Monthly Archives: December 2012

Subject Matter Expertise Is Essential For Clear Writing

 Mastery of your subject matter is a basic requirement for clear writing.  Weak writing and resulting reader disinterest 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 that 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 being briefed to be able to intelligently answer any later question.  After writing a preliminary draft, I would review it with someone else in the office and then make appropriate revisions.  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 goals:

          Understanding what you have read.         

          Looking for main ideas and  supporting details.

           Organizing your notes in logical  sequence.

           Avoiding the tiresome task of excessive note taking by summarizing 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.

         Write With Authority on Your Subject

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.”   (See:  How To Write And Sell Simple Information For Fun and Profit, Robert W. Bly, p.29, Linden Publishing, 2010).  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 and techniques in my book, The Art of Clear Writing, available at amazon.com/kindlebooks and in print at CreateSpace.com, should go a long way toward improving your ability to express yourself with authority.

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.  The first step in meeting this goal is to know who you are writing for, i.e., your reading audience, and why you are writing for that audience.  Whether your 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 critical to focus on the reader’s interests and write to address them.  Take the reader’s knowledge and level of understanding into account by considering the makeup of your reading audience.  Use language the reader will know and understand.

There are no hard rules in clear writing except to be clear to your intended reader.  Clear writing means organizing and presenting all information in a way that improves readability.  Using a specialized vocabulary such as legal or scientific terms may be appropriate when addressing an audience that understands the terms.  However, when addressing a general audience, specialized terms should be explained or 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 sufficient knowledge in that area to make your writing understandable.  But obviously, you shouldn’t use the same level of sophistication for a reader who will not understand 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 the approach to 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 approach you take for one would probably not work for the other.

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

Knowing as much as possible about your reading audience is an essential step for your writing success.  Thomas Paine knew and understood the nature of his intended readers, the American colonists, when he wrote Common Sense in early 1776.  This little booklet argued for independence of the American colonies from the British Crown because it made good sense to do so.  It had a wide ranging impact on the colonists and became a runaway best seller with over 100,000 copies eventually in circulation.  It played no small part in the emotional run-up to the American Revolution.    

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.  Get the reader’s 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.  If you’re writing to sell a product, for example, obtaining information about the buyer’s level of income, spending habits, net worth, and even his political beliefs may become important to you in persuading the reader to buy.

If you are writing for a single reader, try to tailor your writing to the reader’s interests or beliefs.  It was always part of my pre-writing routine as an attorney to review the background and rulings of the judge who was assigned to my case.  Having this information would enable me to “tailor” my writing to the idiosyncrasies of that judge.  On one occasion when I was working on a new case, the opposing attorney was urging a legal interpretation that had no case law support.  With the conservative leanings of the judge in mind, I successfully wrote an argument against the unwarranted result sought by the other attorney.  The judge expressly adopted my arguments and the cases I cited in his decision, which gave me the satisfaction of knowing that my writing had been persuasive.

Keep the profile of your reading audience in mind as you turn to the next step, researching your subject matter to become an expert on it.

Additional clear writing guidelines and techniques are set forth in my book, The Art of Clear Writing, available at amazon.com/kindle books and CreateSpace.com.

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

 

 

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Prepare A Comprehensive Outline For Best Writing Results

Last week’s post focused on organizing your thoughts to write better.  It dealt primarily with the preparation of a preliminary plan as the first step in organizing your thoughts before writing. Also discussed was the task of information gathering as being secondary to plan preparation.

 After gathering the information needed for your writing project, the next step is to 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 anyone 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 may be called the “stream of consciousness” approach.  The first one envisions use of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numbers, followed by small letters.  This traditional approach is best for presentation of material in an organized, logical fashion.  In adopting the traditional approach, the topic outline and the sentence outline are commonly used. The sentence outline requires use of complete sentences and appropriate punctuation.  Examples of both types, which I used to outline the subject “John Adams, An Unrecognized President”, appear in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” pp 23-28, which is available at amazon.com/kindle books as well as in print on Amazon.com and CreateSpace.com.

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

There is a third approach, what I call “stream of consciousness” 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.  Start with the main idea for the writing.  Then, as more ideas come along, begin to create an outline and rearrange your material.  Continue to write to fill in gaps in the material.  Feel free to use this approach as long as the end result is well organized and clearly written.

Use the outline to prepare appropriate paragraph headings and subheadings.  As you are developing your outline, create as many topic headings as appears necessary for the material.  Don’t skimp in this area.  The creation of topic headings goes hand-in-glove with the preparation of your outline.

Create crisp, sharp paragraph headings and subheadings to help your reader focus on the content of each paragraph.  Arrange the paragraphs as necessary to provide a logical flow of information.  Keep in mind that short sections are better.  A long, dense paragraph is a daunting and discouraging sight.  But if your writing is presented in short, manageable, bite-sized pieces of approximately fifty to seventy five words, it will be easier to digest because the entire content of each section can be more easily captured in the heading.

Also, short sections make the document more visually appealing so it appears easier to understand.  A long section will increase the difficulty of preparing a meaningful summary of its heading.  Short sections will provide the opportunity to write more headings to go with them and should also help you to organize your writing more effectively.  In this scenario, brevity is a prince, verbosity a pauper.

Boldface the section headings to create a roadmap for quick and easy reference to your document. 

Use common sense in preparing paragraph headings.  They should not be so long as to overwhelm the reader.  On the other hand, overly broad headings such as “General” and “Scope” are not useful and are not recommended.

Once your outline is complete, you will find that the preparation of your first draft will be a much easier task.

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

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Organize Your Thoughts Before Writing

It’s an old Chinese proverb that says, the best way to begin a long journey is to take the first step.  So it is with writing.  If you want to improve your writing you have to take the first step.  That step is planning and organization, or getting ready to write.  It’s the all-important first step in any writing process.  There are three stages involved: preparing a preliminary plan, information gathering, and preparing an outline.  This may sound a little daunting, but it really isn’t.  Once you develop the habit of doing it, planning and organization will become second nature to you.  It’s the warm up, so to speak, before you actually begin to write.  Without taking this step, your writing will likely be disorganized and you will flounder.

Preparing a preliminary plan is the starting point for any writing project.  You shouldpreliminarily decide how and what to write and who you’re writing for even before words, sentences, or paragraphs are put down on paper.

First, decide exactly what you want to accomplish and how you are going to do it.  This is your game plan for attacking the project, the master approach.  It should be developed first, even before you write anything, much as a builder conceives a project or a golfer envisions a shot.  Think of it as driving to an unfamiliar destination – if you haven’t been there before, you must figure out what route you’re going to take.

Well organized writing begins with well thought out preparation.  Therefore, reaching your ultimate goal to write clearly begins with a thoroughly prepared preliminary plan followed by a detailed outline.  This is the foundation for your writing.   If this foundation is weak, your final document will suffer.

A good outline, the outgrowth of your preliminary plan, 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.                       

Secondary to plan preparation is the task of information gathering.  Unless you are writing about a subject that you know like the back of your hand, you will need to gather as many details about it as possible.  This in turn entails knowing what type of writing you are going to pursue, whether expository, educational, persuasive, descriptive, narrative, creative, research, report writing, writing a grant application or even a simple letter.  Whatever form of writing you decide to pursue, it is essential to have fully investigated the subject before writing anything.  You cannot write clearly without having excellent content.

Comprehensive note taking to help develop your plan is vital.  Notes usually provide a viable starting point for any plan.  As part of your mental preparation, write down thoughts as they come to mind.

Your subconscious, or “inner person” as it were, undoubtedly works best when you are relaxed.   Put a sheet of paper and a pen by your bedside when you go to sleep at night; take pen and paper with you while walking or jogging.  Don’t lose any thoughts; they may never surface again.

Use your notes to avoid any writer’s block.  When it’s hard to get started on a writing project, which all writers experience at one point or another, brainstorm by referring to your notes.  Then, just start writing at random.  Once you begin writing, thoughts should come to mind as to both organization and content.  They can then be collected and used as part of the process of preparing a comprehensive outline.

As you are proceeding, keep in mind the moral of the story of the tortoise and the hare from the old Aesop’s Fable  –   perseverance and determination win every time.

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

                  

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