Four thoughts on good writing

This may be the beginning of an occasional series, building I hope to a useful reflection on the craft of writing.

1

If you want to be a good (or better writer) the best single thing you can do is read widely and carefully.

It’s obvious, but not said so often: in order to write well, you need to know what good writing looks like.

I could give you some ready rules of thumb for good writing but “good” in this sense is not an absolute condition. What makes for good will depend on the context, and behind that the intention.

I could for instance declare that good writing is always clear writing, but in more creative contexts clarity might not be particularly desirable: a studied ambiguity or even vagueness could be the desired effect.

What’s more clarity may depend on the reader’s knowledge; if I can be confident about how much a targeted reader knows I can afford to say less, but then I need to be sure that this narrow focus is all that matters.

Context is always critical.

So you have to read a lot of material working in different contexts, and reflect on how it works, on what works for you and why. There’s no short cut.

2

Among the things you should think about when doing this wide reading are grammatical structures.

English grammar is and always has been set by normal practice, which is to say things change, and different things move in and out of the mainstream. For instance, much as though I dislike it personally the use of a third person plural pronoun (“they”, “their” etc) as a singular pronoun has become an accepted way of blurring questions of gender. I’ll continue to avoid it myself, (by restructuring the sentence to use genuine plurals) but I’ve had to learn to live with the change in acceptable practice.

I’m not suggesting that anything goes. If you write “we was” you’ve made a mistake. More commonly, if you get an apostrophe wrong that’s as culpable as a spelling mistake. There’s nothing complicated about apostrophes, as long as you put in the short time to learn how they’re supposed to work. The fact that people get them wrong so much (and always have done) reflects ignorance, laziness or carelessness, but as things stand in established practice the correct use of the apostrophe is still mandatory. Perhaps this is because apostrophes are genuinely useful, and their loss would hamper the expressiveness of the written language.

Understanding grammar, knowing its rules and its limits is part of the craft of good writing. You don’t have to be a linguist; you do have to know enough and that comes with time, and attention. If language is behaviour then care for good grammar is a step towards gracefulness. Again there are no short cuts. (Though there are helpful things that can be taught, and indeed I can teach them.)

3

Not all mental activity is verbal. We can even talk (loosely) of non-verbal “ideas”. But words are literally the medium of thought. Yes this is a tautology: I’m distinguishing thought (or “thinking”) from other types of mental activity as the thing that works with and demands words.

This matters because it’s common for us to feel that we have great thoughts, but we just can’t put them into words. No, we don’t. We might have a sense of a bundle of connected impressions and ideas, but until we sit down to try to work out the connections and what they mean we don’t actually know what we mean.

To write well we have to think well. Of course it’s possible for a good idea to be badly expressed. It’s also possible for a bad idea to be well expressed (though in doing so you’re likely to expose the weaknesses of the idea). There’s a circular relationship between good writing and good thinking.

Creative writing is arguably the effort to give form to otherwise amorphous apprehensions and mental experiences. It’s likely to involve managed ambiguity. It is likely to be exploratory; the effort of trying to articulate what it is that you have felt or experienced or thought is an experience in itself and may change your sense of what you’re dealing with. The context here is also unknowable, an abstract notion of a reader, a fellow human. Such writing has to create its own context, which is part of the metaphor of verbal form.

With other types of writing, for business or in academia, you need clarity in your thought, and a stronger sense of who you’re writing for. The act of writing again will be exploratory, bringing your ideas into focus, and once you’ve been through that clarification process you may need to step back, see what you have and then do some reworking to ensure the narrative supports your final clarity rather than exposing the exploration. In business writing in particular ambiguity is not helpful and you’ll need to constrain your meaning so it’s self-evident.

4

The craft of writing demands thoughtfulness, imagination and sensitivity. The latter means having the ear and intelligence to hear the different ways a phrase or sentence might be read, as well as the technical knowledge to constrain that reading (or sometimes open it out). We’re back once again to context.

Communication professionals are waking up to the need to attend to behavioural science, to the understanding that there may not be a simple correlation between what you say and how people respond to it, so the business of persuasion (and especially attempting to bring about behavioural change) requires attention to factors beyond the crafting of so-called messages.

It means attending to much more than the classic communication trilogy of “who am I talking to, what do they think now and what do I want them to think?”, though you need to address these questions too. You need to think about other likely influential factors, such as peer group opinion, or cultural and practical pressures. You need to think about the credibility of your voice. (You could argue that the latter point is covered by “what do they think now” but in practice it’s usually not.)

All of this once again means thinking hard about context.

It also means moving beyond simplistic notions of how words work. It means thinking harder about meaning, about how it arises, and letting go the idea that meaning may somehow be embedded in a fixed way in certain words and phrases.

(Ironically, since we’re talking partly about behavioural science here, it means thinking past the common conceptual naivety of neurologically-influenced ideas, ideas which suggest certain words or phrases  will work as predictable response triggers that can be manipulated.)

The power of language to connect us has to depend to a lesser or greater degree on shared experience and acknowledged reference points. For instance there’s nothing intrinsic to the three characters in the word “red” to suggest the properties of the colour we mostly understand by that word, but the fact I can write this sentence at all suggests that in an everyday sort of way we can with certainty take this reference as read.

But also in writing this much it should be apparent that even this simplest of examples has scope for interpretation; red is not a single shade, and perhaps more important, it has different associations in different societies. In this ambiguity lies the power of language as an art form, though such ambiguity is anathema to the state of mind that wants to narrow the range of possible reactions, to see language as a means of manipulation and control.

Language can be harnessed for those purposes, and it would be dangerous to pretend otherwise. At this moment in history we’ve become concerned about the political power of microtargeting, though here it’s the use of data to match crude messaging to the most susceptible that’s important rather than anything about the language itself.

It’s been gratifying to see that on the wider stage of political discourse the narrow message merchants have been proved wrong, and that Theresa May’s “strong and stable” at the last UK general election became a national joke.

I’d argue  that if we’re interested in the power of good writing to inform, to persuade, to intrigue or excite, it’s more accurate to see language as a form of behaviour than control. We need to think of it as a medium for making connections, and building relationships, through good linguistic behaviour in any given context. Making sure you’re understood is a reasonable concern in such behaviour. “Getting the message across” is too narrow a focus, too obvious a manipulation to generate warmth and acceptance.

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