Monthly Archives: June 2012

Add Sound and Color To Your Writing

Last week’s post dealing with the subject of syntax touched on the subject of sound and color in your writing.   This subject, closely intertwined with syntax, deserves further exploration.

Clear writing requires a writer to have a command of words and use of proper syntax. Both are essential to become an accomplished writer.  Syntax was effectively defined last week as the logical, orderly sequence of words to have maximum effect on the reader.

Syntax to me is indistinguishable from sound and color.  I can’t conceive of a situation where a writer can have good syntax and not have sound and color. For this reason sound and color have no such ready definition as syntax does.  They depend on the writer developing a feel, an ear, for his writing.  For most writers this only comes with time and experience.  So, how do you know when you have it?

The ability to develop sound and color in your writing really depends on how well you apply yourself to the task of writing.  It has been a basic tenet of this entire blog site that clear writing is an art form and can be attained with constant, regular practice of your writing.  It is only through the dint of this undertaking that you will come to recognize your own voice as a writer.

What exactly is sound and color?  It’s hard to put it in your writing unless you know what it is.  The rhythm of your writing will reflect its sound and color.  Listen to your writing as you write, then revise it for effective rhythm.  This means choosing words that fit in well with surrounding words.  Jerky or monotonous sentences lack sound and color.

For example, the following sentence is repetitious and somewhat monotonous:

He was an exceedingly orderly company commander.  When promoted, he became an efficient regimental commander.

Improved version:

As a company commander he did things by the book; as a regimental commander, his efficiency was unsurpassed.

In the following example, sentence fluency has been hampered by excessive modification:

The man in the car opened the door quickly and went hurriedly into the restaurant.

Improved version:

The driver quickly abandoned the car and vanished into the restaurant.

How do you know when your writing has sound and color?  There are two ways:  The first is that you will know it because you will feel it in your writing;  the second, a bit more objective, is that a reader will remain fixed on what you have written and then compliment you on it.

The late William Manchester was a superb writer, the pages of his writing full of sound and color.  His biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion – Visions of Glory: 1874-1952, Dell Publishing, 1983, speaks for itself.  The following passage, (p.7), is illustrative:

“Men who think of themselves as indispensable are almost always wrong, but Winston Churchill was surely that then.  He was like the lion in Revelation, ‘the first beast,’ with ‘six wings about him’ and ‘full of eyes within.’  In an uncharacteristically modest moment on his eightieth birthday he said:  ‘It was the nation and the race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion’s heart; I had the luck to be called upon to give the lion’s roar.’  It wasn’t that simple.  The spirit, if indeed within them, lay dormant until he became prime minister and they, kindled by his soaring prose, came to see themselves as he saw them and emerged a people transformed, the admiration of free men everywhere.”

Adding sound and color to your writing doesn’t apply to every writing project.  It may not fit at all into, say, a simple job application.  But the experience of trying to add sound and color to your writing will help you to acquire an ear for your writing, that sense of knowing the power of your words.  It will help you to write more efficiently and more clearly.

As has been oft-mentioned on this blog site, clear writing is not easy.  But the point bears emphasis.   It  takes work, lots of work.   That’s the surest way, however, to improve the clarity of your writing.  I’m reminded of books I’ve read about trying to hit a golf ball or a tennis ball.  There’s only so much reading you can do before you actually go out and swing a club or a racket.  So it is with writing.  Reading the many blogs posted on this site over the last few months will provide you with reliable guidelines and techniques.  Mastery of them will go a long way to improve the clarity of your writing, but you still have to write to achieve maximum effect.

Watch for my ebook, “The Art of Clear Writing”, coming soon on Kindle.  This ebook will make available, under one cover, all of the writing guidelines and techniques previously posted on this site.  It is now in the final polishing stages and will be available soon.  Also, my article “Antietam and Gettysburg , Two Pivotal Civil War Battles That Saved The Union,” is now available on Kindle.

The next blog will be posted on Friday, July 6, 2012.

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

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The Mysterious, Elusive Element of Syntax

Can a sentence be dramatic?  It all depends on the syntax,  and syntax is the key to all effective writing.

What exactly is syntax?  How can it help you to write more clearly?  And, how does it differ, if at all, from diction?

Let me explain…

Finding the answer to these questions takes a little digging.  A good dictionary definition provides some help.  One definition provided by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Ed., p. 1269, is that syntax means “…a connected or orderly system:  harmonious arrangement of parts or elements….”  That helps a little bit.  The same source provides another definition: “…the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)…”  That helps a little more.

So, how does all of this relate to clear writing?  Let’s find out.

Good syntax makes good sense.  It deals with the orderly arrangement of words in a sentence.  Diction, dealing with the selection of the right words, is to be distinguished. So, it can be said that words carry the meaning, the power, but syntax controls their effect on the reader.

We now have a better understanding of what syntax means, but we still need to know how it helps us to write more clearly and how to acquire it.

Syntax involves adding rhythm and color to your writing.  These are an indispensable part of clear writing, and should be as much a part of your writing as your heartbeat is to you.  Thus, there should be a beat to your writing much as a poet includes a beat to his/her lines.  As noted in “The Way To Write,” John Fairfax and John Moat, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, p. 66,  the poet Lord Byron used the thunder of horsemen as the backdrop for his epic poem, The Destruction Of Sennacherib:

“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”

The same little booklet, at p. 58, provides another example of what the authors believe is “spectacular” syntax in the following quote from an unidentified Hemingway novel:

“Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.”

The point to be made in all of this comes down to using the story teller as an example.  Everyone likes a good story.  Bob Sands, a well known copyrighter who writes for AWAI (American Writers And Artists, Inc.), emphasizes the point that good copywriting is made even better by a good story.  The order of words in the telling of the story is what provides the emphasis, the drama.  The drama makes the story.  An accomplished writer has a feel for the dramatic and can arrange his words to provide the best impact.

An inexperienced writer may struggle to write a sentence that provides the best effect on the reader.  But, once more experience is obtained, a writer will get a feel for the best order of the words.  This will result in clear meaning, logical presentation of information, and maximum effect on the reader.

A final example, what Messrs. Fairfax and Moat characterize as “superb” syntax, is provided by no less than Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,

Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more:  it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing…” (Id. p. 59).

A piece of writing that has no variety of sound is colorless and dull, like a landscape on a gloomy day.  But  colorful writing, on the other hand, is like a landscape you will find on a bright, sunny,  Spring day.

A gift for words may carry with it a gift for syntax.  The two may be the same.  But, as with other aspects of writing, the gift for syntax does not come gift-wrapped with a ribbon – it must be nurtured and developed, by guidance and constant practice.  By developing the ear, an accomplished writer has learned how to match the sound of his writing to the mood he would create.

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

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A Summary Of Clear Writing Guidelines and Techniques

This is a good time to summarize what has been published here previously on clear writing.

The ability to write clearly is essential to success in today’s world, a world of global communications.  The power of the written word is more important today than ever before.  If you are not a “good writer,” you can and should dedicate yourself to the task of becoming one.  Using the guidelines and techniques explained in the posts to this blogsite will go a long way in developing a clear writing style for you.

Clear writing is an art form.  That means it can be learned.  But, like anything else in life, you must work at it to become accomplished. Develop confidence in your ability to write clearly by practicing your writing continuously.  Also, read extensively and study experienced writers and their styles.  Following these suggestions will be time well spent.

Organize your thinking before you write anything by preparing an outline of what you are going to write.  Prepare the outline carefully and in detail.  It is your blueprint, your roadmap to a clearly  written document.

Focus on your reader and write to fulfill the reader’s needs and expectations.  Write in a conversational tone.  Don’t use words the reader will neither recognize nor understand.

Know your subject matter thoroughly.  High quality content will help to stamp you as an accomplished writer.

It is not necessary to memorize grammar rules to write clearly.  Memorization of rules is only necessary to pass examinations.  Good grammar can be learned by word association, which results from training your eye to recognize it.  This is a more reliable way to learn grammar than by memorizing rules and then trying to apply them to a given situation.

Clear writing means to create a document that is inviting in appearance, well organized, and understandable when read.

To achieve the foregoing objective, your writing should be as clear, concise, and understandable as you can make it.  Use short sentences whenever possible.  Write in everyday language using concrete words and the active voice.   Paragraph headings and subheadings should be descriptive.  Spell out what any acronym stands for at least once.  Avoid legalisms such as whereas and herein and highly technical terms.

Organize your writing to avoid long, dense paragraphs that will be discouraging to read.  Use of bullet points, graphs, and tables is often helpful in presenting detailed information.  The old cliche,  “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is still true when it comes to writing clearly.

Words are a writers tools of the trade.  You cannot hope to write clearly without having a reliable vocabulary.  Work on increasing your vocabulary by writing down each new word and its meaning, reading extensively, and frequently resorting to a dictionary.  Use new words in your writing when appropriate.

Learn to use punctuation marks appropriately in your writing.  Properly used marks will help immeasurably in getting your message across.

Revise all writing thoroughly.  Don’t rely on the first draft.  Work on using the right words to express yourself clearly.  It is extremely important to look for spelling errors.  Nothing will turn a reader off faster than poor spelling.  This point cannot be emphasized enough.

Make sure your final document looks like its meant to be read.  A sloppy appearance can be a turn off.

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

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Add Expertise In Letter Writing To Your Writing Arsenal.

Expertise in letter writing should be an indispensable part of your writing arsenal.

Letter uses are manifold. All job seekers should use a cover letter to accompany any resume which is sent out. The cover letter should introduce you personally to the prospective interviewer.  The letter should specify the position you are seeking and state how you learned about it.  It should explain why you are qualified for the position and how your qualifications will benefit the company.  Close by suggesting an interview and state when you will be available.

A properly worded letter of inquiry about a job opportunity may open a door of opportunity for you.  Also, sending a thank you letter to acknowledge an interview may make a difference to the interviewer.

Business letters should be clear, to the point, and correctly punctuated and formatted. Properly written, attractive letters will reflect favorably on you individually as well as any company you are working for.

Confirm all important meetings, events, telephone conversations, and decisions by letter. It’s a good idea to leave a paper trail for future reference; it will go a long way to avoid misunderstandings and is always a good business practice.

Important points to remember about writing a letter.  There are several guidelines to keep in mind when writing a letter,  as follows:

1.  The heading of the letter should be centered and provide the writer’s full name, address, and telephone number.  Adding an email address and cell phone number is discretionary.  But you want to make sure the addressee knows how to get back to you easily.

2.    The date of the letter should appear directly under the heading.

3.  The addressee’s address inside the letter should be the same as appears on the mailing envelope.  Do not omit street or avenue.

4.   Use a reference line following the address to reference an order number, invoice number, a previous letter, or any other convenient point of reference.   The reference should be preceded by “RE:”

5.   The greeting (or salutation, as it is sometimes called), should be separated by two spaces from the inside address or the reference line, if one is used.  The inside address and the greeting should begin at the left margin.  The greeting should be followed by a colon for business letters and a comma for personal letters.

Typical greetings include the following:

Dear Sir (or Madam):

Dear Mr. Jones:

Dear Mrs. Smith:

Dear IRS: (or other agency if known)

Avoid “To Whom It May Concern” if at all possible.

6.  Begin the body of the letter one line below the greeting.  Don’t use shorthand or abbreviated writing.  Always write with direct, full sentences.  Avoid flowery or hackneyed language such as ” I beg to advise,” and all slang expressions.

Wrong: Your kind favor of (date) has been received and we hasten to inform you the order has been shipped immediately following.

Better:  We have received your order dated (date).  The order was filled on (date) and shipped on (date).

7.  Get right to the point.  If you are applying for a job, begin by stating “I am applying for,” and not “I would apply for” or “I wish to apply for.”

8.  As pointed out previously, organization is essential to clear writing.  This is true in letter writing as well.  Group your thoughts logically.  If you are applying for a job, an appropriate grouping might consist of personal qualifications, followed by experience and then references.

9.  Finish the letter with a simple sentence such as:

I hope to hear from you soon,

I trust this answers your letter, or

I trust this answers any questions regarding my background, education, or experience, for this position.

Please advise if further information is required.

Avoid any finish that begins with a participle such as “Thanking you for your consideration of this request.”  It is better to say simply, “Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.””

10.  The close should be at the left margin, followed by a comma.  Appropriate closings include the following:

Sincerely yours,

Sincerely,

Yours truly,

Respectfully,

Cordially,

11.    Sign your name clearly and type it out directly underneath the signature using all capital letters or initial capitals.  It is not necessary to provide a title or degree before or after the signature.  A married woman may add her married name in parenthesis following her typed name if she was using her maiden name previously.  Do not follow the signature with any punctuation.

12.  If you are sending a copy of the letter to someone else, add “cc: [name of additional addressee]” two spaces below your typed name.  Place a check mark by the “cc” on the copy being sent to designate that the addressee is getting that copy.  Sending a cover letter with the copy is discretionary, depending on the circumstances.

13.  If you are enclosing any document with the letter add “Encl.” following your typed name or any “cc.”

14.  Miscellaneous matters.  For business correspondence, only use one side of the paper; fold the letter twice horizontally in equal sections.  Don’t staple or clip pages together.

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

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More Tips On Punctuation

In addition to the tips previously published, clear writing also requires correct use of the semicolon, colon, dash, and ellipsis, and to be able to correctly distinguish between use of parenthesis and brackets.

Semicolon.

A semicolon is commonly used to punctuate independent clauses not joined by a conjunction; it reflects a separation in thought.  It may also be used to separate a lengthy series of phrases.

“I’ll take you over the hill,” he whispered; “but, you’ll have to find your own way from there.”

This product is top of the line; it contains all of the current technologies.

The take off from the Denver airport was a bit choppy at first; but, after the plane climbed to an altitude of 38,000 feet, we enjoyed a smooth ride over the Rockies.

But don’t use a semicolon after the salutation in a letter; use a comma for informal letters and a colon for formal and business letters.

Colon.

Use a colon to introduce a formal or direct quotation.

The Chairman of the meeting then recognized the main speaker, who began as follows:  “Mr. Chairman, I propose that…” 

Also use a colon to introduce a series that is used as an appositive (a grammatical relation between words that have the same relation to other words in the sentence, the succeeding words supplementing the first).

The table of organization of an infantry division normally includes at least three elements:  headquarters units, combat units, and support units.

My favorite baseball players of the post World War II era include the following: Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Bob Feller.

Dash.

A dash should be twice as long as a hyphen.  It serves to set off emphatic interrupters and to denote an abrupt pause or breaking off of a sentence.

It should be understood that the tax effect of this  legislation  — the legislation was just enacted – is not included in our estimates.

Many precious metals — gold is a prime example — are used to hedge against inflation.  Other investments — for example, some common stocks — are not reliable for this purpose.

Ellipsis.

This mark uses three dots to show the omission of certain language from a quotation.  The first example is a partial quotation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven:

“…Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Nameless here for evermore.”

There has been widespread discussion among Poe’s biographers as to whether the reference in his poem “The Raven” to the   “…lost Lenore…the rare and radiant angel whom the angels name Lenore–Nameless here forevermore,” is meant to refer to his deceased wife or to someone else.

Distinguish between use of parenthesis and brackets.  Parentheses are used to   provide information in the least conspicuous manner, for asides, and for certain  business confirmations.  Brackets are used to show omitted matter from a quotation, and to insert explanations or corrections.

Coin collecting can be very interesting, historically speaking, as well as a good  investment.   Coin grading is subjective (a matter of opinion, which can change over time), so never buy any coin without first inspecting it.

Carson City silver dollars  (Morgan silver dollars [named for the designer, George T. Morgan] minted in Carson City, Nevada, between 1878 and 1893) are still popular today because of their attractive design and because they are a throwback to the Old West days.

Try to write clearly enough to make your sentences understood even if the punctuation marks were removed.

The next blog will be posted on Friday, 6/8/12.

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

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