Writing Effectively: Why My Eyes Are Blue
Stormgod shares his writing sercrets.
As a 5-star writer on this website, I enjoy the opportunities presented to me. A reliable group of customers consistently offer me Direct Orders, I select Open Orders from the queue to introduce myself to new customers, and TB Customer Support sometimes even emails me to connect me to a customer who might fit my background and writing skills. I’m not a professional writer, but I am certainly a capable writer. I frequently read forum posts from other writers who seem capable but who have not yet attained 5-star status.
Many of those posts ask the same question: “How can I become a 5-star writer?” At least one reply will invariably advise the person to obtain a copy of the AP Style Guide and study it. Other common responses will be for the person to “read as much as you can” or “be careful with commas.”
Those responses all mean well, but I don’t agree with them. I believe grammar is over-emphasized. Knowing how to punctuate a sentence is important, but it is not the ultimate measure of a writer’s ability or an instant ticket to a promotion at TB. A 5-star writer must be able to present thoughts and ideas in a natural flow to communicate with others. You don’t have to use complex sentences to do it, and you do not have to know 10 different words for a shade of blue. Simple, easy-to-comprehend language is the key to effective communication, and the ability to communicate effectively is the key to 5-star writing.
This does not mean you are restricted to short, simple words or sentences. It means that you adjust your writing style to fit the needs of your target audience. There’s a tremendous difference between writing a whitepaper on advancements in vanadium redox batteries for the renewable energy sector, writing a magazine article on how flow batteries operate, and writing a press release on the opening of a new vanadium processing facility. Audiences require writing that is tailored to their specific knowledge base.
Madonna recently gave a 20/20 interview in which she described another artist’s sound as “reductive.” That word implies that the other artist’s music is simplified when compared to her own music, but the interviewer didn’t seem to know what the word meant. She asked Madonna if that “was a good thing,” and Madonna arched an eyebrow and told her to look it up. You could hear the camera crew’s gasp. I thought that it was embarrassing for the interviewer.
I’m pretty sure that Madonna doesn’t care whether she embarrasses an interviewer or not, but writers don’t become popular or wealthy by making readers feel stupid. You want your audience to quickly understand your point, not get lost in your vocabulary. Words are powerful and nuanced. Two words could mean similar things but have shades of meaning that you won’t automatically know by picking one at random from a thesaurus’ suggestion list. If you make a poor choice, your entire article loses credibility. Yes, “cerulean” is a shade of blue, but I have never met a person with cerulean eyes. If an author were to use that adjective in that manner, I would find it disruptive to my immersion in the story. A 5-star writer uses the right word for the job.
Misusing the words “effect” and “affect” is a sure way to derail my attention. Whenever I read the wrong homonym in an article, I jump to conclusions about the validity of the writer’s point.
Punctuation, which is by far the most discussed grammar issue in forum posts, is just another tool to help you organize the information in your writing. Commas, periods and paragraphs help group thoughts into clusters of information for faster understanding, but the thoughts pretty much have to be in the right order in the first place. If you really want to improve your writing skills, begin by focusing on the orderly presentation of information.
If you were describing a microwave oven to a person who had never heard of one before, you certainly wouldn’t start by describing circuit boards, keypads or amperage draws. You would begin by describing a microwave oven as a kitchen appliance that cooks food using microwave emissions. You then might go on to describe the general appearance of a microwave, discuss the history of microwave technology, describe other common uses, or even branch off into a discussion of the physics of microwave radiation.
When your thoughts are lined up in an order that makes sense, you have already made it halfway to your goal of communicating. That is the point where you should start focusing on the mechanics of grammar. There are far more “rules” of grammar than you will ever need to know. Most of us only use a handful of sentence patterns, so why do we need to know all of the ways to use, or not use, a comma?
Look over some of your old articles, and you will see what I mean. I will bet that you really only use, or misuse, commas in less than a dozen ways. Every writer will be different, but I use a lot of sentences with coordinating conjunctions in my writing. Because of that, it is good for me to know when conjunctions require a comma and when they don’t. If that is also your writing style, then learn those rules. Learn the rule of thumb for using commas with that FANBOYS rule. Learn when to use them with the word “which.” Pick out your most common sentence patterns, and learn to use commas properly in those instances. After a while, you won’t even think about whether it is correct or not. You will just write those sentences correctly in your first draft.
If you find yourself using a comma in a different sentence structure, change it to a more familiar pattern. An even better idea might be to take that as an opportunity to learn another sentence pattern that uses, or does not use, a comma. Your repertoire of sentence phrasing grows that way, rule by rule.