Monday, April 15, 2013

Two basic techniques for writing readable and convincing English

Over the years, many readers of my English-usage column in The Manila Times had asked me for advice on how to write more convincingly and readably in English. To have offered them a simple, straightforward formula for that would have been foolhardy on my part, of course, but on two separate occasions, I suggested two basic techniques that I thought might help improve their exercise of the writing craft: using the fireside-chat technique to make their English simpler and more audience-oriented, and doing ruthless self-editing and rewriting to polish their written work. I wrote about these techniques in two essays, the first later forming part of my book English Plain and Simple (2003) and the second, part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge (2009). I am now posting the essays in tandem below. (April 16, 2013)

The Fireside-Chat Technique

One major reason why even highly intelligent, well-educated people find it difficult to write is that they have not learned to get into the proper frame of mind for it. They stare at the blank paper or the blank computer screen with dread, wracking their brains to find that voice that can make their writing sparkle and become more persuasive, more convincing, perhaps more impressive. But more often than not, even the first line of what they want to say eludes them. This is because they cannot even form a clear mental picture of who they are writing to. The same people who can effortlessly carry on lively, brilliant conversations with their associates or deliver spellbinding speeches to huge audiences suddenly develop imaginary stage fright when writing, browbeaten into inaction by a faceless audience in their minds.

There is actually a very simple, straightforward technique to combat this mental paralysis. Just imagine an audience of one—only one. Forget about all the others who may have an interest in what you have to say; you will have time to bring them into the picture much, much later. Just focus on this audience of one—your boss, your staff, a critic, a lover, in fact anyone in particular—and imagine that he or she is right in front of you beside a nicely burning fireplace. For a reason that I will tell you later, make sure that it is a fireplace and not a living room sofa or dining table. Once this becomes clear in your mind, state your case gently, carefully answering every possible objection from your audience of one, clarifying when necessary but never arguing. When you are through, simply stop, then quietly ask your audience of one what he or she thinks. That’s all. No verbal pyrotechnics or literary flourishes. Just plain and simple talk.

You will be surprised by what the fireside-chat approach can do to your English writing, no matter what form it takes—memo, letter, essay, speech, or feature article. It will be virtually impossible for you to use legalese, gobbledygook, or wordy phrases. You will know it in your bones how ridiculous it is to use them. Just imagine how a sensible, intelligent person facing you will react to gobbledygook like this: “Sir, urban life in the context of the worsening population problem and traffic situation has taken its toll on me and my family. This realization has compelled me to make a major decision that I realize may affect the operations of the division whose management you have so kindly entrusted to me. Much to my regret, however, I am taking this occasion to inform you that my family and I have reached a decision to move...”

This is often the way memos on such sensitive subjects are written, but if you spoke this way during a fireside chat, your listener obviously will conclude that you have gone out of your mind. He may just decide to fire you ahead of your resignation, or shove you into the fireplace to put you back to your senses. Now you know why we need that fireplace there: it is not only for intimacy but for a quick reality check as well.

More likely, of course, when your thoughts are suitably tempered by the fireside ambiance, you will get rid of your legalese, gobbledygook, and wordy phrases and speak in plain and simple English, probably in this manner: “Sir, city life has become very difficult for me and my family. We can no longer bear the congestion and the traffic. I like my job and I am grateful to you for making me a division manager, but my family and I have decided to move...” Isn’t this the tenor of thought that you have been looking for all along? Imagining a fireside chat with an audience of one will not only make it possible but inevitable! This authentic human voice is really the only sensible way to talk about things that really matter to people. It is, believe me, also the most sensible and effective way to write to anyone other than yourself.

The fireside-chat technique actually uses the same formula that works so well in public speaking. You know the routine. Speak to only one person in the audience at any one time. Fix that person in the eye and imagine that you are speaking only to her and no one else, and once you have made your point, do the same to another person in the audience, and so on. Addressing all of the audience at the same time will require you to shift your eyes like crazy and focus on no one, making you look ridiculous.

So next time, when you find it difficult to write, simply use the fireside-chat technique. It may not make you a great writer, but it surely will make you a much better communicator than you are right now.

From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Editing Oneself

Like most people, it took me a long time to discover that what matters more in writing is not so much what we want to say but what the readers want to know. This, I think, is the biggest single reason why most of the writing we see around us is stiff, obtuse, and uncommunicative. Many writers forget or don’t even think about who their readers or listeners are. They do a secret monologue to themselves.

No wonder then that so many articles for academic journals just end up talking to the paper they are written on, and why many of the speeches we hear are so obtuse they might as well be delivered before an empty hall. Most of the writing that comes my way to be edited, in fact, shows very little evidence of honest-to-goodness effort to connect to the reader or listener. The research is often competent, but the prose almost always suffers from the dead weight of piled-up, undigested, and impersonally expressed information.

Take this lead sentence of a draft speech that I edited sometime ago: “Aldous Huxley wrote brilliantly about hallucinogens and their effect on creativity.” Of course, only someone who has read several books about Huxley, about hallucinogens, and about creativity can legitimately make such an audacious thesis—and the writer in this case obviously had not done so. What I did then was to recast the passage so the author could more modestly say it in the first-person singular and make the proper attributions: “A few days ago, I came across this brilliant but disturbing idea by Aldous Huxley, who wrote about hallucinogens and their effect on creativity. Let me share it with you and comment about it as I go along …” By doing so, I saved the writer from the embarrassment of making a tall claim totally outside his level of expertise.

This is actually a simple paradox: you become authoritative only when you write or speak as yourself. You can comfortably talk only about the things you really know, and only after you have declared the limits of your knowledge. Readers and audiences have a sixth sense for claimed authority that’s not really there, no matter if you have an MA or PhD tacked to your name. I therefore suggest you try this approach if you already have a draft of anything that’s bothering you for its dryness and stiffness, or for not being entirely original. See how this personal approach can perk up your prose and make it sound more interesting.

One final thought about self-editing: no draft is ever sacrosanct and final. There’s always a better way to say what you have written. With today’s word processors, it’s so much easier now to clarify prose that would otherwise mystify or confuse, or to support abstract concepts with telling details and picture words. You can easily transpose whole sentences and paragraphs, even turn your draft totally upside down until it captures precisely what you have in your mind. The mechanical constraints against total rewrites are gone.

And just when everything seems to be already in place, go over your draft once more. Knock off any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that doesn’t contribute to the idea or mood you want to convey. Stop only when you have whittled down your manuscript until it’s in danger of collapsing if you attempted to excise another word. In time, you will discover what many successful writers already know but rarely publicly admit: that good writing is really the art of rewriting, the art of doing brutal surgery on one’s own thoughts.

From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.