Think First – Extract from Word to the Wise by Mark Broatch
To write clearly you need to think clearly. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, at time of writing the richest man in the world, has reportedly banned PowerPoint or bullet point presentations of ideas. In an email to his senior team, he wrote that those presenting ideas would be required to compose ‘narrative’ memos of four to six pages, using coherent sentences and clear arguments. They then would read the memo aloud and answer questions.
This approach, he said, would force better thinking and understanding of what’s important and how things are related. Slide presentations allow speakers to gloss over ideas and gaps in knowledge.
Anyone who’s listened to a poor presentation with the speaker clicking away at the screen knows the truth of this. Presenting an idea well — getting readers to buy in — requires clear thinking, coherent ideas and precise expression. How to get there?
START WITH A BANG
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.
Fiction has an entrepreneurial element, akin to the inventor’s secret machine, elixir or formula.
Saccharine is our sweetest word for fear: the fear of too much sentiment, too much taste.
However you start, grab your reader. Grab them and don’t let go. Even if there is no magic formula for writing well, there are tried and true approaches to finding the right ingredients. Limit the number of ideas in sentences, be active rather than passive, be positive, and avoid monotony by mixing up the length, shape and rhythm of sentences. Some can be tight, others looser, depending on your subject and intent.
Be precise and concise. This doesn’t mean ideas and their expression are sketched so simply that you leave out important detail, but that you make every word, every sentence count. You can be economical without sacrificing accuracy.
Write with nouns and verbs. This doesn’t mean no adjectives or adverbs, but they must help a sentence’s precision and economy rather than make it flabbier. Prefer the short word to the long, the simple to the complex, the concrete to the abstract. Concrete language demands less of the reader than abstract. Sometimes you need abstract ideas to convey complex ideas, but usually it’s best to use tangible concepts, graspable metaphors, real-world examples.
Don’t be afraid to keep things simple. Sometimes people overcomplicate sentences because they are afraid of looking stupid. But don’t be fearful of complex sentences. If they are clear, they can illuminate the toughest subjects.
Mix up the order of your sentences so that they have punch at their start and end. Rather than always using a simple subject-verb-object structure — ‘The skipper made one last attempt to rescue the man from the rocks as the tide rose and the waves crashed higher’ — switch the sentence around. ‘As the tide rose and the waves crashed higher on the rocks, the skipper made one last attempt to rescue the stranded, exhausted man.’ Don’t be afraid to start sentences with conjunctions such as but, and, although or so, especially if the sentences are tightly linked. ‘Proust must be cited for his notion of the “musical” structuring of memories (the task of narrating having been equated with the task of remembering). But, of course, there are predecessors.’ (Susan Sontag).
Avoid clichés and stale metaphors. Limit the use of passive language; it can make your writing impersonal and drain it of life, because the passive shifts focus from the doer of the action to the action itself. The classic example of this is the CEO who says ‘mistakes were made’. But using the passive might be appropriate if you are writing for a scientific or bureaucratic audience, or don’t actually want to admit making a mistake.
Choose plain, direct words (give, tender, sudden, thief) over long Latinate words full of prefixes and suffixes. Nominalisations — nouns made from adjectives and verbs — are particularly disliked by traditionalists and admirers of good writing. Like passive language, they drain your writing of precision and power and can conceal who’s doing what to whom. But they are used widely, and not just by academics, lawyers and bureaucrats, because of that reason. Keep in mind that English has been nouning and verbing for centuries. Perhaps because they are associated with the hype of business, a few attract particular scorn, including impact, leverage, action, task and grow (as of a company).
Even if many of the language conventions and preferences are based on little more than superstition, knowing them will give you confidence. Lack of confidence, or fear of looking a fool, has tripped up many a writer. They reach for the fanciest words, turn everything into a passive voice to sound authoritative, follow half-understood prohibitions from childhood lessons and end up sounding flat and pompous — and nothing like themselves. Learn the ‘rules’. Your confidence will be redoubled if you know the conventions that most often light the touchpaper of traditionalists and can veer around them.
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