You might be under the mistaken impression that writing is subjective. It's an easy mistake because, like beauty, there really is a subjective dimension to writing. But there is also an objective dimension as well, and we can evaluate writing by that standard. That's good news, because if it were all subjective, we could never improve our writing. So what's this standard? How do I know if my writing is good?
It's simple. When we write, we write for a purpose. If our writing achieves that purpose then the writing is good writing. If it fails, it is defective in some way. Keeping my eye on the following principles has helped me improve my writing. I find they apply not only to my technical writing, but to my essays and personal writing as well. See how they work for you.
Know your audience
"Whatever is received is received in the manner of the recipient." So goes a Latin proverb. XYZ. It's important to know our audience since our job is to communicate to them. When we speak to adults, we use words and grammatical structure, slang and nuance that we expect them to understand. When we speak to children or to non-native speakers, we adjust our manner of speaking to help them understand. We must do the same thing with our writing. When writing, I ask myself the following questions.
- Who is my intended audience?
- What knowledge do I expect my typical reader to start with?
- Is my audience going to expect a specialized vocabulary or will they not know much jargon?
- Does my audience want a thorough explanation or simply to look up facts?
Build your ideas and explanations in order
Have you ever read something and found yourself confused by the text? Readers become confused because the text is confused. Very often, the text is confused because the writer was confused, or at least not entirely clear, in his own mind. Clear writing comes from clear thinking.
In college once I wrote a ten-page paper about some topic or other. I very proudly finished my paper with some triumphal declaration or other, content that I had proven my point. I was uneasy, though. Rereading my paper, it became clear why. My conclusion was the exact opposite of my thesis. I had proved my own hypothesis completely incorrect.
From that day on, I started to write outlines for everything. Even my personal emails are subject to outlines. This article is. A good outline makes sure that I haven't forgotten anything. It makes sure that A comes before B, which itself comes after C.
I used to love parentheses. Now, they are something of an enemy for me. When I use parenthetical clauses, it is usually because I have not outlined my thoughts into the most orderly plan. So because I didn't bother to put a phrase or sentence into its right place, my reader has to try to figure out where it logically goes. That's a problem. Parentheses don't fix the problem but only visually confess to my lack of planning. While this approach is an improvement over randomly arranging our sentences, it's hardly optimal. A parenthesis is a sign that I did not plan out my paragraphs well. There is another important factor for my decision to avoid parentheses in my writing. They are visually disruptive. The visual disruption happens because they are strong verticals in otherwise horizonal text. I am pretty confident that it is visually harder to scan writing that has lots of parenthesis marks.
So now I outine the whole big topic and also think through each sentence and paragraph. Sometimes it means I spend more time writing per word than others might, but I'm pretty sure my readers appreciate it. As a side benefit, I've seen myself building good habits.
Words are like ore
Words are like raw material, the lump of rock in which gold is found. But to get at the gold, we must bang, squeeze, and heat the rock to knock away all the debris.
Knowing our audience isn't enough: we must write for them as well. If our audience is very simple, we must use simple words, metaphors, and ideas. If our audience is very sophisticated and very busy, we should skip the metaphors and use whatever specialized language will get the point across quickly. If we're writing for friends who also enjoy wordplay, then we should let loose the linguistic lightshow. If we're writing for a broad audience many of whom will not appreciate our nice literary tricks, we should cut the tricks and cut to the chase.
Working our words, smelting and forging them, means working and reworking them. Gold doesn't come gleaming from the rock. It is pulled and twisted and hammered and shaped.
After you twist and prod your thoughts on paper, they should no longer be using all the biggest words, but the right words. When each word is deliberately chosen for its precise meaning and feeling, each placed in exactly the right place, you will have extracted the gold from the ore.
It becomes second nature after a while. But most of us benefit by looking over our phrases, sentences, and paragraphs after we have written them. If you think your work has no room for improvement, you're a fool. Sorry, but you are.
Be ruthless with yourself
Perfect may be hard to define in writing, but improvement is much easier to see. Improvement comes with practice and discipline.
Your words are not your babies. If you lopped off your baby's arm, nobody would thank you. It would be distressing all around. But if you lop off that paragraph to which you are so attached, that zinger that shuts down the opposition, that smooth passage that seals the deal, you might be surprised how few people notice it was missing. In fact, it can be distressing to see how much of my work somebody else red-lines in revision.
Do the red-lining for your editors and readers. Don't make them do it. When I think, "Maybe I don't need this sentence here," and part of me thinks, "Oh, but I like it so much. It's mine!" that is my cue to cut it out.
Ask for guidance, feedback, and correction. Run your work through style-checkers. Don't be enslaved to them, but do listen to what your editors and automated prose-fixing apps have to say even if it wounds your ego.
What will not wound your ego is, a year from now, when people understand your emails on the first go, when your favorite poem or short story is even better, when customer support reports they haven't had to answer this question or that since you wrote the doc on it. When those things start to happen, you'll know you're getting better. So that's good. Dig into the principles even more.