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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English

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Style Part II

Writing readable prose.

The difference between a schoolboy essay and a professionally written text is more than a simple matter of grammar and vocabulary. The professional understands that the point of his text is to get an idea from his mind to the reader's, and to get it there as simply and clearly as possible. As a result the advice in this section is simply:

Don't get in the way.

That is, as a writer, do not get between the reader and the ideas you are trying to communicate. There are several aspects to this approach, so we will go through them one by one.

A. Trying too hard. Many people, when asked to write something for a club magazine or a local newspaper, think that they need 'style'. The result has the same resemblance to normal prose as pantomime acting has to usual behaviour. Sometimes it is better to concentrate on saying what you have to say, and leave out the literary flourishes.

Instead of using phrases such as 'Imagine our surprise ', do the heavy lifting for the readers and write text that lets them imagine your surprise. This does not need what editors call 'purple prose' sometimes simple, spare sentences do the job better. Consider these examples.

'They had been so excited waiting for the delivery. Finally it came. Imagine their huge surprise when they hurriedly opened the box and found that it was empty!'

'The long-awaited delivery finally arrived and with great excitement they opened the box.
It was empty.'

Here, the last three words, standing alone, give the sense of shock and disappointment that the first sentence tries much harder to achieve.

There is no need to create a writing style for yourself. English allows so many different ways to say the same thing that the way you choose to say something naturally creates your own style. Trying too hard to change that style results in prose that seems forced and artificial.

B. Go easy on the adjectives. If you need more than two adjectives to describe a noun, you probably have the wrong noun. Try to introduce the description in a natural manner rather than presenting the reader with a shopping list. A pair of 'big, heavy, badly-polished scruffy old brown leather boots' need more room for their description. 'The large boots have seen heavy use and the scuffed polish on their brown leather fails to disguise their age.'

Generally speaking, nouns can be descriptive, and verbs forceful. By all means season them with adjectives and adverbs, but as with seasoning on food, over-use tells us there is something wrong with either the product or the cook.

C. Keep your opinions to yourself. If you are writing on a particular topic, by all means say what you think about it. However should your text mention, for example, Spain there is no reason to express your opinion of the country and its people unless this is directly relevant.

If you are reviewing a film which features a dog, your opinion of dogs is not relevant. Readers want to know how well the dog is integrated into the plot and whether the appearance and performance of the dog is convincing. They care a lot less than you think about how you personally feel about dogs.

D. Don't mix your metaphors and use similes sparingly. Sentences like 'That great bull of a man was a kettle of fish whom I treated like a hot potato.' force your reader to make a series of mental translations before the meaning becomes clear. In one sentence our subject has been an animal, an object and a vegetable.

If using a metaphor keep it consistent. For example if you associate a traffic-packed road with a river, use verbs and nouns thereafter that fit the metaphor. If using a simile the comparison should be obvious if you have to explain the simile, you probably should not have used it in the first place.

Re-read

When writing a text, the ideas and topics are (or should be) clear in your mind. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the reader is not in the same position. Therefore make sure that you explain details that seem obvious to you if, on re-reading, it becomes clear that these details are not obvious to the reader.

For the same reason it is a good idea to leave as much time as possible between writing and re-reading. The more you have forgotten of the text, the more you approach your text from a reader's perspective, and the more obvious any necessary changes and explanations become.

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