Writers, I just realized, are like painters.
And, writing is like painting: having the right blend of colors and emotions is critically important. Splashing random colors on canvas does not make you a painter. Similarly, purposelessly scribbling words does not make you a writer. I recall what I wrote some time back: Anyone can write, but not everyone can become a writer. This post is about all those who want to write, but cannot translate their thoughts into words. This post is about all of us, and our continued love for writing.
I write this post because lately I’ve read a couple of posts, which I feel I could write better. Not because I think I am a good writer (No, seriously!), but because I feel that the writers did not do justice to their respective posts. Because this post is about our continued love for writing, I share, in this post, some of the principles I follow while writing. I hope that you find the language simple, and the principles easy to follow.
The Writing Principles
We compared writing to painting. And, purposeful writing resembles purposeful painting. That’s because, purpose cues actions. Purpose helps create a flow of emotions. In technical communication, we write for our users. This purpose (or the customers’ business needs) drives our write-ups. We focus on delivering required information such that our readers can understand and follow it.
In non-technical writing, such as fiction, the purpose is to drive the emotions of readers. In most cases, the writer creates a detailed picture of the event to let the readers flow through the turbulent tides of emotions; undulating waves of hatred; or gusts of love.
Neither a word less nor a word more: Write with precision. Build a reference, but come quickly to your point. When you make sense (without making much fuss), the reader remembers the time they spent with your write-up. Respect the readers’ time and need; and in return, they will respect your work. Keep it short. Also, be precise about your intentions. Say what you mean; mean what you say. White is white. Black is black. Take that extra sentence, if you want to. But, avoid confusion wherever possible.
Rewriting is of critical importance; so much that I spend four times as much time in rewriting as in writing. You can use a lot of techniques to rewrite: Reword, revise, and redo; read your write-ups aloud; make others read your work; print your write-ups, if required; or just use a projector to read your documents. Believe me, the write-ups look entirely different when viewed on a projector.
I read/edit my write-ups with a fresh mind. Basically, editing is one of the few things that I would love to start a day with. And, when I do, mostly I end up with a better version. I also try to visualize the impact of my sentences. I consider the job done when the impact matches the reader’s intentions. But, this requires practice. I start by mentally rewriting sentences: I take a pause before I begin writing each sentences. I also search for and use the shorter version. This helps keep things organized. This technique has helped improve not just my writing, but my public speaking as well.
It is good to stick to rules, provided we know the extent to which we follow them. In one of our recent projects, we introduced a capability for entering the fire protection-related codes. To prepare the field description, the team decided to use the keywords “protection” and “prevention.” In the initial draft, we placed “protection” BEFORE “prevention” – basically, we arranged the keywords alphabetically. But, during finalization, we interchanged the words. Now, the final draft conveys that the information can help us prevent, and later protect (if and when required) from the fire hazards.
This thought is logical and way more “practical” than the alphabetical arrangement. Though, the alphabetical arrangement is sequentially logical, it is more appropriate to first help prevent, and later protect from the hazard. I recall the following example of incorrect sequencing, which I recently read during performing technical edit of a manual: “Click this button to change the status of your inventories to Active from Hold.” Perhaps, the writer needs to learn a simple lesson on logical sequencing. The correct statement should say, “… from Hold to Active.”
Be factually correct
Always quote the source of information. Share facts only when they help make better, more informed decisions/conclusions. Ignore or omit the facts that either do not have any neutral source of information or are misleading. During the days of my career as a city correspondent, one of the city’s esteemed publication house claimed their newspaper to be the most-circulated one in the city. They backed their claim on some “internal surveys,” which no one knew anything about.
Obviously, such a purposeless act backfired, because by the end of the quarter they were way short of their ad-sales figures. Besides, my colleagues used their advertisement in new sales pitches to communicate that our newspaper was more genuine and trustworthy. Facts, as I said, help when they have sufficient backing of information. If you cannot serve facts, rely on your marketability. But, avoid making false claims.
Follow simplistic design and structure principles
Writing as a scientific art depends as much on your creativity as on the design and structure principles. Here’s a list of my favorite ones. See if you could add to that list!
Topic sentence first. Write the topic sentence first. Use it as a base to build your write-up. The better that base is, the stronger your write-ups will be.
Everything in White and Black. By far, the most accurate font setting is with the colors White and Black. Write in Black over White. Don’t let the background distract the readers.
Sans-Sheriff. The Internet has made things accessible for us. But, so did the fonts, in the literal (actually, literary) sense! Remember that it is difficult to speedily read a small-sized capped body text. A capped font has those little things that protrude from its corners. Although a matter of preferences, non-capped (or sans) fonts are generally good for body text, foot and end notes, and citations. That’s because they are readable even in tiny sizes, and appear a lot friendlier than their formalish “capped” siblings. My favorite font settings? Sans (non-capped) fonts for the body text and capped ones for the headings and subheadings. But, it depends on the standards and template. Choose your settings only when the standards are silent about it. Standards? Read on to know.
Slice it up. Even those who don’t know much about writing won’t like to read write-ups that contain no headings and subheadings. It looks too boring, my colleagues think. Use subheadings to slice and serve your content. But, make sure that the subheadings align grammatically, contextually, and structurally to your topic. This helps improve comprehension (and search results as well).
Strong start and end
Write as though you were reciting bedtime stories to your readers: Become a storyteller. Attempt to turn your readers into listeners and spectators. Make them experience or live what they read. Start strong, and end with a purposeful conclusion. Use facts (and their respective sources) to bring authenticity.
Start and end paragraphs are like bricks. The structure falls apart if the bricks are weak. Write/rewrite sentences to make them stronger and tighter. Follow the generic bell curve to convey information: Share information freely, but gradually: Start with only a couple of points as the basis of interaction and end with one or two solid conclusions.
I create write-ups inside out. I call it the Skeleton approach. When I start, I create the end paragraph and conclusions. Based on the conclusion, I create key points, and spread those points across the length of my write-up to create a logical, perceivable form. Then, I create topic sentences for each key point. This is when I begin writing. But, this is my approach. Find out what is yours.
Consistency across write-ups
We talked about standards a little while ago. In one of my blog posts, I wrote about differentiating by standardizing. Yes! For me, standardization is one of the biggest differentiators. In fact, standardization is the one factor that differentiates the works of the greatest of artists, writers, and painters.
Observe that most of my posts have the same structure, and contain a similar flow of thoughts. This is a standard structure for me, because it helps me cover topics in an organized manner. But, above all, the structure helps you differentiate and recognize my work. If you are a regular reader of my posts, you will mentally register the changes in my tone even when no contextual informational tidbits are set. This is the standard differentiator in my write-ups.
Toward the end
By far, we have covered a lot of points. Although small, these points can add up to bring a big difference to our write-ups. If you too have struggled ever since you decided to write, you can refer to this post for cues. As with you, I too ceaselessly strive to write more and more accurately and purposefully. I am not sure if these points will turn you into a writer, but the points will surely help you write better.
Although, there is one important point, which I missed purposefully: Clarity of thoughts. Remember what I said when I began this post? “Anyone can write, but not everyone can become a writer.” I still stand by this thought, because I believe it is my ability to think (visualize?) clearly that differentiates my work from others’. Like I said, it is an ability. So, you can’t learn to possess it. But, if you do, you won’t need those writing principles anyway. Seriously.