Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Clear Writing Technique – Outlining “John Adams – History’s Forgotten President”

As noted in the last post,  clear writing flows from well thought out preparation.    This in turn depends on a three step process:  a preliminary plan, an outline,  and writing the first draft.

An outline is akin to the blueprint of a building.  It should be prepared in sufficient detail to capture the essence of your writing.  There are three workable approaches in preparing an outline.  One of them, the traditional approach will be shown in this post.

[Note – Although indentation of capital letters, small letters, and arabic numerals, is preferred in an outline, formatting issues and space limitations have necessitated that all outline entries be aligned completely left.]

In adopting the traditional approach, the topic outline and the sentence outline are commonly used.

The topic outline may appear as follows:

John Adams – An Unrecognized President.

Theme: John Adams, America’s second president, has been largely unrecognized by history.

I.  Achievements of John Adams.

A.  Delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress.

1.  Was instrumental in securing passage of the Declaration of Independence.

B.  Elected first Vice-President, under George Washington.

C.  Elected second President of the United States.

D.  Statesman of unquestioned honesty and character.

1.  Appointed minister plenipotentiary to France and to England.

E.  Achieved prominence as Boston attorney.

1.   Successfully defended British soldiers accused of murder in the 1770 Boston Massacre trial.

F.   Intellectual

1.  Was extremely well read and fluent in several languages.

II.  Reasons for lesser recognition are obscure.

A.  Sometimes argumentative personality, fiery temper.

III. Remedies for consideration.

A.  Erect monument/statue in Washington D.C.

B.  Place likeness on currency.

C.  Recent biographies, presidential coinage, television mini-series helpful.

In using a sentence outline, complete sentences and appropriate punctuation should be employed.

I.  John Adams had many notable achievements in his life.

A.  Adams was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Massachusetts.

1.  His  unflagging advocacy was instrumental in Congress’ adopting the Declaration of Independence.

B.  Adams was elected as the second President of the United States.

1.  He kept America neutral during the was between France and England.

C.  He was America’s first Vice President, under George Washington.

D.   Adams was an able statesman as well as a successful politician.

1.  He was appointed minister plenipotentiary to France and to England.

E.  He was a prominent Boston area lawyer.

1.  A noteworthy achievement was his successful defense of British soldiers accused of murdering Massachusetts colonists in  the  Boston  massacre  trial of 1770.

F.  Adams was an intellectual, well read, and fluent in several languages.

II. Reasons for his lesser recognition are obscure.

A.   Though he was an eloquent public speaker, he could be argumentative, was irascible, and had a fiery temper.

B.  Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts was a black mark on his presidency.

C.  Was victimized by a scurrilous letter publicized by Alexander Hamilton before the 1800 election questioning his fitness for public office.

III. There are several possible remedies to consider.

A.  Erect a statue and/or monument to his memory in Washington, D.C.

B.  Place his likeness on one of America’s currency bills.

C.   Recent biographies, likeness on presidential coinage, and the television mini-series about him have helped to ease Adams’  non- recognition by historians.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Organize Your Thoughts With A Preliminary Plan And An Outline.

Good Organization Begins With A Preliminary Plan.

Well organized writing begins with well thought out preparation. Therefore, reaching your ultimate goal to write clearly begins with a thoroughly prepared preliminary plan, and an outline. The organization of any writing project should be viewed as a three step process: preliminary plan, outline, and writing your first draft.  These three steps form the foundation for your document.  If this foundation is weak, your final document will suffer.

First, prepare a preliminary plan.  Then, develop an outline from your preliminary plan.

A good outline is the outgrowth of your preliminary plan, which is akin to the blueprint of a building.  No self respecting architect would build anything without a blueprint; likewise, every successful sports coach prepares a game plan, every general a battle plan.  So, preparation of a preliminary plan comes first.

The preliminary plan should be a concise summary of what you intend to write.   This plan is essential to clear writing, which cannot be achieved unless you know what is in your own mind.

Begin by writing out the purpose of your document and its bottom line. This is for your use only in preparing the plan and does not necessarily belong in the final document.  The plan should be done in detail, carefully and thoughtfully, to reflect the essence of your writing.  It is your roadmap to a clear end product.  Thorough preparation is the key.

Next, Prepare An Outline.

Creation of a workable outline should begin with the big picture. First, organize your thoughts and mentally plan your approach.  Make a note of all the ideas you generate about what you want to write. Next, organize your ideas into a logical order. Finally, add appropriate detail. Much as in working a jigsaw puzzle, your reader will more easily absorb the details after seeing the big picture. Draft an outline that is logical, cohesive, and flows smoothly. You don’t want your reader reading a lot of pages before finally figuring out what you’re trying to say.

In the process of preparing the outline try to anticipate questions your reader may ask.  Organize your outline to respond to these questions.  Readers are often looking for answers either by reading documents or visiting websites.  They want to know how to do something or to get the answer to a problem, and they want the answer as quickly and easily as possible under the circumstances.  So, keep these concerns in mind when preparing your outline.

There are three workable approaches to use in preparing an outline:  traditional, the so-called “spinning wheel” method, and what I call the hands on approach.  The first one envisions use of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numbers, and then small letters.  It works best for presentation of material in an organized, logical fashion.  It usually looks something like this:

I.

A.

1.

a.

In adopting the traditional method, the topic outline and sentence outline are commonly used.  Examples will be presented in the next blog.

Another approach to outlining, the “spinning wheel” concept, may be better suited for the development of ideas. This approach starts with the central idea of the writing as the “hub” of the wheel, with subsidiary ideas flowing out from the hub as the wheel’s “spokes.”

There is a third approach, what I call “hands on” for lack of a better description, which I’ve used from time to time.  Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just seems easier to start writing.  I start with the main idea for the writing. Then, as more ideas come to me as I am writing, I begin to create an outline and rearrange my material as I go along.  Feel free to use this approach as long as it works for you, i.e., the end result is well organized and clearly written.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Write With Authority; Polish Your Writing; Edit.

Write With Authority.

Once you have researched your subject and know it thoroughly, you must still write about it authoritatively. But it is useless to try to say anything unless you have something worthwhile to say.  Robert W. Bly, a well respected and successful copywriter sums it up aptly:  “[You] must have something to write about.”  Bly’s talking about the content of your writing, i.e., to write well you need great content in your writing.

While Bly is absolutely right, there’s a fine line to be drawn between what he describes as the acquisition of information, knowledge, and wisdom, a three tiered hierarchy with wisdom at the top. That’s one approach.  Another is to combine all three levels and just call it expertise.  But the point is, you really can’t write with conviction on any subject unless you’re an expert on it.  However you may describe the content of your writing, whether based on information, knowledge, wisdom, or expertise, your writing will suffer significantly if the reader doesn’t see it.  Following the guidelines  in these blogs should go a long way in developing your ability to write with authority.

  Polish Your Writing

 There are important polishing considerations to be kept in mind before you can consider your writing project as truly finished.  It pays to polish your writing carefully and thoroughly so it flows as smoothly as possible.

Highlight important information to help maintain readability.  Use extra white space, bullet points, capital letters, underlining, or italics to allow your reader to skim your writing. But don’t overuse any of these items. If you are truly knowledgeable about your subject, highlighting important information accurately will help to demonstrate your knowledge.

Be consistent throughout in whatever method you choose so your reader can recognize how you flag important information.

Make sure each paragraph covers what the heading indicates.  Otherwise your writing will be jumpy and lack smoothness.

Explain all abbreviations and similar short-hand writing.  A sports fan will understand that the initials, “NCAA” stand for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  A reader who is not a sports fan will be in the dark.

Question the need for everything appearing in the writing.  If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, you can’t write it clearly.

Review your document to determine if any important information is missing.

Maintain consistency in the document’s organization. This will help the reader  understand the different levels of information you have presented.  Typical organizational format includes document title, section headings, subsection headings, paragraph headings, and general text.

Edit.

Before any writing is submitted to your reader, make sure you edit it thoroughly.  Rewrite, revise, and  edit all writing as part of your final review.  Insist on absolute perfection in this regard, even for a simple letter!  No writing should be seen by your reader until you are absolutely satisfied with it, no matter how many revisions it takes.  It is important to make sure any draft is as tight as possible, i.e., uses the least number of words to get your thought across.  Make the tone of your writing easy to understand, conversational, and natural.  Don’t leave any gaps in your writing so that the reader must stop and wonder what you’re saying.

Last, review the physical appearance  of the writing for obvious deficiencies.

Here is a final checklist to follow.  Check for:

1.  Sentence structure –  review for completeness of thought, unity, and clearness.

2.  Grammar.

3.  Diction.

4.  Spelling.

5.  Punctuation.

6.  Document appearance.

These areas will be treated separately in future blogs.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All Rights Reserved.

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Gettysburg – The Battle That Determined America’s Fate.

[Descriptive paragraphing, shown below, is normally used to describe an event, how it was seen, felt, remembered, etc.]

It was to be the culmination of General Robert E. Lee’s audacious plan to lead the Army of Northern Virginia in an invasion of Pennsylvania and inflict a mortal blow on Union forces in their own backyard.

Both Union and Confederate troops had converged on Gettysburg, a prosperous little crossroads village in south central Pennsylvania, some 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.  Confederate forces arrived there on July 1, 1863, looking for shoes for their troops, but unexpectedly encountered a large Union force which had arrived the day before.

After a day of battle, Union forces led by General George Meade still held Cemetery Hill, the high ground south of town which they had previously occupied.  Lee had ordered Confederate forces under General Richard Ewell to seize the hills and ridges before Union reinforcements arrived.  But Ewell hesitated, believing Union forces were too strong, and no attack was launched.  During the night more Union troops arrived.

During the evening and the next morning, from his position atop Seminary Ridge, Confederate General James Longstreet surveyed the bluecoat positions through his field glasses and concluded no attack on Cemetery Hill should be made. Rebel forces would have to attack across 1,400 yards of open fields with but 15,000 men, which he believed to be an inadequate force for such an undertaking.

Longstreet believed Lee’s plan to be dangerous and favored his own plan, which was to circle around the high ground and attack from the south. This was contrary to Lee’s orders to attack the enemy where they were.  Lee, spurred on by recent victories, would not change his mind and ordered the assault.

Foreshadowed by General Richard Garnett’s comment, “This is a desperate thing to attempt,” the ensuing Confederate attack led by General George Pickett’s division, known to posterity as Pickett’s Charge, resulted in devastating rebel losses.

Lee’s subsequent withdrawal marked the end of his ambitious plan. His decision, viewed by many historians as a tactical miscalculation, had cost him the opportunity to deliver a decisive blow against the Union.

Copyright 2012. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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You Can’t Write In A Vacuum – Know Your Subject Matter Thoroughly.

Mastery of your subject matter is a basic requirement for clear writing.  Weak writing will usually result from lack of subject matter preparation

A two step process is involved here – acquiring knowledge of the subject, and expressing that knowledge clearly. But how well you perform the second step depends to a large extent on how well you have accomplished the first. . You can’t write about a subject that you know little or nothing about, whether you are trying to educate the reader, advocate a position, or persuade the reader to your way of thinking.

Following the steps below will go a long way to satisfy your reader that you are knowledgeable about your subject.

Research Your Subject Thoroughly.

In the first place, if you are writing about a subject you are not familiar with, research it thoroughly. This is where doing your due diligence really pays off. Take time to acquire enough background information to satisfy yourself you can write clearly and with authority about your subject. This will pay enormous dividends for you. Otherwise there is a serious likelihood the reader will simply conclude you don’t know what you’re talking about.

If possible, find someone to review your writing with you. One of the biggest challenges I faced as an attorney was to read enough cases on the issue I was researching to satisfy myself I could intelligently answer any question raised about that issue. After writing a preliminary draft I would review it with someone else in the office, and then make appropriate revisions based on questions raised. The litmus test of course was answering questions raised by the judge in court and responding to arguments made by the opposition. Thorough preparation before going to court was always the key.

As a writer you may not have the “luxury” of responding to questions raised by a judge and by the opposing attorney as a means of testing your preparation.  You must therefore try to anticipate questions the reader may have and then answer them in your writing.

 Use Effective Research Techniques.

   The creation of great content flows directly from effective research techniques.  These typically include at least the following:

  • Understand what you have read.
  • Look for main ideas and supporting details.
  • Organize your notes in logical sequence
  • Avoid the tiresome task of excessive note taking.  Summarize as necessary.  Don’t get lost in the forest of too many words by extensively rewriting what you have read.
  • Make optimum use of your time in doing research. If you’re under a writing deadline consider budgeting your research time to make sure you do not spend too much time in any one area and run out of time in another.  Otherwise, some part of your writing may suffer.

As an example of descriptive paragraphing, the next blog, a historical vignette entitled “Gettysburg – The Battle Which Determined America’s Fate,” will be posted on Monday, February 20, 2012, in honor of President’s Day.  A follow up to the present blog will cover writing with authority and polishing your writing, respectively  It will be posted on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.

Copyright 2012 Arnold G. Regardie.  All Rights Reserved.

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Create A Profile Of Your Reading Audience.

Our last blog dealt with the need to understand your reading audience.  Today we address an integral part of that process, i.e., taking steps to know your reader.

Knowing as much as possible about your audience is an essential step in any writing project.  It is indispensable to your writing success.  Don’t  guess or assume the knowledge level of your reader.  Using available information, create a profile of your target reader by considering such factors as the reader’s age, level of education, and business experience.  Obtain perspective by putting yourself in the reader’s shoes.  Ask yourself, why is my writing important to the reader?  Then answer the question in your writing.

Obtaining the reader’s profile is not always as easy as it sounds but depends on your purpose in writing.  Your reader will be different depending on whether you are preparing a job application, a report, or selling a product or service, etc.  If you’re writing to sell a product, for example, obtaining information about the buyer’s income level, spending habits, net worth, and even his political beliefs may become important to you in persuading the reader to buy.

If you’re writing for a single reader, try to tailor your writing to the reader’s interests or beliefs. It was always part of my prewriting routine as an attorney to obtain as much information as was available about the background and rulings of the judge who was assigned to my case.  Having this information would assist me in “tailoring” my brief to the idiosyncracies of that judge.  On one occasion my opponent’s attorney was urging a legal interpretation that had no case law support.  Being aware of the conservative leanings of the judge allowed me to successfully argue in my brief against what I labeled as the unnecessaary and unwarranted judicial activism sought by the other attorney, to expand the law to a level not previously adopted by the courts.  Seeing the judge expressly adopt my arguments and some of the cases I had cited in his decision gave me the satisfaction of knowing my writing had been persuasive.

The impact of your writing on the reader(s) must be considered throughout the project.  Remember, you are selling yourself.  When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he knew his writing would be scrutinized not just by other members of the Continental Congress, not just by all of the American colonies, but by France, England, and the entire world.  There is no doubt he was aware of all this and wrote accordingly.

With a profile of your reading audience in mind, you are ready to turn to the next step –  becoming an expert on your subject matter.  This will be the subject of my next blog.

Copyright 2012 Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Understanding Your Reading Audience Is Essential For Clear Writing.

The most important goal in clear writing is to write understandably.  This means that you must write to address your reader’s interests.

The first step in meeting this goal is to know who you are writing for and why you are writing for that audience.  Whether y0ur purpose is selling a product to the general public, writing a scientific paper, preparing a thesis for a degree, or explaining how a stockholder should exercise his/her right to vote at the annual stockholders meeting, it is crtitical to focus on the reader’s interests and write to address those interests.  Take the reader’s knowledge and level of understanding into account by considering the makeup of your reading audience.  Use language your reader will know and understand.

This approach is emphasized by the U.S. Government in its Report of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the United States Senate  (Report) to accompany the Plain Writing Act of 2009  (Act).  The Act is an effort to enhance citizen access to government information by mandating that government documents issued to the public be written in “plain” english.  (What the government really means is “clear” English.)  Substantial credit for many of the suggestions contained in this and other blogs which have appeared  in the past and will appear on this blog in the future is owed to the Report.  Many of those ideas parallel my own thinking and are simply too useful to be limited  to the relatively few individuals who may be involved in government oriented work.  I have therefore tried to rewrite, expand, and clarify, many of those suggestions for use in this blog site.

To continue, the Report defines plain writing with respect to the intended audience.  It explains that there are no hard rules in plain language except to be clear to your intended reader.  Plain writing means organizing and presenting all information in a way that improves readability.  Specialized words such as legal or scientific terms should be avoided if not necessary to present the information conveyed.

In other words, it matters if you are writing for a general audience or for a specific reader.  A general audience will have varying degrees of reading sophistication.  To write for a reader who is sophisticated on a specific subject requires expert knowledge on the writer’s part to make the writing understandable.  But obviously, you would not use the same level of sophistication for a reader who will not comprehend it.  In the same vein, a less sophisticated reader will have a greater need for understandable writing and may require more education on basic terms or concepts.  There is a clear difference in writing for a college professor, steeped in the niceties of academia, and writing for an experienced business owner, accustomed to the hard knocks of the business world.  The apporoach you take for one would probably not work for the other.

Important terms or concepts should be written in bold or italics.

Next:  creating a profile of your reading audience.

Copyright 2012. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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