21st June 2016

So what makes good writing?

So what makes good writing? How can we be sociable with words on a screen? How do we show strangers good times, invite people in, build trust via the written word? Here are my suggestions:

  • Be concise

The reader’s time is valuable so don’t waste it. It’s much easier to be long-winded than it is to be concise, as the Philosopher Pascal wrote ‘please forgive the long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.’ Sometimes reading a wordy piece of writing is like having a drunk person sidle up to you at a bar, hell bent on telling you their life story.

  • Avoid clichés

Rarely do they convey much meaning or reflect how we would communicate face-to-face. Take ‘flirting outrageously’ for example, a phrase often used in women’s magazines.  Firstly, who would ever say that in real life? And secondly, what exactly was outrageous about it? Break it down for me.

  • Be yourself

Please sound like yourself otherwise what you’re saying will sound like the plagiarised thoughts of someone else. People often tell me that they read what I’ve written in a welsh accent, this used to bother me a bit, I imagined that the reader was so busy amusing themselves by mimicking my accent that they weren’t taking the content of what I’d written seriously, but then I read this quote by my all-time favourite, Kurt Vonnegut, and it made me feel a lot better about it: ‘I myself trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?’

  • Keep it simple

This is a follow-on to ‘be yourself’. It’s like people are scared of plain English, if it’s too simple it can’t be clever enough. Simon Heffer, a former Telegraph journalist spoke of a phase through which ‘the aspiring undereducated person passes… in which he feels it right to imitate the language of the bureaucrats’. Harsh, Simon. HW Fowler refers to ‘genteelisms’, meaning ‘the substituting, for the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the ordinary common herd.’ He cites the following as examples: substituting ‘at this juncture’ for ‘now’, ‘transpire’ for ‘happen’, ‘missive’ for ‘letter’. Saying ‘myself’ when it should be plain old ‘me’. David Foster Wallace said that they’re just ‘puff words’ and that ‘genteelisms’ is an overly charitable way to describe them.

  • Respecting the rules of good grammar

You may well be thinking ‘ah, this is all subjective, writing is a creative process and I’ll do as I please…’ That’s fine if you’re some maverick avant-garde poet, I admire Emily Dickinson’s cavalier approach to punctuation as much as the next person, but she wasn’t writing to inform. If you subvert the rules you’ll probably just confuse people.

  • Malaprops make me wanna f***ing scream.

Or so said singer songwriter, Father John Misty in his song ‘The Night Josh Tillman came to our apt.’ He takes exception to the use of the word ‘literally’ instead of ‘figuratively’, it makes him want to scream, in fact. As vocabulary.com nicely puts it ‘If you say that a guitar solo literally blew your head off, your head should not be attached to your body.’
So, did reading that feel like having a drunk person sidle up to you at a bar, hell bent on telling you their life story? I really hope not. Most of us have an active digital footprint, we share information about ourselves with the world via the internet. All the emails I have sent over the years form a diary of sorts, what will become of all those words when I am gone? Will my heirs (in this case my Jack Russel, Baxter) keep them for posterity, will they form part of how I am remembered? Probably not, but for now my words are out there, they form my persona, they’re a big part of who I am. We need to be our own attentive PR Managers. Our brand, how we want to be perceived, our integrity, is all tied up in the language we use and how we express ourselves and we shouldn’t do ourselves a disservice.