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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English

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Part One: Types of writing

Before starting to write, take the time to consider what you are writing. 'Writing' is a large topic which needs different skills depending on what type of writing you are doing. Each type of writing involves different skills and different grammar, style and vocabulary.

Much of our daily writing is in the form of notes to ourselves or others. In fact, these days 'notes' also include twitter feeds and Facebook postings, so preparing a good note is increasingly important. Even this most basic form of written communication has certain requirements and features which are the same for all kinds of written text, so let us describe these essential features at once. They are:

  • Give all the essential information
    A note is not helpful unless the reader is completely aware of what the message means. It is no use having a diary entry that reads '4PM. Important' if you do not remember that this is when you are meant to pick a friend up from the airport. Likewise if a colleague gives you a message saying 'Urgent phone call call back immediately' you can complain that important details are missing.

  • Be clear
    If you are at an office meeting and someone passes you a note saying 'Jim present', what does this mean? Possibly that Jim is present at the meeting. It might also meet that Jim will present data at the meeting. It might also mean that Jim will be presented with something at the meeting; or that Jim will give a present to someone else.

  • Keep to the point
    A note that says 'Check sales figures. Why is Bill not back from holiday? I loved my trip to Barbados, remind me to show you the pictures. There's a great one of me on the beach.' irritates the reader and makes you look like a scatterbrain.

Remember that the most important part of all writing is communication. Good writing transfers information from one brain to another as clearly and elegantly as possible. Therefore the above points are important, no matter whether you are leaving a note on the refrigerator or writing a 200,000 word literary masterpiece.

Now that we have dealt with notes, let us move on to the more formal types of writing which we will deal with in the coming weeks. These are:

Letters

Letters are written for many different reasons to share news, to make arrangements or requests, to complain and to negotiate.

Today, letters include emails. As with the older paper-and-ink letters, the most important thing about letters is the register. 'Register' here is a technical English term which means 'the way we talk to someone'. You talk to your friends and family with one register, but use a different register with strangers, and a different register again on formal occasions.

Few successful loan applications to a bank begin 'Hey guys, I'm broke and need cash from you, like pronto, okay?'. Likewise your sister might be stunned to get an email saying 'Dear Ms Jones; Thank you for your communication of the 16th of this month. It would appear that your holiday plans are satisfactory '.

A good letter can be discursive, narrative or descriptive, but it always follows a clear plan, and allows the reader to immediately understand its purpose.

Discursions

Discursive writing is persuasive writing. This type of writing usually involves combining facts to make an argument. We do not mean the kind of argument where people shout at each other, but the kind where you use facts to show that something is true or false or a good or bad idea.

Discursive writing is used in presentations such as 'The sales strategy for next year' or in articles for a newsletter or college newspaper. It is essential for most university essays and exams, but is also important even in for example an online games forum where you try to explain why an x-ray gun is better than a mega-blaster.

Discursive writing is used in discussions.

Narrative

This kind of writing is used to tell a story. Narrative writing may have elements of other types of writing, such as description and discussion, but these are not the main purpose of the text.

Most short stories and novels are narratives, but so is a letter to a friend telling of a funny thing that happened at the supermarket.

With narratives it is important to keep to the point, and use plenty of 'bridging' expressions such as 'When we had done that' or 'As soon as he told us ..' 'The first thing we did'. Narrative might also involve dialogue.

With a narrative in is important that the reader finishes the text with a clear idea of who did what and when.

Instructions

Have you ever tried to assemble a piece of flat-packed furniture which came with poor instructions? Or perhaps you have been given directions of how to get to somewhere which left out important landmarks and turnings. If so, you will know that with instructions good writing is essential.

Instructions are unique in that most of the verbs are imperatives. However, good descriptive skills are important to allow the reader to know which things to work with. It is also important to arrange the instructions to form a good narrative sequence. For example a recipe that tells the reader to 'bake for an hour' should not have as the next instruction 'but first add two teaspoons of salt'.

With instructions clarity is more important than it is with other forms of writing.

Description

Usually description is included in other types of writing. For example it is a rare novel which does not require the writer to describe things at length. English language exams sometimes require students to write a descriptive essay.

The ability to describe something memorably and colourfully is a useful language skill, and the ability to describe something so that it can be easily identified is can be essential.

Descriptions can also be functional this text is a description of what kinds of writing we will be studying in the coming weeks. Not all descriptions are 'literary'.

Description is the type of writing which people most get wrong, as the tendency is to write 'purple prose' which is overloaded with adjectives and unsuitable metaphors.


The next parts of this course will look at each of these types of writing in detail.

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