Panchasutras to make your writing clearer

Panchasutras to make your writing clearer

With today's column, 'English Matters' completes one year. Over the past twelve months, the column has discussed practical, everyday aspects of...

dr t vijay kumarWith today's column, "English Matters" completes one year. Over the past twelve months, the column has discussed practical, everyday aspects of English. The focus of the column has been more on usage than grammar and the use of English was always considered in the multi-lingual context of India.

In today's column, the last in this series, let us look at ways to make our writing clearer.

Sutra 1: Write for the reader and not forA yourself. First, consider who your reader is. Next, consider what the reader needs to know. Organise your writing to answer the reader's questions. Ask yourself the question 'Who am I writing this for?' Be clear about the target reader and choose words appropriate for the reader and his/her reading level. Understand the difference between formal and informal language and style and use them in the right context. For instance, the vocabulary you use when writing an application form should obviously be different from that used when wring an email or sending an sms. Try to say exactly what you mean, using the simplest words that fit. Avoid using 'big' but less familiar words and specialist jargon which may not be familiar to the reader.

Sutra 2: Keep your sentences short. Keep the average sentence length to 15 to 20 words. But if you write all sentences of the same length, it becomes monotonous. For instance, if you write all short sentences, it will read like a telegram and if you write all long sentences, it may look like an unending serial. So, vary your writing and mix short sentences with longer ones. But always stick to one main idea in a sentence.

Sutra 3: Prefer active verbs Active verbs make your writing crisp, lively and clear. Passive verbs, on the other hand, make your writing confusing, long-winded, and bureaucratic. For instance, "We will consider this matter shortly" (active), is much clearer than "This matter will be considered by us shortly" (passive). Passive verbs do have their uses and there are several contexts in which the use of passives is preferable. But, in general, make 80 to 90% of your verbs active.

Sutra 4: Avoid nominalisations 'Nominalisation' is the conversion of verbs into nouns. (Ex. [nouns] 'completion', 'introduction' formed from [verbs] 'complete', 'introduce'). Often nominalizations are used unnecessarily instead of the verbs they come from. For instance, "We had a discussion about the matter" is not only long but sounds vague when compared to "We discussed the matter". Like passive verbs, too many nominalizations make writing very dull and heavy-going.

Sutra 5: Use positive language Always try to emphasise the positive side of things. Instead of "If you don't pay your fee in time, we will not be able to renew your scholarship" (negative), write "Please pay your fee in time so that we can renew your scholarship" (positive).

Summary - Stop and think before you start writing. Note the points you want to make in a logical order. - Prefer short words. Long words will not impress your readers or help your writing style. - Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and explain any technical terms you have to use. - Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Try to stick to one main idea in a sentence. - Use active verbs as much as possible. Say 'We will do it' rather than 'It will be done by us'. - Be concise. - Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.

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