Friday, July 27, 2007

First Think to Write, then WriteTo Think

Thought of not blogging today since it being a working day, I felt kind of exhausted. Then while making a small correction to yesterday’s post, I see that I’m just one short of the century mark. So, what the hack, now is as good as anytime to reach that milestone.

But what to write? Notice that I’m not asking how to write. After all the mechanics of writing should be behind me now, what with so many “literary works” to my credit, so I rationalize, smugly too.

Then again truth can be brutal, most of the times. And that hit me flat on the face when I attended the very first ASCE webinar on Writing – Producing action oriented documents, courtesy of my office. It was a two-parter, one hour each during lunchtime on July 18 and July 25.

The speaker, Dr. Stuart Walesh, gave a lot of writing tips over the two hours of virtual delivery, each of us given a copy of the printed slides to follow and to write notes on. And I find that I have been happily clinging on to a lot of the “heavy-handed” stuff that appeal to me more than the readers.

Unlike speaking, writing lacks the tonal nuances, the body language, the deliberate pauses, the props and the room setting that play to the speaker’s advantage in sustaining the interest of an audience. Writing depends solely on the verbal route to bring home a point, to entice the reader to stay, to linger on, every step of the way.

But oftentimes we are the guilty ones, leaving the readers no choice but to abandon ship. There are only two things one has to master in order to write convincingly: learn the fundamentals, and practice, practice, practice.

One obvious shortcoming that I still have not surmounted is the tendency to be verbose. Taunting less is more, the speaker challenges us to throw away words that do not add anything meaningful, except perhaps our own boasted ego, confusing flowery renditions for substantive and elegant prose.

For example, how often have we penned “someone has the capacity to do something”, rather than simply, “someone can …”? Or “in the course of our discussion” than “in our discussion”? The most egregious is perhaps the wanton assertion of “currently” all over the place: We are currently doing this and we are currently doing that. Just take out “currently” and you will find that the present continuous tense is intact.

My colleague defended that uncontrollable fixation on “currently” on the mentality of the consultant, which is our line of work, who needs to justify to the client that we are always doing things for the client.

The other apparent writing flaw is the abundance of articles (either a or the) that start a sentence. The speaker suggests the use of transition words to soften the visual wordscape, again having the readers at heart.

Another significant text saver is writing in the active voice, rather than the passive voice. It has been determined by numerical modeling that alternative A is the best approach. Now try this: Numerical modeling determined that alternative A is the best approach. I rest my case.

After learning the fundamentals, albeit rudimentary, it's practice time. There's where you will find writing actually help clarify things. Hence, write to think.

Actually a lot of this verbiage can be caught if only we proofread our writings. Not once, but several times, and don’t just depend on the spelling checker of your word processor. Sometimes even leave it aside for a day or two, and revisit after it has been mulled over by our subconscious. For more important writings, we may even get our friends to proofread. How many times have you proofread your writing and declared it to be error-free only to be unsettled by a brief glance from a friend who easily spots one that just jumps out of the page, after you have been told? My wife can certainly vouch for the many wrong words (the spelling checker only tells you whether the word is correctly spelt, but not whether it is the right word for the job) that she picks up. And she is not even trained as a proof reader.

So, less is more, transition words are good, active voice is better, and, yes, leave plenty of space around such as using lists and paragraphing. A cluttered text is symptomatic of a cluttered mind of the writer, and the reader then simply un-clutters by looking elsewhere.

OK. Mission accomplished. #100.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Of all people, you learning to write!


Say Lee said...

Hi, KK, it's nice of you to drop by. I guess things must have slowed somewhat.

Anyway, learning is a lifelong process as some wise guys once intoned. So is writing.