Do We Mean By "Good Writing"?
We are now ready to return
to the notion of how mathematics applies to good writing, and by extension
to good speaking.
When someone reads an expository text or listens to an expository speech,
they are likely to judge it as good or not good. You probably do this
yourself. But what do you actually mean when you say a text or a speech is
After some struggling,
most people will usually settle on two criteria: clear and concise.
Mathematics depends on unambiguous definitions; if you are not clear about
the problem, you are unlikely to find the solution. So we are going to
examine these criteria in some detail in order to establish objective
definitions - and even quasi-mathematical formulae - for testing whether a
text or a presentation truly is "good".
A. Clarity How do you know
that a text is clear?
If this sounds like a silly question, try to answer it. You will probably
do something like this:
makes this text clear?
Answer: It is easy to understand.
Question: What makes it easy to understand?
Answer: It is simple.
Question: What do you mean by simple?
Answer: It is clear.
You in fact end up going
around in a circle. The text is clear because it is easy to understand . .
. because it is simple . . . because it is clear.
"Clear", "easy to
understand", and "simple" are synonyms. Whilst synonyms may have
nuances, they do not have content, so you are still left to your own
subjective appreciation. But what you think is clear may not be clear to
someone else. This is why we give "clear" an objective definition, almost
like a mathematical formula. To achieve clarity -i.e. virtually everyone
will agree that it is clear - you must do three things.
1. Emphasise what is of
2. De-emphasise what is of secondary importance.
3. Eliminate what is of no importance.
In short: CL = EDE Like
all mathematical formulae, this one works only if you know how to apply
it, which requires judgment. In this case, you must first decide what is
of key importance, i.e. what are the key ideas you want your readers to
take away from your text? This is not always easy to do. It is far simpler
to say that everything is of key importance, so you put in everything you
have. But there is a dictum that warns: If everything is important, then
nothing is. In other words, unless you first do the work of defining what
you really want your readers to know, they won't do it for you. They will
get lost in your text and either give up or come out the other end not
knowing what it is they have read.
What about the second
element of the formula, de-emphasise what is of secondary importance?
That sounds easy enough.
You don't want key information and ideas to get lost in details. If you
clearly emphasise what is of key importance - via headlines, Italics,
underlining, or simply how you organise the information - then whatever is
left over is automatically de-emphasised. Now the only thing left to do is
eliminate what is of no importance. But how do you distinguish between
what is of secondary importance and what is of no importance? Once again,
this requires judgement, which is helped by the following very important
Secondary importance is
anything that supports and/or elaborates one or more of the key ideas. If
you judge that a piece of information in fact does support or elaborate
one or more key ideas, then you keep it. If not, you eliminate it.
Conciseness How do you know that a
text is concise?
If this once again sounds like a silly question, let's try to answer it.
Question: What makes this text concise?
Answer: It is short.
Question: What do you mean by short?
Answer: It doesn't have too many words.
Question: How do you know it doesn't have too many words?
Answer: Because it is concise.
So once again we end up
going around in a circle. The text is concise because it is short . . .
because it doesn't have too many words . . . because it is concise. Once
again, we have almost a mathematical formula to solve the problem. To
achieve conciseness, your text should meet two criteria. It must be as:
1. Long as necessary
2. Short as possible
In symbols: CO = LS If you
have fulfilled the criteria of "clarity" correctly, you already understand
"as long as necessary". It means covering all the ideas of key importance
you have identified, and all the ideas of secondary importance needed to
support and/or elaborate these key ideas.
Note that nothing is said
here about the number of words, because it is irrelevant. If it takes 500
words to be "as long as necessary", then 500 words must be used. If it
takes 1500 words, then this is all right too. The important point is that
everything that should be in the text is fully there.
Then what is meant by
"as short as possible"?
Once again, this has
nothing do to with the number of words. It is useless to say at the
beginning, "I must not write more than 300 words on this subject", because
500 words may be the minimum necessary. "As short as possible"
means staying as close as you can to the minimum. But not because people
prefer short texts; in the abstract the terms "long" and "short" have no
meaning. The important point is that all words beyond the minimum tend to
We should not be rigid
about this. If being "as long as necessary" can be done in 500 words and
you use 520, this is probably a question of individual style. It does no
harm. However, if you use 650 words, it is almost certain that the text
will not be completely clea r- and that the reader will become confused,
bored or lost.
In sum, conciseness means saying what needs to be said in the minimum
amount of words.
Conciseness: . Aids
clarity by ensuring best structuring of information. Holds reader interest
by providing maximum information in minimum time.
Density is a less familiar
concept than clarity and conciseness, but is equally important. In
mathematical form, density consists of:
1. Precise information
2. Logically linked
In other words: D = PL
Importance of precise information Suppose you enter a room where there are
two other people and say, "It's very hot today." One of those people comes
from Helsinki; in his mind he interprets "hot" to mean about 23°C. The
other one comes from Khartoum; to him "hot" means 45°C.
You are off to a rather
bad start, because each one has a totally different idea of what you want
to say. But suppose you say, "It's very hot today; the temperature is 28°
C." Now there is no room for confusion. They both know quite clearly that
it is 28° C outside and that you consider this to be very hot.
Using as much precise
information as possible in a text gives the writer two significant
Mind Control Let's not be embarrassed by the term "mind
control", because this is precisely what the good expository
writer wants to achieve. He needs for the reader's mind to go only
where he directs it and nowhere else.
Because they can be interpreted in unknown ways, ambiguous terms
(so-called "weasel words") such as "hot", "cold", "big", "small", "good",
"bad", etc., allow the reader's mind to escape from the writer's control.
An occasional lapse is not critical; however, too many weasel words in a
text will inevitably lead to reader confusion, boredom and disinterest.
Reader Confidence Using precise information generates
confidence, because it tells the reader that the writer really knows
what he is talking about.
Reader confidence is important in any kind of text, but it is crucial in
argumentation. If you are trying to win a point, the last thing you want
is the reader to challenge your data, but this is the first reaction
imprecise writing will provoke. Precise writing ensures that the
discussion will be about the implications of the information, i.e. what
conclusions should be drawn, not whether the whole thing needs to go back
for further investigation.
Importance of logical linking Precise data (facts) by
themselves are insufficient. To be meaningful, data must be organised
to create information, i.e. help the reader understand.
There are two important
tests to apply when converting data into information:
1. Relevance Is a particular piece of data really needed?
As we have seen, unnecessary data damages understanding and ultimately
undermines confidence. Therefore, any data that do not either aid
understanding or promote confidence should be eliminated.
2. Misconceptions The logical link between data must
be made explicit to prevent the reader from coming to false conclusions.
For example: a specific situation may be confused for a general
one; credit for an achievement may seem to belong to only one person
when it really belongs to a group; a company policy may appear to
apply only in very specific circumstances rather than in all circumstances,
etc. To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the two pieces
of data as close to each other as possible, preferably right next
to each other.
When data are widely separated, their logical relationship is masked and
the reader is unlikely to make the connection.
What do you want? What
do your readers want?
I frequently ask
non-professional writers what they are thinking when they sit down at the
keyboard to compose their text. The answer is usually something like, "How
do I want to present my material?" "What tone and style should I use?" "In
what order should I put my key ideas?" And so on. However, if you start with
the correct attitude, i.e. no one wants to read what you write, your first
task is none of these. Ahead of anything else, you must find reasons why
people should spend their time to read what you write. In general, you cannot
force people to read what they don't want to, even if they are being paid
to do so.
For example, you produce a
report defining opportunities for increased sales and profits. However, if
it is not well written, even people who must read it as part of their job
are unlikely to give it their full attention. On the other hand, if they
immediately see their own self-interest in reading what you have written,
they will do so gladly and with full attention. In fact, you probably
couldn't stop them from reading it!
There are various methods
to generate such a strong desire to read, depending on the type of readers
and the type of information. Whatever the most appropriate device, the
crucial thing is to recognise the imperative need to use it. Until this
need is met, nothing else is of any importance.
Reading is an isolated activity and listening to a speech is a social one.
Therefore, whilst the underlying principles of good writing and good
speaking are constant, the way they are applied can be markedly different.
In the 'I' of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost)
like a Professional, Mr. Yaffe's recently published book, clearly explains
these differences. It also offers several appendices with cogent examples
and pertinent, effective exercises. True to its credo, Mr. Yaffe's book is
as long as necessary and as short as possible. In fact, only 84 pages!
Author: Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature
writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication
consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good
public speaking in Brussels, Belgium. In the 'I' of the Storm is
available either in a print version or electronic version from Story
Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (www.Storypublishers.be) and Amazon
(www.amazon.com). For further information, please contact: Philip
Yaffe 61 avenue des Noisetiers B -1170 Brussels, Belgium Tel: +32
(0) 660 04 05 Email firstname.lastname@example.org