How Writing Affects Your Brain

Let’s face it. The more visual we can make a piece of writing the more that today’s reader will engage and stay engaged. I need to get better at this. So should we all.

Jens Thoughts

I thought this was pretty amazing.  If anyone finds the images in color please let me know.

Until Next Time…

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Terminal Prepositions (“Up With This I Will Not Put!”)

vintage-fountain-pen-4-1148656-mPreposition:  a preposition is a connecting word that shows the relation of a noun (or pronoun) to some other word in a sentence.  Example:  The main office is in Boston.” – The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.

Oversimplified, many prepositions denote the location of something.  Examples:  Over, under, above, below, behind.  They also indicate time, such as:  before, after.

While none of what this humble blogger shares about writing well is new, all of it bears repeating so long as language missteps continue.  One is rigid compliance with the admonition to never end a sentence with a preposition.  Most of us learned that in ninth grade English class.  Back then we were English amateurs.  But now we are grown-ups.  We are more sophisticated users of the language.  Not only can we use contractions sometimes, it’s now OK for us to occasionally use a “terminal preposition.”  However, “moderation in all things” applies.

A few examples:

  • Correct:  “What are you talking about?”
  • Incorrect:  “About what are you talking?”
  • Correct:  “These are the repair instructions on which the mechanic relied.”
  • Also correct (and better): “These are the repair instructions the mechanic relied on.”
  • Correct:  “Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with.” — William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Always sticking to the terminal preposition rule can tie you up in knots and lead to awkward speech and bad writing.  British Prime Minster Winston Churchill knew.  A biographer wrote that Churchill read where a junior civil servant awkwardly reworded a sentence to avoid ending it with a preposition.  The prime minister scrawled across the page: “This is nonsense up with which I will not put.” It sticks to the rule, alright.  And it’s silly.  Great writers — Churchill was one — have been ending sentences with prepositions for centuries (see Shakespeare example above).

Here’s a good guideline on whether it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition:  consider how formal your writing product is to be.  If you are composing, say, a master’s thesis, stick to the rule.  But if you are drafting something more familiar like a memo (depending on the recipient’s rank!), letter, or e-mail message, you can loosen up a little.

Want confirmation?  Then take a look at Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. It calls the preposition-at-end a “cherished  superstition.”

…take what you like and leave the rest.

Got time on your hands?  Watch this video from Left-Side Right-Side Games.

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Cut the Useless Words

Earlier, I blogged about going over what you’ve just written.  Editing and revising are part of writing well like practicing free-throws are to scoring more points in a basketball game.  They are vital.  A major aspect of editing and revising is cutting words you don’t need.  Drop any word that doesn’t clearly and powerfully convey your core thought.  Extraneous words muddle the message.  They rob the text of its power to communicate.  For one thing, busy readers have little time and less patience.  The more they have to wade through words that don’t matter, the less likely they will come away informed, enlightened, persuaded, motivated, etc.  What fuels exceptional writing are crispness and clarity. They go hand in hand.

One of the most useless words is “currently.”  It does nothing for crispness or clarity.  It’s merely a hoop that a disinterested and time-starved reader must jump through before getting to your core content.

For example, choose which example reads better:

  1. Joe Jones currently sits in prison for auto theft.  He’s currently confined to a cell measuring eight feet by eight feet.  Clearly, he wants out as soon as possible.
  2. Joe Jones sits in prison for car theft.  His cell measures eight by eight.  He wants out soon.

Example #2 wins hands down.  Its brevity is its power.  Each word conveys the core thought without any help from any extraneous “ly” words.  The word “currently” and the word “clearly” serve no useful purpose.  They only tire and perhaps confuse the reader.  To have maximum impact on your readers get to the point fast.  Boil your text down to its essentials.  do that by eliminating the non-essential words.  Don’t burden the self-evident with the extraneous.

In example #1 above, the word “currently” modifies the verb “sits.”  But “sits” needs no modification.  That word, in the present tense, is self-evident.  It can mean nothing else but Joe Jones is sitting in prison — right now, in the present.  There’s no need for adding a word to help convey what Joe is doing or when.  He sits.  What is, is, and not currently is.


…take what you like and leave the rest.

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Editing/Revising Helps You Write As Well As You Can

ink-well-and-quill-pen-558332-sEarlier, I ranted about killing all the adjectives and adverbs you can.  To find those “ly” words you must go over what you just wrote.  Thus begins the editing/revising phase.  It is every bit as vital as putting the words on paper in the first place.  To get maximum results from a piece of writing, never, never, never quit after you’ve finished the first draft.  Always, always, always edit and revise to make it as good as you can.  Like many human activities, the first attempt is almost never as good as the final product.  Good writing is iterative.  It requires previous versions, each one better than the last.  The process should become as automatic as breathing.

Here’s how I define what is the best writing for day-to-day situations:  clear, concise, and compelling language that expresses exactly what you want to convey in a logical way and enables the reader to get it the first time he/she reads it.

You may be pleased to learn that editing and revising doesn’t mean starting from scratch each time; it usually means improving what’s already there until it’s as good as you can make it.  How long it takes varies.  The factors include the type of piece (e-mail, letter, comprehensive report, etc.), how much time you have for it, how important it is, and your level of perfectionism.

Editing and revising are well worth it.  The more time and thought — even a little more — you put into it yields ever improving results.  Clear and compelling prose can mean the difference between keeping and losing your audience, making a sale and losing a customer, solving a problem and making it worse.   Mark Twain knew.  He wrote that “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  You don’t have to rewrite one page 39 times like Ernest Hemingway did for Farewell to Arms.  But two or three editing/revising passes will raise your writing.  And raising your writing can raise your level of success.

Here’s some timeless editing/revising guidelines:

  • Short words – if you’ve a word of more than two or three syllables, replace it with something shorter.  Example: “encourage” vs. “coax.”
  • Useless words –  That includes most adjectives and adverbs (the “ly” words).  Poor: “It’s terribly and quite simply great!”  Good: “That’s great!”
  • Short sentences – two short sentences are better than one long sentence.
  • Short paragraphs – Heaven help the reader facing big blocks of solid grey type.
  • Active voice – Order the words in a sentence this way:  subject+verb+object.  Poor: “The football is being thrown by the quarterback.” This is passive voice.  Passive means weak, which this sentence is.  Good: “The quarterback is throwing the football.”  This is active voice.  It has more punch.  It’s also shorter, another readability plus.

I could write a book on editing/revising, but many masters already have.  They include William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, who authored The Elements of Style.  It is a timeless classic.  Focus on the 17 pages of Chapter 2, “Elementary Principles of Composition.”

Don’t believe me?  Look at this (with thanks to Ms. Shirley Taylor, author of Model Business Letters, Emails and Other Business Documents, seventh edition):

…more later.

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Kill the “ly” Words

I hate adjectives and adverbs.  Those are the words that come before or after a verb and end in the letters “ly.”  Example:  “I literally cringed embarrassingly.”  Better:  “I cringed.”  What makes me absolutely and positively cringe uncontrollably is the overly excessive use of adjectives and adverbs wantonly.  It’s totally, irrevocably, and mind-numbingly bad writing. Or, it’s awful.

Why?  Words that end in “ly” rob the verb — and the language overall — of its power, it’s zest, it’s energy.  Lots of adjectives and adverbs make the reader yawn and then go away.  A verb’s mission is to convey action, which helps keep the reader engaged.  But each “ly” word weighs down the verb and the sentence.  Too many and the language flops — and your reader stops. And there goes your opportunity to engage, explain, interest, persuade, or motivate.

In an earlier post I recommended the book “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.  Here’s something he wrote about “ly” words:

“Totally flabbergasted,” “effortlessly easy,” “slightly spartan.”  The beauty of “flabbergasted” is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can’t picture anyone being partly flabbergasted.  If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use “effortless.”  And what is “slightly spartan”?  Perhaps a monk’s cell with wall-to-wall carpeting.”

So, after writing your first draft hunt down and destroy all the “ly” words you can.  Your second draft will gather power to pull and please your readers.

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Why Another Blog on Writing Well?

As long poor writing survives the war against it goes on.  It may be a forever war.  But helping people write well matters greatly to their personal and professional progress.  Moreover, it is a vital element that influences how far and how fast society advances. I want people’s progress and society’s advancement to be as full and rapid as they can be.  So I’m joining the fight for writing well.  This despite an infinite number of good-writing blogs out there.  Why?  The force for good writing can never be too large or strong.  There are many like this blog, but this blog is mine.  Of all that are out there, perhaps this is the blog a person needing better thinking and writing will discover.  One person is enough.  Without good writing great ideas may perish, great causes may be lost, and great solutions to life’s greatest challenges may fail.  But with more and more good writing civilization expands its limits and extends the endpoint of its progress.  It matters that much.

On the individual level, writing well wins jobs, wins resources, and wins the battle of ideas.  But when a person doesn’t have information and resources for writing well he/she loses in life.  I want that person to win.  When such people win we all win, including me.

So I’m happy to launch this blog.  I’ll share what I can via insights, lessons learned, information, ideas, and resource recommendations.  They flow from a 30+ year career as a communicator of one kind or another.

Let’s go.

What You Should do First (and Always) to Write Better

A good first step toward becoming a good writer is to read good writing.  Make it a permanent habit.  Leverage that by reading about writing well.  Now then, for most of us the writing we do, especially on the job, is nonfiction.  Things like e-mails, presentations, reports, memos, proposals, etc.  One of the smartest things I ever did was to buy William Zinsser’s wonderful book: On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction.  He addresses the principles of good writing in plain English that’s enjoyable to read.  He also discusses some of the common types of nonfiction writing.  Get this book–today.  Read it.  Then read it again.  As self-improvement guru Tony Robbins says: “Repetition is the mother of skill.”

Standing alongside Mr. Zinsser as a how-to-write master is Mr. Rudolf Flesch.  He wrote How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively.   “This book not only explains readable writing–it IS readable writing,” says one Amazon commentor.  He/she is right.  Absorb this book.  Really focus on it.  Do the exercises.  Doing so will transform your written words like spring fertilizer brings forth a new lawn.

When you take on board these two masterworks you’ll be on your way toward joining the top 20 percent of your occupation.  Those are the people, the ones with top communication skills as well as strong technical skills, whose pay and positions rise first and who get laid off last.

So those are the first two books I recommend for driving your written communication.  What are yours?  Any good-writing blogs/websites/forums you like?

Also, please suggest future topics. I could make my own choices, but it’s more important for my “customers” to tell me what they want.  What information, advice, or ideas do you need to help you think and write more effectively?

And your feedback is always welcome, too.

More later…

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