Learning how to express myself

Some people love the activity of writing. They derive a positive pleasure from fine-tuning their words, honing their style and striving for a rhetorical flourish. I have been there often. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Sometimes the goal is nothing more than to get some words written down and sent to whoever needs to receive them. I have been there too.

Shortly, I will discuss what I have learned for the occasions when extra clarity or subtlety are wanted. But for the occasions when I just want the message to be understood by the reader, without spending time looking for perfection, I have picked-up some simple habits that are usually sufficient to get by:  

  • When you’ve done the thinking, you just need to add the words
  • Remove all the jargon and any other unrecognisable terms
  • Apply the one rule of grammar and punctuation it’s essential to know
  • Listen to what you have written

When you’ve done the thinking, you just need to add the words

The previous three pages of this website have been all about arranging your thoughts so that they best suit your audience. Once you have done that – properly – it’s just a matter of adding the words to articulate those thoughts.1The concept of just “adding the words” is one that I picked-up from screenwriting guru, Robert McKee. In his book, Story , on page 394, McKee attributes a similar phrase to Alfred Hitchcock: “When the screenplay has been written, and the dialogue added, we’re ready to shoot.” But, too often, we don’t do that. We start writing before the thoughts have even been assembled, let alone arranged in order.

Sometimes that’s due to impatience: we have a few words we like and want to get them down before they get forgotten. Fine. But, if that was the only reason, we could write those words and then go back to arranging our thoughts.  

I think the more common reason is that we simply don’t know what it is we want to say. We have a belief that writing will trigger the thinking. That’s certainly been the explanation when I have started writing before I know where the words are going to take me. Emotionally, it’s very satisfying. As the words appear on the screen, I see progress being made. Or so I tell myself. But, quite often, this process takes me nowhere and I have to start over again.

If I’m lucky, the rush to write words leads to an outbreak of useful thoughts. But they still need to be rearranged to suit the audience. And then the appropriate words need to be found. It would require an extraordinary coincidence – or a stroke of genius – for the thoughts to originate in my brain in exactly the sequence that will suit the brains of my audience.2I live in hope! Without any doubt, the writing that takes the least effort from me – and requires the least effort from my readers – materialises after I have thought about what I want to say, arranged my thoughts in an appropriate manner and then reached for a keyboard so that I can add the words. (You, of course, may use a keyboard to note down your thoughts and arrange them. As discussed elsewhere, I still tend to marshal my thoughts on paper.)

Remove jargon and other unrecognisable terms

Plain language is almost always easier to understand than unfamiliar words, unrecognisable abbreviations and technical terms. Exotic words or phrases may look impressive and be fun to write, but they are no use if the reader can’t understand them. Wherever possible, I aim to remove jargon and use plain English.

A lot of writers – especially in business – can’t resist using industry jargon. If the reader is lucky, the writer may explain what the jargon means. But, if not, the words are just a waste of the readers’ time.

I saw a great example (in a bad way) on the day I started writing this page. It was in a report from one of my former employers updating me on the state of the firm’s pension fund. I am expecting to receive money from the fund, so I thought I should take a look at it. I was right to do so because the report contained a passage revealing that there wasn’t enough money in the scheme to pay out all the pensions that have been built up! But, instead of that simple, easy-to-understand statement, the writers felt the need to introduce the terms deficit, surplus and pension liabilities, all of which they (wisely) provided a definition of. Once the definitions had been explained, the report revealed that the scheme was “in deficit”. All that hard work – for the writers and the readers – just to announce that there isn’t (yet) enough money to pay all the pensions.

I often wonder what it is that motivates people to use words they will need to define when there are simpler alternatives available. It’s not just financial nerds who overcomplicate things. Look at this sentence from an email I received from a shop I contacted to enquire about buying a replacement for a broken plate from my dinner set:

Items such as this are sold on a ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ basis so once the line has sold out, we do not re‑stock.

I know it’s really pernickety of me to take issue with the shopkeeper, but I find her thought processes quite intriguing. The final ten words said everything that needed to be said (“once the line has sold out, we do not re-stock”). But there must have been something about the phrase “when it’s gone, it’s gone” that she liked so much she couldn’t resist using it. So a simple 10-word comment was expanded to 25 words in which the same thing was said twice over because the writer knew that I might not understand her first attempt. (Perhaps, like this high school student () she was trying to get a pet phrase into mainstream use.)

Abbreviations can also turn a reader against you. Too often, they are introduced for the benefit of a writer who can’t be bothered to type out an expression in full. There is no excuse for that anymore. Modern technology has given us search-and-replace and auto-correct.3For example, when I created this website, I added a shortcode to my auto-correct which my PC automatically changes to ilearnedtowrite.com. I have done this sort of thing for some years now with company names and other expressions that I need to use frequently.

For the reader, being confronted with a new abbreviation is like being told someone’s name for the first time. We all know that many people repeat a name when they first meet someone new (“Nice to meet you, Bill”) because they know they need to reflect on the name for a moment or two in order for it to bed down in their memory. As a writer, I see it as my role to make that happen for my readers by using any new abbreviation shortly after I first introduce it. If I’m not going to use the term again for a while, I don’t introduce the abbreviation until later … or I don’t use the abbreviation at all.  

I also try to choose abbreviations that impose the least effort on readers. Most often, that means using recognised words, rather than initials. So, for example, I would choose “the President” over “POTUS” () – or “the US President” if there is room for doubt about which president I am referring to.

Apply the one rule of grammar and punctuation it’s essential to know

It took me a long time to learn the one essential rule of language: “think of your readers.”

As a 13-year-old schoolboy, I was taught by a stickler for the correct (as he saw it) use of grammar and punctuation. My classmates and I accepted without question that it was important to honour every one of his rules. We were at an age at which we admired the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise for saving civilisations across the known and unknown universe, but oh how we ridiculed Captain Kirk for the crime of “splitting an infinitive” at the start of every episode as he announced his mission, to boldly go () where no man had gone before. It simply didn’t occur to us to ask our teacher why anyone should put themselves to the trouble and the linguistic contortion required to move (or teleport?) “boldly” to another place in the sentence.

A few years later, I came under the influence of a very different teacher. He was fond of saying: “Punctuation is politeness to your reader.” He repeated it endlessly, but I don’t recall him ever explaining what he meant by it. It wasn’t until decades later, when a random reminiscence brought the adage back into my mind, that I realised he had been trying to persuade me that punctuation is only important to the extent that it minimises the scope for misunderstanding. Quite probably, he felt the same way about the use of language and grammar, although I never got the chance to ask him.

All these years later, I sometimes find myself torn between two opposing views. One argument – possibly the only argument – for leaving my infinitives intact is the fear that people may think me ignorant if I split them apart. There doesn’t seem to be any other good reason.4See, for example, the fifth paragraph here. The same could be said for those who argue that the word “alternatives” can be used only when the options are two in number.5The word is undoubtedly derived from the Latin for “one of two”, but it doesn’t follow that the English derivation has to respect its classical origins – see, for example, the origins of “decimate”, which means, in English, almost the exact opposite of its Latin root.

There is undoubtedly a part of me that still longs to aim for the best possible grammar, punctuation and language for any given piece of writing. But all too often it loses out to an even stronger desire to maximise the chances that my words will flow well and be understood. Sentences don’t all have to be grammatically perfect. Punctuation marks don’t need to be exactly right, time after time, unless a mistake could create confusion.6But readers who use dating sites might want to take note of this research that bad grammar can make you seem less attractive.

I don’t know who first came up with this meme about punctuation, but it makes a simple point in a neat way:

  • Let’s eat Grandma.
  • Let’s eat, Grandma.
  • Punctuation saves lives!

Examples like this don’t just crop up on occasions that have been contrived to make a point about punctuation. Here is a real example from a news report I read in the Times a few years ago. What do you think it means?

I’m not going to ruin my life and my wife’s life, and my boys’ lives. I’ve brought up a fantastic family to try and nick a few quid off the income tax.

It’s crystal clear, isn’t it? The speaker is admitting that he and his family have tried to dodge tax in order to prevent the financial ruination of their lives. It’s what the speaker brought them all up to do. That’s what it says. But, actually, the speaker wasn’t saying that at all. If you read the whole news item,7Unfortunately, this news item is behind a paywall, but the next paragraph contains a free link to another report of the day’s evidence. you will see that everything else in it reports that the person in question denied fiddling his taxes.

Perhaps the reporter made a mistake in his notes? But a rival newspaper reported exactly the same words, so they are almost certainly correct.8Realising that the words didn’t make sense in context, the second newspaper added a question mark at the end as if to suggest the defendant was posing the question sarcastically. That might have explained it if the defendant had been accused of leading a family of tax-dodgers, but he wasn’t. He was accused with a business colleague. If this was sarcasm, why would he bring his family into it? I have a theory, based on the fact that the defendant was a famous football manager who had been interviewed on TV many, many times. Knowing his speech rhythms, I have little doubt that what he actually said was this:

I’m not going to ruin my wife and my wife’s life and my boys’ lives – I’ve brought up a fantastic family – to try and nick a few quid off the income tax.

Despite two newspapers mis-punctuating what he said, he was acquitted by the jury and left the court without a stain on his character.9Later that year, he was appointed manager of the football team I have supported since childhood. But, despite one moment of magic () that brings a warm glow every time I watch it, I wish he had gone straight to the jungle and left my team alone.

Listen to what you have written

Taking the time to read back what you have written – and really listening to the sound of it – generates a proper sense of how easy your message will be for others to comprehend. The more important it is to you that your words will be clearly understood, the more important it is to check how they sound. You don’t have to read your words out loud; just listen to them in your head (it’s called “sub-vocalising”). If the material sounds odd inside your own brain, it should be re-written until it sounds clear. Otherwise, what was the point of writing it? [Note: A higher hurdle applies when you are drafting a speech: in that case, the words must be tested out loud.]

Here is an example I found in the Sunday Times. It comes from an article written by two of their journalists. Perhaps one of them added to the sentence which had been started by the other. Or maybe one of the newspaper sub-editors tinkered with it. Whoever had the final finger on the keyboard, I don’t think they can have read it back to themselves before sending it to print.

The future prime minister apparently travelled without the close-protection police officers that normally accompany senior ministers of state during the trip in April 2018.

The final six words (“during the trip in April 2018”) shouldn’t be at the end of the sentence. In that position, they suggest that the police officers normally accompanied ministers in April 2018. But the whole point of the sentence is that the officers were normally present in any month. The words belong somewhere else in the sentence, probably at the beginning:

During the trip in April 2018, the future prime minister apparently travelled without the close-protection police officers that normally accompany senior ministers of state.

This next example is taken from a football website:10The original text is in the eighth paragraph. I have edited it down a little to focus on the essentials, rather than the details of West London football.

A football club with limited resources can trade its way into a position of strength by regularly buying low and selling high, not becoming too attached to players and turning down offers at the height of their value.

On first reading it, it looks like the writer is recommending a three-play strategy, the third of which is “turning down offers at the height of their value”. But that makes no sense at all. On closer inspection, the word “not” from earlier in the sentence is intended to apply to “turning down” as much as to “becoming too attached”. But you have to work out the logic for yourself in order to appreciate the need to infer a second “not”. On even closer inspection, there is no three-play strategy at all. What looks like the second and third plays – “not becoming attached” and not “turning down offers” – are actually spelling out how to sell high, which was part of the first (and only) play.11I follow this website consistently. The main writer can be relied upon to get to the heart of all things QPR without pulling his punches and without softening his language – and often with a killingly funny turn of phrase. But, famously, he often writes late at night and, I suspect, seldom reads over his work. Sometimes he needs his readers to know what he means in order for them to understand what he writes. I think the writer was actually saying this:

A football club with limited resources can trade its way into a position of strength by regularly buying low and selling high. It’s important not to become overly attached to players because the club will need to accept offers for them at the height of their value.12In my version, I changed “too” to “overly” because I didn’t want “to”, “too” and “to” (again) all in close proximity.

There are countless opportunities to construct a sentence that makes sense in your head but loses its clarity when the words are actually written down. The only protection against this is to read through what you have written and really pay attention to what the words say. Writers are at a disadvantage because they always know what their words are meant to convey. The writer is the person least likely to spot any ambiguity or uncertainty in the meaning. When my written work is important enough, I get someone else to read it over; a second pair of eyes improves the chances of cutting out the errors.

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