Every one of us finds it necessary to interact with others through text based communication all the time in the daily routine of our fast paced lives. Fortunately, almost all of us can comfortably communicate by means of SMS, chat, email and printed letters too. These forms of communication do not pose any significant challenges to any of us because we possess a ‘reasonable’ degree of literacy and writing aptitude that is adequate for such purposes.
It can prove to be an altogether different proposition though when communication requires the composition of a serious written document that has to be presented in a formal style. When such a need arises, many otherwise capable persons may discover that they are not quite able to grapple with this task. After all, not every person can express himself with sufficient eloquence when complicated descriptions, abstract concepts and novel ideas need to be committed to paper or an electronic medium in such a way as to convey the information clearly and in an attention grabbing manner to the intended readership.
If you believe you belong to this category, think again! It is quite possible to make a dramatic improvement to your own writing by observing certain basic rules of composition, and then following it up with some editing and proofreading work, in accordance with the guidelines suggested here. By adhering to these simple rules, which should not prove too difficult to the majority of English speakers, you will be able to create effective written documents that measure up to acceptable literary standards. Only in the case of certain specialized or highly technical documents would you need to seek the services of a professional editor.
The first thing you need to get right is the sequence in which you are going to present all of the information that you wish to convey to the reader. In order to facilitate a ready understanding and grasp of the subject matter on the reader’s part, you must arrange the snippets of information so that they all follow in a logical order. When imparting information, you should take particular care not to do anything in the nature of putting the horse before the cart. It is common practice to present matters in a chronological sequence but it may be quite appropriate to depart from this approach if you are convinced that the subject matter could be treated with greater clarity by arranging the information in some other order. Also, make it a point to present only the pertinent information and leave out what is irrelevant.
The next thing you should pay attention to is the sentence structure. If you are not an expert writer, the best way to approach this task is to start writing about the subject using short, simple sentences, while observing the correct order of presentation rigorously. Complete the whole document in this manner and then read it through. It will probably look like it has been penned by a Grade 5 student, but do not be discouraged by this. Now start combining the short sentences into longer sentences by joining together those that relate to the same point or idea. Once you begin doing this, each of the short sentences, which sounded so insipid when read in isolation, becomes more interesting and the writing begins to acquire some character and style. How much of these qualities you can add will depend on the skill with which you weave the words together. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be developed with practice.
Now, exactly how do you set about joining the short sentences together? One way to accomplish this is by using the words listed below:
and, but, because, since, for, or, nor, so, yet
You can also use commas and semicolons with or without the use of additional words like those given below to join short sentences together to build up complex sentences:
therefore, furthermore, in addition, in fact, moreover, however, then, after, nevertheless, though, although, lest, unless, until, while, notwithstanding, despite, consequently
The object of making sentences longer is not to impress people but for the simple reason that complex sentences can usually convey the writer’s meaning more effectively and elegantly. Try writing out each complex sentence in two or three different ways by re-ordering the words, and you will likely hit upon an arrangement that expresses the idea clearly and neatly.
Then you need to focus on the grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation. It will take you only 3 or 4 days to brush up on your grammar by visiting and picking up many useful hints and tips from those websites devoted to this topic. It is quicker and easier than trying to learn from textbooks where you would have to wade through a lot of stuff and spend much time separating the wheat from the chaff. After you have taken the trouble to brush up your grammar a bit, you could also get some help from the grammar checker of your word processor. But be cautious, as the corrections suggested by this feature can be frequently misleading! If you make any such corrections, just read out the sentence aloud and check to see if it sounds alright. Use your own version if that sounds better.
The spell checker on the word processor is far more reliable and you can count on same to almost always advise you correctly. Just make sure to set the spelling to US or British English according to your preference and pay attention to all those squiggly lines that appear under words. If in doubt, check using another online dictionary or a printed tome. The capitalization is not all that straightforward but this should not generally pose any problems. Remember that all proper nouns start off with an uppercase letter, except sometimes when they have become common words as in, pasteurize, italics, chinaware, french fries and so on. Ceylon tea, Persian rug, Russian roulette and Siamese fighter are usually spelt with uppercase letters, but do not worry too much about finer points like these. The rules that govern capitalization are not very strict. For instance, ‘Mongolism’ is written as ‘mongolism’ by half the writers.
Punctuation however, does require greater care as it could sometimes amount to a matter of life or death. For example, “Kill him, not spare him” has a startlingly different meaning from, “Kill him not, spare him”. In these cases, simply use common sense. It helps to read out a sentence aloud when you are trying to get the punctuation right. Here, keep in mind that when we read out a sentence aloud, we tend to pause at certain places, but this pause does not necessarily imply there is a comma at that place. Usually there is, but not invariably so.
When writing, it is important to pay attention to the subject / verb agreement. The basic rule requires that a singular subject be paired to a singular verb, while a plural subject is paired to a plural verb. For example, we should say, ‘He rings the bell’ and ‘they ring the bell’. Here, the noun ‘He’ and the verb ‘rings’ are singular, and the noun ‘they’ and the verb ‘ring’ are plural. The exceptions to this general rule are the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’, which are treated as plural words, so we must write, ‘I will ring the bell’ and ‘you will ring the bell’ even when ‘you’ refers to just one person.
It does not require any special training to recognize other common faults such as ambiguity, repetition, wordiness and triteness. Be on your guard against the intrusion of shortcomings like these that are bound to detract from the quality of your writing. You can then be sure that you are on your way to producing a convincing document that will achieve its purpose. There are many other rules governing correct English usage, such as avoiding any improper use of the passive voice and things like split infinitives, dangling modifiers and so on but you can learn about these after gaining some practice on the more basic rules discussed here.
Read through what you have written with a thesaurus by your side. Try to substitute a more suitable word or phrase whenever you come across a spot where the wording does not sound quite right. Edit and re-edit your work. The whole exercise will of course take much time at the beginning, but as you gain practice you will discover that you are able to work at a faster pace. Remember, a smooth flow of words will have greater appeal to the reader.
When you are satisfied with your final draft you must perform another important operation, that of proofreading. Strictly speaking, proofreading must be done by another person. Either way, it can be performed more reliably with printed output than on your computer monitor. Errors and typos that were not noticeable on the screen will jump at you when you read the final laser printout on the company letterhead! Therefore, print a draft quality copy on plain paper and scrutinize it carefully before mailing or distributing the document.
The final step in the document processing exercise is the formatting. Good formatting can enhance the impact of any document and so you will have to pay attention to such matters as the choice of typeface, font size, line spacing, margins and the use of bullets etc. The pages of the document should have a balanced look and a pleasing appearance to create a good overall impression.
Incidentally, it is advisable for anyone involved in editing work to familiarize himself with the ‘Track Changes’ feature of the MS Word application. This useful feature is accessible under the Review tab at the top of the window. Clicking on ‘Track Changes’ enables one to keep track of all editing changes to the document, such as insertions, deletions and formatting changes. Any text that is added is shown in color font while deleted text is displayed in strikethrough font. Thus, editing changes can be readily spotted. It is also possible for an editor to add useful comments in an adjacent column. The editing changes that get recorded should be retained in the original file for reference. These revisions should be embodied in the final copy too but all telltale signs of editing should be removed and the file saved under a different name.