Tips for Better Writing


Let me take a risk and begin this article as follows:

Foundational to a right view of the techniques involved in the area of writing is an understanding of some underlying principles. It is the task of the writer, first and foremost, to establish his plans and purposes. This is imperative if he is ever to enter into a relationship with his readers and bear any fruit in his labours. This must be maintained over against those who argue that writing…

Perhaps I should stop before you stop reading. This turgid, cliche-ridden paragraph is my own attempt to capture the flavour of much that passes for written communication in Christian circles these days. The style is quirky; topsy-turvy is the word order; and the passive voice is clung to for dear life. It defies the reader to read on.

The reasons for the development of this peculiarly Christian, peculiarly Evangelical, mode of writing can be the subject of someone else’s PhD one day, but for now, let me humbly offer a few tips for better writing.

1. Keep the reader in mind

Before you begin any piece of writing, pin a mental photograph of your readers to the cork board of your mind. Who will read what you are about to write? In what context? What will they be expecting? This will help you to pitch your words at the right level, and to assess, as you go along, how your words will be received. Keep asking yourself this frightening question: Have I given them any reason to turn the page?

2. Eschew obfuscation

Nothing kills the process of communication more quickly than complex or obscure expressions. Strive for clarity and simplicity. This is not easy; as Somerset Maugham put it: “To write simply is as difficult as to be good.”

Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never use an obscure or jargon word when a simple, plain-English alternative is available. Getting the message through is difficult enough – you do not need any unnecessary complications.

Contrary to popular opinion, good writing does not consist of flaunting your vocabulary or finding flowery, high-flown ways of saying things. Good writing is almost transparent. It is so bright and clear that the reader is hardly aware of its existence.

3. Choose your words carefully

Words are precious. They can convey meaning or they can obscure it. Words can be a powerful sword, cutting through the preconceptions and apathy of the reader, or they can be like super-balls rebounding from case-hardened skulls.

It pays to choose your words carefully. Choose lots of simple, sharp words that convey your meaning precisely and clearly. This takes time, but who said that good writing was quick and easy? Pascal, the 17th Century mathematician-theologian, once wrote a long rambling letter to a friend, and concluded it by saying: “I am sorry to have wearied you with so long a letter but I did not have time to write you a short one.”

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Tony Payne

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