go. The solution is easy: don’t get it right, get it written. When you have a reasonable first draft, it is much easier to find the right words for these stumbling blocks: • Sometimes you get too close to the subject. Leaving it for a while & returning to it later gives you more distance, making it easier to see the way through. • Sometimes you aren't in the mood to write a particular passage, but when you come back later that mood has passed. • It is a well known fact that we get our best ideas out of the blue: in the shower, doing housework, or while running. Classic causes of dithering There are 3 parts of the piece that often cause people to dither: • The title. A very important thing to catch attention, but only when you have finished. Call it "My brilliant article about whatever it is "or "My prize winning novel" for now. Give it a proper title when inspiration strikes. • Use the same trick when you save the file. All you need to do is be able to find it at this stage. • We all know the first sentence is important in the final version. Don’t get obsessed with it too soon or you won't finish at all. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
"This isn't quite right but... ... I can't see why (or what to do)." The easiest thing to do is to focus on the strengths of your piece, & fill the gaps later. The key is to mark up the problem so it can be fixed later. It is important to make sure: • When you come back it will catch your eye & you will remember to finish it off. Some people like to use italics. I find turning the offending passage red is more obvious. Sometimes I put in a row of XXX, so I can use "Find" to get to the next problem. • When you come back you can remember what you were trying to do. Use this technique for passages where: • places where it just doesn't flow. Remember to leave yourself a note about what is needed, such as: • Mention the Wall Street Crash here. • Explain why they moved north. • you write something you know doesn’t really fit in the piece. • you know you have contradicted what you've already said. Other distractions • Keep a notebook or a separate file of ideas that come to you while you are writing. That way you have a record for later, but you can carry on with the current task. • If you really don’t like a section, cut it & paste it in another file. If you change your mind later it will still be there. Call the file [whatever the original is called] cuts, so the 2 files will be listed together, but you won’t confuse them. • “Nothing breaks up an author’s progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss about the weather.” Mark Twain. Translating legal waffle into plain English I recently came across this post about an excellent example of waffle, which is on display in every petrol station in Michigan: http://ow.ly/sNtQL Although the writer does translate it into plain English, unfortunately his explanation rather loses the way. He needs an editor. So I'll summarise. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
The main point is that you shouldn't just copy what you are told to say. You should rephrase it so that it is suitable for your audience. The root of this problem is that legislation requires them to display a warning sign. The law sets out what must be said, & the standard sign pretty much copies the language. There are 2 pieces of writing involved here, with completely different purposes: • A piece of legislation: Any law needs to be really specific about what it covers. When you are up in court, the issue is not whether you have done wrong; it is whether you have complied with the law. The purpose of the legislation is to say what is acceptable. • A sign: A sign should convey the necessary information quickly & easily. In this case, it also has to comply with the law. Both aim to convey the message "Be sensible while using this petrol pump.” There is no reason why the language in these two places should be the same. There are several reasons why it should be different, all of which are common sense. It would be good if we could get legislators to use plain language in the first place. Then we could just copy what they've written in more situations. But we'd still need to pay attention to make sure it was still suitable for our audience. I think it is true that lawyers (and lay people who are unsure) tend to use standard wording from various sources. Lawyers are keen to use the correct terminology. Lay people often want to use a tried & trusted formula. Those arguments have their place, but the world wouldn't make much progress if we just did what has always been done, would it? If you are told that a particular form of words is necessary for legal reasons, it is a good idea to ask why. Try to get the name of the Act or regulation & the section number. Then look it up & check the requirement. It is amazing what you can find on Google these days. There are some situations where you do need to do exactly what the law says. That is why we have the clutter of no smoking signs in places we all know are smoke free. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
In some situations, it is a good idea to keep a foot in both camps. Use In some situations, it is a good idea to keep a foot in both camps. Use the correct term & provide a translation, such as: the correct term & provide a translation, such as: • “attached items (called ‘fixtures’)”; • “attached items (called ‘fixtures’)”; • “I release, or give up, any legal claims”; • “I release, or give up, any legal claims”; • “a default judgment — which means that the court will give • “a default judgment — which means that the court will give the plaintiff what he is asking for.” the plaintiff what he is asking for.” When we write, we should always think of the needs of the reader. If When we write, we should always think of the needs of the reader. If there were no reader, there would be no point in writing, would there? there were no reader, there would be no point in writing, would there? What you can learn from watching Strictly What you can learn from watching Strictly It is a very long time since oratory & rhetoric dropped off the average It is a very long time since oratory & rhetoric dropped off the average school curriculum. From Roman times & on into the Renaissance the school curriculum. From Roman times & on into the Renaissance the ability to speak in public was taught as a fundamental skill. ability to speak in public was taught as a fundamental skill. Communication skills are still vital to success, and one of the easiest Communication skills are still vital to success, and one of the easiest ways to learn is by example. ways to learn is by example. Read this post to see what you can learn from the Strictly judges Read this post to see what you can learn from the Strictly judges about how to get your your message & grab grab attention: about how to getmessage acrossacross &attention: http://ow.ly/sNv6I http://ow.ly/sNv6I Why use plain English Many people argue that using plain language is dumbing down. It is true that dumbed down material uses plain language, but that is a different point. Using plain language gets the message over quickly, and is therefore more efficient. • It saves time for the reader, because they can read & take in the information more quickly. • Because of that, it helps to build trust. • It helps to keep the attention of the reader. Long sentences may look impressive, but they are hard to digest and encourage people to skip a section or give up altogether. • People understand the content more easily, so there is less need to sort out problems afterwards. For example, they will not ask so many questions. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
Just because your reader can understand something complicated doesn't mean they want to. Most of us would rather move on to something else more quickly, or do something else at the same time, rather than concentrate on understanding a difficult passage. Anyone who says that technical information has to be long winded should look at Warren Buffett's letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. There you will see examples of a highly respected intelligent person communicating important financial information to a mixed group of people. If plain language works in that context, why should it not work in many more? Mr Buffett has said: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/letters.html I've studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I've been unable to decipher what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said. That is another thing that loses trust people know when you are writing to fill the space. If you have nothing to say, do you really know what you are talking about? Problems can be avoided by: • Thinking out what you need to cover before you start writing. • Imagine your audience. • When you review your work, think what it would sound like to that audience. It often helps to read it out loud. Think about: • Have you said what the audience needs to know? • Can you read each sentence comfortably, in one breath, at the right speed to allow the audience to understand? How to use split screen in Word Putting aside the technological voodoo, this is just like writing in two parts of an old fashioned ledger or large book. You are working in one part of the book & keeping your finger in another so you can flip back to it easily. Actually, it is better than that: you can see two parts of the same document on your screen at once. You can scroll through the upper & lower parts independently. This allows you can scroll through both parts of the document independently, & make changes as you go. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
If you opened two copies of the document, one will be “read only” and you can’t make amendments to it. Just like when you are marking another place in the book with your finger, this technique is useful to check: • the contents against the body of the text. • that the body of the text covers all that was promised in the introduction. • the conclusion summarises your main points. • a questions section against the answers. • a map really does show everything mentioned in the text. The exact mechanics vary according to which version of word you are using. • On older versions go to the “Window” menu at the top of the screen & click “Split”. • On new versions look for the same option in the “View” section of your ribbon, as shown on the left. A horizontal split bar appears across the document window, and the pointer changes to the symbol on the right. Place this split bar to where you want it, and then either click the bar or press "enter". You can drag this bar to another place later, for example if you need to see more of the lower half of the screen for a particular task. You can now enter new text or copy & paste between these two sections in the normal way. As an experiment, you might want to split the screen in a small document, say of a page or two. This will let you see how the document updates simultaneously in both screens. The scroll bars on the right hand side will remind you of your position in each part of the document. To return to a single pane view: Click "Remove Split" in the same place as you found "Split". The single pane that results from this will start at the top point of your upper pane. www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
How to keep your writing short and snappy Short & sweet is a popular target. And it is easier said than done. It takes some effort. And a few pointers. Here is a good list to keep you on track. I can't help thinking it undermines the point a little to have such a long list. http://ow.ly/sNyOJ Perhaps the idea is that repetition makes the message sink in more. How to avoid cluttering your writing There are all sorts of ploys you can use to stop yourself using unnecessary words. One of the easiest is to make yourself a list of banned words. There are 2 key points here: • The list should be short enough for you to remember. It might even be worth phasing the list in a couple at a time. Ideally, alarm bells should go off in your head every time you use a word you have decided to ban. • The words on your list should be dictated by how you write there is no point banning yourself from using a word that doesn't appear in your writing very often. Have a look at your writing & look for candidates for your list. See what words add nothing to the sense, but you still use regularly. It might help to start with this list of 10 words: http://ow.ly/sNyYj If you need more inspiration, you could try this list of 200 words: http://ow.ly/sNz5Q www.theproofangel.co.uk or http://ow.ly/sNlFs © Sarah Perkins 2014
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