Knowing What to Look For

14 Dec

Effective writing is not so esoteric as to be beyond description. There are many elements we can specify. Let’s look first at structure.

Effective writing must be structured. But that doesn’t mean effective writing must be like those little houses of folk song infamy that are “made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.” Yet too many teachers, in both high school and college, refuse to admit that. To these folks, structure and rules are everything. Individual style is an affectation that must be avoided at all costs. These absolutists — the self-appointed Language Police — are wrong. It would be foolish to argue that effective writing can occur without discipline or structure. No serious writer or writing instructor believes that, and neither do we here at ProofreadingPal.

Monolithic structure devoid of individual style is no more desirable in writing than in architecture. If the Language Police taught architecture, Chicago would have a skyline of nothing but 30-story gray rectangles. There would be no Hancock Building with its broad base tapering to a slender apex. It was this Language Police perspective that gave us those indistinguishable and equally undistinguished sports monoliths known as Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. They were correctly called “cookie-cutter” stadiums, and all have been blown to smithereens and replaced with single-use baseball facilities that ooze character and personality and individuality. And it’s the same with writing. We don’t want cookie-cutter essays. We want essays with character and personality and individuality. And you don’t achieve that without intelligently and purposefully breaking some rules.

Of course, the Language Police often complain that if it weren’t for them, we would have fancy buildings all right, but that they would all collapse at irregular intervals because we would have sacrificed structure for style. But that, of course, is hogwash. Chicago’s Hancock Building is doing just fine, and so are the Chrysler Building in New York and that Space Needle in Seattle. Rather than being mutually exclusive, both structure and style are always required to achieve the best in either architecture or writing.

But be sure you are precise in your word choice: Choose “strolled” over “walked.” Be concise. Look for prepositional phrases, redundant modifiers, and other wordiness. Get to the point and move on. Use short, simple words rather than long, complicated ones, as Winston Churchill advised, unless the long word is more precise.

Simplicity impresses. Complexity confuses. Use short paragraphs. Offer key details, use anecdotes and quotes and dialogue. Grab the reader with a powerful introduction and leave the reader with a memorable conclusion. Look for these things and your writing won’t be just another house made out of ticky-tacky.

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