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The Craft of Good English

How to write well?
This question defies a simple or quick answer. Whatever else writing is – fun, exciting,
rewarding – it is not easy, because writing requires patience and hard work.
What is good writing?
Basically, good writing is clear, concise, simple and to the point. It should transmit information, ideas and emotions to the reader clearly and without unnecessary embellishment.
• Good writing is efficient – using the minimum number of words to make its point
without wasting the reader’s time;
• Good writing is precise – using words for their exact meaning;
• Good writing is clear – leaving no doubt or confusion in the reader’s mind about
its meaning; and
• Good writing is modest – letting what is written speak for itself, and allowing the
reader to receive the message directly.
Four fundamentals of good writing
• Know the tools of the trade – Good writers must know and understand the tools
with which they work. It is therefore mandatory to have a working knowledge of
the rules of grammar and spelling. They would have a good dictionary to refer to
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when in doubt to know the precise meanings of the words they intend to use and
how to use them correctly. Writers must not only know the language, but also understand it and be genuinely interested in it. Otherwise, they will not be able to
use the language effectively.
• Know the subject – If writers do not understand thoroughly what they are writing
about, their readers will not understand what they have written about. It also requires that they research the background, check with sources and think through
the subject more thoroughly.
• Write it down – Although this may be the most fundamental point, it needs emphasising. You cannot be a writer until your ideas become words and your sentences become paragraphs.
• Rewrite what you have written – Good writing requires the discipline to reread,
edit and rewrite. That is when you critically ask if what you have written can be
made clearer, more precise and more readable.
Techniques of Good Writing
The following are suggestions for improving your writing. They are not a strict set of
rules but constitute a good set of habits to develop for good writing.
• Write simply – The key to clarity is simplicity. The author and journalist Ernest
Hemingway is best known for his economical and understated prose; he won the
Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. A clear, simple writing style is not the exclusive
preserve of a few gifted writers. It can be attained if the suggestions are kept in
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• Use simple words – In his book Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler writes: “It
is a general truth that short words are not only handier to use but more powerful in
effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour.” He was referring to the tendency of many people to use “facilitate” instead of “ease”, “numerous” instead of
“many”, “utilise” instead of “use” and so on. Big or complicated words do not
impress the reader, and may even have the opposite effect of irritating him or her.
• Use simple sentences – The simple sentence is a good tool for cleaning up murky
writing, although not every sentence should be in the simple format of subjectpredicate or subject-verb-object.
• Don’t use one word more than is necessary – Often, we use too many words to
say what we want to say. It is therefore good to remember that we should use the
minimum number of words necessary to express our ideas and provide information. Simple straightforward prose is almost mandatory for writing for the mass
media. It has no substitute. Brevity dictates that we should be on the lookout for
words, phrases and sentences that do not add substantially to the content of what
we are writing. We should also be alert against fancy expressions that draw attention to the writer and his writing but away from the content.
• Remove jargon, clichés and “bureaucratese” – Scientists, engineers, doctors,
sportswriters and even students have their own jargon, which is the technical language that they use in their specialised fields of work. Good writing uses words
and phrases commonly understood by most people. So it does not seem sensible to
cut people off from receiving our ideas by using language that they cannot comprehend.
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Cliches are overused words and phrases that have ceased to be impactful and have
at the same time become trite and tiresome, and lost their original lustre. Examples are: “dire straits”, “tried and tested”, “par for the course”, and “it’s a small
world”. We should refrain from using them as much as possible.
Bureaucratese is generally accepted as a serious misuse of the language. In an
effort to make what they write more important than it is, many writers try to pump
up their writing with unnecessary and imprecise phrases. United States President
Franklin Roosevelt’s speechwriter wrote this in his draft: “We are endeavouring to
construct a more inclusive society.” He changed it to: “We are going to make a
country in which no one is left out.”
• Use familiar words instead of unfamiliar words or foreign phrases – Sometimes, writers use words that not many know. He should not try to educate readers
by introducing new words to them. This slows down the reader who has to think
of the writing instead of the content. It eventually drives away the reader. Foreign
phrases have often the same effect. They add little to the content and can irritate
the reader.
• Vary sentence type and length – There are four kinds of sentence structures:
simple (one main clause: Jane is cooking.), compound (two main clauses: Jane is
tall, but John is short.), complex (one main clause and at least one subordinate
clause: When Jane reached home, she saw her friendly neighbour.) and compound-complex (at least two main clauses and at least one subordinate clause:
Jane likes John when he is cheerful, but hates him when he is grouchy.).
To use only one kind can be boring. A good variety of types and lengths of sentences gives pace to your writing, allowing the reader’s mind to “breathe”, to take
in ideas and information in small doses. Such variation can also help you. Often
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you get so involved in what you are writing that you have trouble expressing
clearly your ideas. You may try to pack too much into one sentence (which should
also be short). Breaking down compound and complex sentences into simple sentences, and putting them back into a variety of forms can help to make your writing clear.
• Remember that nouns and verbs are the strongest words you can use – Sentences should be built around nouns and verbs, while adjectives and adverbs,
when they are used, should support the nouns and verbs. Try to refrain from too
much reliance on adjectives and adverbs. Verbs are the most important words that
you will use. A verb indicates action; a better one indicates action and description
and therefore expands the writing. Adjectives and adverbs modify or limit the
nouns and verbs.
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• Paragraphs help the reader follow your thoughts – A paragraph usually has a
logical structure with a topic sentence, supporting details and sometimes concluding sentence. A topic sentence tells the reader the main gist of the paragraph. It is
usually (but not always) found at the beginning of a paragraph. It should contain
only one main idea. The rest of the paragraph validates the information in the topic sentence. Change paragraph with each new subject matter. If your subject requires lengthy explanations, use more paragraphs for the same subject. Use of
headings and sub-headings make a writing more readable.
• Transition words bind together what you have written – They are useful in
connecting sentences and paragraphs whose relationships may not be instantly
clear to the reader. They add or show sequence (again, also, then, besides, finally,
too), compare (likewise, similarly), contrast (although, but, despite, even though,
however, in contrast, despite, regardless, still, though, yet), indicate place and time
(above, below, here, near, afterward, as soon as, at last, before, earlier, formerly,
immediately, meanwhile, later, now, currently, presently), repeat, summarise or
conclude (altogether, in brief, in other words, in particular, on the whole, therefore, to put it differently) and show cause or effect (accordingly, as a result, because, hence, otherwise, since, to this end, with this object).
Anyone can become a better writer. Writing is not an inherent talent some people have
and others do not. There are steps we can take to improve our writing. It is a process, so
the rules of grammar and the fundamentals and techniques of good writing must be made
part of your style, thoughts and methods as well as with the subject and writing form of
what you want to write. Writing requires discipline and is demanding.

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