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My new video for this week is out now. The topic for this week’s video is 5 Challenges for Learners of English as a Second Language.
Instead of sharing tips for the English language learners, I’ve shared what challenges they face and how they can overcome those challenges.
You may watch it here:
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I’ve released my new video on YouTube. This time, I share my easy tips on how to break through the writer’s block. What it on #WordsAndWordsmith.
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My friends often email me seeking help with writing. This post adds to the reply I gave to one of my friends who asked:
What should I look for to construct better sentences?
I assume the question relates more to work-related writing (jotting thoughts down) than speaking. So, I am slightly changing the question to fit it as the topic for the post. 😊
Here are my top 3 suggestions for writing better sentences:
Tip 1: Give Action Points
Whether it is emails, meeting notes, Sprint retrospections, or a web chat with a colleague, clarity in communication is of the utmost importance. Be clear with what you wish to say. Write, then read (and, if required, re-write). Then, send. But, please mind the gap; there is a difference between being straightforward and being offensive.
Tip 2: Use Active Voice
Consider that Ram is preparing meeting minutes. This is what he writes as an action item:
Inputs on project estimation must be given.
See how he skips mentioning the doer in this passive sentence. That’s usually with every passive sentence. Let us rephrase this to introduce active voice (and hence the doer):
Shyam needs to give inputs to the PMO for project estimation.
See how sentences in the active voice clearly define responsibilities? Had Ram circulated an email with a passive sentence, we wouldn’t even know Shyam was supposed to share his inputs.
But, should we always construct sentences in the active voice?
No. In cases when you generalize or do not have any recipient for actions, you may use the passive voice. For example:
The velocity improved for the Sprint.
In this case, because the velocity improved for the entire team, we are sure that each one of the teammates contributed more. You may also use the passive voice for highlighting facts and figures. In the same example:
The velocity improved by over 5% for the Sprint.
An average of 5% capacity is reserved for holidays.
(Considering reservation of capacity to be a known item for capacity planning.)
Tip 3: Remove Needless Words
There are words that do not add to the meaning or intensity of the words they accompany. For example, “very” and “really”. However, approach this tip with caution.
Consider this example:
This cake takes very good.
We might as well get rid of “very”, and the cake will still taste equally good. But, by no means should you take this as a rule of thumb for deleting all occurrences of “very”. The very purpose of “very” (pun intended) is to intensify something that already exists.
If, however, there is a rule of thumb, it is to seek brevity. Look for opportunities to shorten or, at least, vary the length of your sentences. This means you give the reader more opportunities to flow with the rhythm of the words, take sufficient pauses, and contemplate on what they read.
Bonus Tip: Listen to Your Mental Ears
I really like such sections—another exception to Tip#3. Readers would usually jump over to this section first. If you too did just that, welcome aboard. As I share my top 3 tips for writing better sentences, I see that most of us already know the tips. The problem is they don’t know how to put that knowledge into practice.
How do we identify what and when to change?
I’d say listen to your mental ears. They are never wrong. You can always check for the meanings of words or phrases you are not sure of. Look at your write-ups the next day. Take a print out and read out loud. Project the write-ups on a bigger screen. Let someone else read your write-ups out loud to you. Take a break and re-read your write-ups. There’s a lot that can come in handy. But, nothing beats the joy of rewriting. Before I release my posts, I write and rewrite them in the proportion of 1:4.
Let us revise:
- Enlist actionable items. I just did that.
- Use active voice, but don’t be offensive.
- Remove words that do not affect or contribute to the meaning of your sentences.
Sub-topics like “varying lengths of sentences” demand a post of their own. We can even experiment with including a combination of words that produce lyrical or homophonic composition: “she sells seashells”.
To sum up this post, here’s what I have: it all depends on finding the sweet spot where meet relevance and comprehension.
Sorry for a clickbait title… I wanted one with a play of words.
The article isn’t really aimed at people who are old enough to have learned (learnt for those who speak the English English) typing on typewriters, but also for those who are still taught to use two spaces after every sentence.
The trend has (almost) changed. In the past, people used two spaces for a reason: typewriters had monospace fonts that inserted equal, not proportional, spaces for all letters. So, the “i” consumed as much space as “w” or “m”. The obvious confusion was when sentences ended. So, it was required that the writers insert two spaces after sentences to visibly mark the end of sentences.
Why this post? Now, in 2018? Well, I still come across write-ups from people who use two spaces. I have seen people encourage two spaces, especially in legal documents. I see some people use double spaces in résumés and personal profiles that are not just printed, but shared digitally, as well. In technical publications, we encourage the use of a single space after sentences because we use proportional fonts.
We are increasingly sharing information digitally. Given that context, I’d encourage you to give only space after a period (full stop in the UK English) or any punctuation mark toward the end of a sentence. Not two.
My contemplation on a day-long training I attended—it was an Insights Discovery workshop—inspired me to write this post.
To tell you the truth, I can reveal the learning from the course in one line: introspecting the self, while respecting the others’ behavior. But, applying is learning is the real challenge. That’s because our thoughts preoccupy our mind. So, we cannot respect other’s perspective and have a fruitful conversation. Anyway, our today’s discussion is hardly about that challenge. So, I will keep off it.
Amongst the many things that I now register on spiritual grounds, there’s one thing has had its profound effect on me. It is that when I take insights from my past and apply them to my future, the life’s pattern becomes visible. This is like a jigsaw puzzle. The trick is not in solving it part by part. But, in setting the boundaries first so that the big picture becomes clear.
The Insights Discovery is a behavioral tool from Carl Jung, who through the tool, tried to define our nature. His analysis is that each one of us is a combination of the following four behavioral styles:
- Red: The one who prefers brief information
- Blue: The one who prefers details
- Green: The one who is full of compassion
- Yellow: The one who seeks involvement
Today, we are busy running a rat race of earning more than others, spending more than others, and possessing more than others. It is this thought of defining every one using four colors that sounded familiar to me.
The ancient Indian wisdom of dividing people into the following four Varnas is similar:
- Brahmana: The one who prefers details; structured result-driven content.
- Kshatriya: The one who wishes to be at the forefront; the leader.
- Vaishya: The thinker; the strategist; the money-minded; the observer.
- Kshudra: The one who is a great worker; the action lover.
Mind the word, please. Varna, according to the Vedas, is comparable to the English word classification. Back then, classification of Varnas would depend on an individual’s deeds, willingness, and capabilities. Today, the word inaccurately translates to mean caste.
What I do not want you to do is map those four Varnas 1:1 with those four colors. That would be incorrect. As a conclusion to the workshop, the instructor told us to be considerate of others. She told us to stay away from making fun of people based on their color preferences.
The fact is, we all have those four colors in us. Yes, one color is dominant within us all. Likewise, we all are a mix of those four Varnas. And, we all have a different Varna dominant. Whilst we are all different, we continue to be a combination of the same values. How true.
Usually, double negatives are absolute No-No anywhere. But, I bring this up for discussion because I see some of us use them—in workplaces and outside. Now, why would we use them? Because we hear people around us using them. Simple logic: if everyone is using it, it must be right. Oh, you can blame it on Hollywood’s portrayal of the good Ol’ Texas ranches and Cowboys, too.
A double negative is when you use two negatives together. For example, “I don’t know nothing.” The trouble is that there are exactly two interpretations of it. First, the obvious deduction “I know, at least, something.” And, second, its distant cousin, “I, literally, don’t know anything.” It is quite possible that while you wished to say (and mean) the latter one, you end up being understood as meaning the first one. It is confusing.
So, AVOID using it. How do you avoid using it? Simple. Use one negative expression. Just say (and, hopefully, mean) “I don’t know anything”.
But, not always will you or can you avoid. For example, “She didn’t go unnoticed in the party”. In this case, we wish to say that there, indeed, was someone who took a notice of her. You should dare to use a double negative only in situations like these. I say dare for a reason: look at the title of this post. Did you see how in some cases two negatives make a positive?
Let us say, the English and math do have something in common. The exception is, two “minuses” don’t always make a “plus” in the English language.
I would be amiss if I were to begin without defining the word content. That’s because it gives both a purpose and a premise to the topic: being content is feeling satisfied with your possessions or situations. But why this play of words in the title, you may ask. Here is why I rant…
Let us go back in time. Not far back into the world of typewriters and hand-written manuals. A couple of decades ago: when the concept of single-sourcing originated. I hadn’t joined the technical writing workforce then. Back then, the requirements were simple: get a single-sourcing tool to create everything from within one source. Then, use that source to generate the content for all formats. A lot has changed since. Yet the idea is to have a single repository generate the content. Just that we have complicated the process of creating and managing that content.
When I first single-sourced my product’s contents, I felt the need of creating a central repository for storing and generating the content—the likes of PDFs and CHMs. With that was born my organization’s server where resided the content. But, my requirements didn’t stop at that. I continued to remodel (or so I thought) my work processes to redefine the way I maintained that content. Then came XML, which helped me to tool-proof the product’s documentation.
Who knows, someday I may even put my head into Application Programming Interface (API), Internet of Things (IoT), and others. Did you notice how the story is becoming more about the tools of the trade than about the traded content? Sooner or later it will be about some other “hot” technology. As I continue to choose a (better) combination of tools and methodologies, I continue to steer farther away from the focus on the content. This could be your story, too.
A side note: a seamless user experience is easier to put on to paper than to put into practice. Agreed. Also, agreed that these days we have tools that we can use to instantly connect with our users. So, we can know which sections of our documentation get the most views. Or, which ones are the most or the least helpful.
From where I look, tools and methodologies originated to save our time and effort. But now, it looks like we have lost ourselves in managing them rather than the content. Let us not focus only on creating a content-management ecosystem. Instead, let us create a problem-solving ecosystem. Let us not forget that the users’ requirements are progressive and cyclical: the target for usability changes frequently.
It all starts with answering “why” and ends with exploring the answers for “what’s next”. Such content that continues to bridge this gap of “why” and “what’s next” is truly satisfying. A tool will only enable us to create quality content. It isn’t an end, but surely a means to an end. Let us solve users’ problems and be content with (the focus on) content.
A lot of writers say they write every day. Some set daily goals, and some, weekly. A few may tell you to skip the weekends, but the idea is the same: write something every day. While the technique might work for them, it doesn’t work for me. Here is why it doesn’t:
Mostly, my full-time work takes the precedence over anything that relates to my non-work time activity. I do pen down thoughts that strike me during my work time. But, I don’t build on them at my work desk. I re-read the drafts and build on them later. This also means, for close to half of my writing effort, I am away from the keyboard.
Yes, I Don’t Write Every Day
I get why some of you might not agree with me: after all, I am a writer. If I were a wrestler, wouldn’t I invest time practicing and building muscles every day? I second the logic. But, writing doesn’t earn me my bread. My job does. I may be a writer at heart, but I am much more than just that. I play many roles, only one of which involves writing.
There is another reason: I’ve found that by not writing, I help my writing to be more productive. Yes, you read it right.
When I am not writing, I:
- Create a list of what and how to write
- Edit existing first cuts
- Improve the flow of the story
- Invest time in other activities, like photography
- Refine the plot
- Reorganize the site
- Structure the content of a post
- Think about my composition
Either of this if I am not working on a fiction plot. I cannot push myself to create something every day even if that means wasting my readers’ valuable time.
The Flip Side of the Story
I agree that writing every day helps. If you are new to writing, noting down something and looking at it in days that follow helps you in improving your writing. Science proves that if you continue to repeat what you do, you sooner or later get better at it. Spending even as less as 15-30 minutes every day can improve your writing. This sounds logical.
Still, it fails to account for one thing: passion. The origin of this logic is that you train your brain to work into and follow a pattern until that becomes either a habit or a regular task on your work calendar. But, can you train your brain to generate passion? From where do you generate the self-motivation for you to give your best? The flaw here is that it is not practical for those who are not earning their bread out of the writing effort.
Most people write every day because they wish to get better at it. It makes sense for them to invest a part of their daily schedule toward perfecting this art. I am more bothered about the pleasure of writing than the result it generates. I do edit my work, but I am least interested in the ripples it creates in the mental ocean of creativity of others.
The primary purpose of rules—like writing every day—is to help us become more efficient. But, if the rules hinder the very path that leads us to raised efficiency levels, we must break them. Good writing, as I conclude, is not a destination, but a journey. Enjoy it while it lasts.
The other day, someone questioned me about my blog. Their intention being crystal clear: if I create comic strips, write about photography, versify my thoughts, and discuss technical writing, what exactly is my blog about? Deep down, I feel that they may be right to an extent. I cannot pinpoint just one thing I like to write about; the blog is a contemplation of the endless thoughts that strike me. I cannot be more serious in making my point – yes, even when I am creating comic strips.
I am that one person who often wraps his deep thoughts in a jovial package. Humor (read Humour if you prefer the English English – pun intended) and wit, together, come naturally to not just me, but to most nonfiction writers. And, if you are someone who blows the wits out of a person, you will agree that that’s your home when it comes to writing.
Why this post, you may rightly ask. While I continue to scratch the surfaces of a lot of things, the central idea is still at the core of writing. This post aligns my intentions. Here are a few things I learned about writing humor, which you can use:
Humor is Disguised
Good humor comes disguised with the polarities of exaggerations and subtleties. Here is one piece that I once wrote:
It was a relatively brighter winter morning when Rashmi decidedly pulled herself out of her cozy bed to relish the morning with a hot cup of coffee and an equally hot edition of her favorite Men’s special magazine. As she approached the balcony, wrapping and cuddling herself in a shawl, Rakesh couldn’t stop looking at her.
Recently, he had begun calling her ‘scarecrow’. No, not because she worked in graveyard shift, but because she had developed dark circles, which were disproportionately large for her petite face and lean figure. Her English skin complexion under the gleaming Sun wasn’t much of a help either for it added to the contrasting dark circles.
Rakesh was the exact opposite of Rashmi. Her childhood friend, he was almost obese and ugly. If both were images and not people, Rashmi would appear stretched on the length and Rakesh, on the width. He looked at Rashmi and wondered if six months of graveyard shift could give her dark circles, would the same give him bright circles considering he had darker complexion!
The thought of a girl reading a Men’s special magazine says nothing explicitly yet leaves little to your imagination. The exaggeration of stretching either of them on the length or width is to give you an idea of how lean or fat their characters are. With no offense to anyone, you can never look at anyone named Rashmi and Rakesh neutrally again. Let me not describe it any further for I know what E.B. White once wrote on humor, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
Humor is in Crisp Writing
Good humor is just some seriously crisp writing. The truth lies at its core. Help people see that truth in the new light of your chuckle-worthy wisdom. Writing is hard. Writing good humor is harder. That’s because truth lies at the core of humor. No, I am repeating myself; I am emphasizing the point. The moment of encountering truth must brighten and widen the eyes and minds of your readers. Such an ironic moment lies at the crossroads of realization and ecstasy, of hope and fate, and of fantasy and reality. Only that way will the readers appreciate and preserve the taste of both truth and humor. Here’s one example of crisp writing: Episode 7 of The Writer’s Chronicles. Promise, I won’t dissect the frog this time.
Your writing should resemble waves on a seashore. Thoughts should come through the ebb and flow of your words. And only occasionally should you use the humor element. Remember that humor generates from that one perspective readers mentally discard as but understood. That’s the surprise element. Most stand-up comedians these days adopt this approach. Create humor to put up a fight for a social cause. Make it a social activity by involving your readers. On an occasional wave of humor, let them surf through their everyday problems.
As I end this post, there remain a few things that I must let you know:
- Humor has a short shelf life. A joke today becomes a routine tomorrow. Nevertheless, state it.
- Humor is a way of opening the long-shut doors within the unapproachable corners of hearts. Ensure that you keep it simple.
- What one may find as an outlandish attempt at generating humor the other may find as completely natural and effortless.
And, the last one is my favorite: learn by imitation. We all do that.