This article on how to write well is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, Co-founder & CEO at iPleaders.
When it comes to writing, there is more to unlearn than what is there to learn for people like me who has been educated in the Indian schooling system. What I was told constitute good writing when I was a kid was the biggest hindrance to improving my writing skills later on. Probably the same thing holds you back too.
I am not talking about writing novels, poetry or even academic books. I am talking about all sorts of writing we can not avoid – letters, emails, Statement of Purpose, CV, research papers and projects in college, answer scripts, work related notes and so on. Learning to write well is not a luxury – it is essential to succeed. Not that no one succeeds without it – but not knowing how to communicate well through writing is certainly a handicap. For a lawyer, knowing how to write is usually a question of livelihood.
I went to a school with a history of 70 years – it was old and well known in the locality. The school followed the curriculum of West Bengal State Education Board. In such schools, they usually teach language skills by asking you to analyze literary pieces – “what did the poet mean by this phrase?” or “analyze so and so characters from this short story”. The questions that are asked in the exams are so predictable that there are books in the market which help you to prepare for those specific questions. We were taught both English and Bengali, two languages this way. I wanted to write well – and I was a voracious reader. My reading habit started to reflect on my writing early on as I tried to emulate the great literature I was reading all the time.
If I wrote something, I had no idea if it was good or bad – I’d show it to my father or my teachers for feedback. I relied on that feedback, just like all my peers, and performed well academically. I usually scored top marks in class when it came to languge subjects. Little I knew at that time that this was completely jeopardizing my ability to communicate in the written form!
My father, who learnt to write in a similar way as I learned in school, as well as teachers in school, private tutors and peers always taught me the following:
Vocabulary – Good writing means using lots of difficult words. Brownie points if the person reading does not know the meaning of the words used. Also, use phrases and idioms that are rarely used – this will lead to great writing.
Sentence structures – Simple sentences are easy – kids write simple sentences. You have grown up – not write complex sentences.
Using cliches – It sounds unbelievable now, but we were encouraged to use cliches!
Lack of structure – for a large part of my school life, no one taught me the importance of properly structuring a write up. We just wrote with the flow. It was in the last few years in school that I discovered the importance of a structured writing.
I do not know if things have changed in the last 7 years, but most of the students I interact with suffer from similar issues. Somehow a lot of people think that their prowess in a language shines through esoteric usage, difficult and uncommon words, and complex language. An even higher number of people tend to write without systematic structure.
Freedom of speech, but no right to be heard: You can have your freedom of speech but others have right to not hear you as well. Why should anyone read whatever you may be writing? There may be a functional purpose for reading – and some people may be obliged to read what you write for some reason – but does that make sure that your message will go across as intended? If your written communication is not good, wouldn’t there be incidents of misunderstanding? Would not people miss your points? Will your views be appreciated to their full potential?
Make the reader your priority
To be understood, you need to communicate. When you communicate in writing – it should be something that the user can read, understand and if possible, like. Of course, it is not just the way you write which counts, the content itself, or the idea and information which will go into the writing needs to be good too. Writing beautifully about empty ideas, wrong facts or fallacious arguments is of little use.
However, for the time being we shall imagine that you have good things to write about – and bother ourselves only about the the writing style.
Most beginners see themselves at the centre of writing process – writing what you want to write and what sounds good to you become a priority. However, this is a huge mistake. You should be putting the potential readers ahead of yourself unless you are writing for your private library. The point of communication is expressing yourself in such a way that the other person can understand and follow you – for that you need to actively think about how the reader will react to your writing at the time of writing.
This priority dictates many choices you’ll have to make while writing. This is what makes unacceptable to write convoluted sentences, or to use words from the thesaurus. It will also help you to decide if you need to research further, give more evidence in support of your claim, or whether you need to trim your article.
There would always be some shortcoming in your audience – sometimes they are not educated enough, sometimes they are way more educated than you are. Some audience is too young, others are too old. Some has short attention spans, others split hair over everything you write.
It is important to keep these differences in mind when you write – otherwise your writing will not receive the desired attention. Yes, you can write whatever you feel like writing – but you will not be able to reach out to an audience that way. You need some discipline to your writing, you need to structure your content well, you need to keep your audience in mind while you write. Also, you must not try to show off your language skills, vocabulary or knowledge of idioms in your writing – people can figure that out and it is a terrible turn off. Write in the simplest English you can imagine.
One more thing – do not write for the lowest common denominators in your target group – write for the smart people. The dumb people are more likely to watch TV anyway.