In his own write – learning to write, again!

By: Thomas Went 

Writing is definitely something I enjoy, but it can be difficult. I think most people, even experienced writers and editors, would agree that it is a skill perfected over time, and even then there is no guarantee that it will be any easier. You can learn all the rules, apply them correctly and still a sentence will not read as you intended. Even when you have an in-depth knowledge of a subject the right combination of words can still elude you. There is something beyond the conventions of syntax, punctuation and grammar that makes writing more than just a case of sticking to the rules – I guess that’s why it’s considered a creative skill. Despite occasional difficulty, writing is still something I like to work at because there is a real satisfaction from knowing something reads as you envisioned it – even if it takes a little longer than planned!

Luckily, my job gives me the opportunity to write about a number of different subjects, each with their own topical matters and issues that change from day to day. Having come from an academic background, where writing is typically convention-conscious, the change in style was initially difficult to get used to. But it’s surprising how quickly you adapt to the change and how much new knowledge you pick up in the process. Here are some things I’ve had to keep in mind since working at Magenta.

Failure to prepare, is preparing to fail 

There are a number of stumbling blocks that you have to negotiate when preparing to write something. Questions of style, tone and presentation all need thinking through before setting off. One style may be appropriate for a certain subject but not for another, and the same applies with the tone of your writing. After all this, you then have to get your facts straight and ensure what you’re writing is actually worth putting pen to paper! There is nothing worse than a piece that is poorly researched and out of touch, or even worse, commits the cardinal sin of misrepresenting someone or something. Even in today’s ‘post-truth’ world – where fake news and misinformation increasingly blurs the lines between fact and fiction – an obvious error sticks out and instantly turns readers off.

Keep it simple

Writing with authority means clarity and fluency, but this is easier said than done. The temptation to get too wordy is sometimes difficult to resist. You can fool yourself into thinking that you’re composing the next War and Peace when in fact it’s really a thesaurus with some other words thrown in for good measure. Plain English, as I have learnt, is the best approach for most writing. Admittedly,  each style adheres to its own conventions, but all strive to be as clear as possible (well, sometimes, academia seems to enjoy being obscure). In the end, simple and straightforward is the way to go if you want your reader to engage. Whenever I feel I am going off track, I remember this passage from Oxford’s Guide to Plain English:

About a century ago, a legendary Cambridge University professor told his students to write in a clear style and avoid inflated language. Plain English, he said, was the difference between ‘He was conveyed to his residence in an intoxicated condition’ and ‘He was carried home drunk’.

Don’t be too precious

You can agonise over a paragraph, or even a sentence, then find you’ve spent the past half hour switching a few words around. Usually the best thing to do is get your thoughts down in a rough first draft and then edit it back – often in a brutal fashion! You’ll probably be doing more harm than good when you scrutinise each and every word you write. A paragraph that may read well to you, might not to someone else, so it’s best to be open to suggestion – especially at work where time is at a premium. Learning not to be precious with something you’ve created can be tough, but it’s a great life lesson because rarely will something be perfect first time round. Was that clear? I hope so!

Alice Finney