FirstWord chief sub Caroline Elderfield explains why clarity, consistency and clever (don’t be) are key to fine writing
I have a big problem with really good writing – and it’s the people who think they can do it. They labour away, making myriad mistakes, their words languishing unread and unloved by readers. But help is at hand.
Good writing has rules. They’re easy to follow and can be summed up under the “Three Cs” – clarity, consistency and (don’t be) clever.
Keep it clear
My old subbing teacher – Wynford Hicks, former flame of Boris Johnson’s mother and, more importantly, author of many grammar books including English for Journalists – would tell us to write and edit with our ears. If something sounds wrong when read aloud, try again. Common mistakes are sentences that are too long, their meaning obscured by poor grammar, too many subordinate clauses and jargon.
The remedy? Keep it simple. Keep sentences short. Keep punctuation to a minimum.
As a general rule, if a sentence has more than one sub-clause and is more than 30 words long it needs to be cut up. Just following this rule helps you abide by the next bit – keeping punctuation to a minimum. Use it to guide the reader, not load up the sentence. And make sure you use it appropriately.
For example, compound constructions are usually hyphenated for clarity’s sake. So we have real-estate agents (who sell houses) vs real estate agents (who are not just imaginary friends).
Getting punctuation right is particularly important when it comes to translation. Different languages have different sentence structures and it’s all too easy to mimic them when translating into English. German or Italian into English often results in complex sentences with sub-clauses that are hard to follow and sound odd to an English ear. An able translator will turn the odd to the good.
Thus this: “Electric vehicles, shared micro-mobility, robotaxi, e-bikes: the future of mobility is all of this and even more than we can imagine today. This will lead us all to rethink of all the possibilities and needs related to transportation that are now, and most likely will be in the future, the bottlenecks for a seamless and enhanced integration between the way we move and our everyday life.”
Becomes this: “Electric vehicles, shared micro-mobility, robotaxis, e-bikes – the future encompasses all of these and more. By making an expert assessment of our needs and capabilities, it should be possible to devise a whole range of creative solutions suitable not just for the here and now, but also for the years – and the life – ahead. By working together we can anticipate and overcome development problems more easily and ensure a seamless transition to a mobility ecosystem fit for purpose.”
Finally, on clarity. Avoid jargon/euphemism. It’s generally horrible and there are always alternatives that will get the point across better. Examples include: (from the military) “render non-viable” – to kill people; the “economically marginalised” (unemployed); and (in politics) a “meaningful statistical downturn” – better known as a recession.
Consistency is crucial
Want of consistency in your writing – a combination of %, percent and per cent littered throughout, along with a mix of US and UK English – doesn’t just annoy the alert reader; it undermines your credibility. If you’re careless about this, they might start questioning your accuracy and whether you are equally careless with facts.
This is why newspapers, magazines and their associated websites all have internal style guides setting out exactly how they want it done. Larger companies, particularly those with communications departments, often have a style guide too as part of their brand guidelines.
If your company doesn’t yet have a style guide, not to worry. I can recommend adopting either that of The Times for UK English or the Wall Street Journal for US English. Both are available on Amazon or if you have a Telegraph subscription you can see its guide online here.
A good style guide will establish whether to write in UK or US English; how to express numbers (commonly zero to nine in words then 10 and above in numerals); how to abbreviate (spell out first time with the abbreviation in parenthesis straight afterwards); how to name people (full name and title first mention then surname only or with the appropriate honorific); how to write company names with capital letters in the middle (YouTube/Youtube); banned words; metric or imperial (kilometres or miles); and more. It should also include anything that is specifically relevant to your company.
One client insists, for example, that its name cannot be split over two lines. Another never refers to customers, always people. And it has banned the word brand, plumping for product instead.
Whichever guide you choose you can supplement with notes that are specific to your industry. For example, the oil industry measures output in barrels per day, but this can be abbreviated to bpd or bbl/d. Time to decide.
In this way, the style guide helps project the right image and build credibility. It also saves time. When everyone knows and uses the style guide, editing will be a shorter and sweeter process. And the end product all the better for it.
Don’t be clever
There’s a reason why no one reads PhD theses, even if they’re full of original thought. They’re too clever and written almost exclusively for PhD supervisors.
Good writing, on the other hand, makes hard concepts easy to digest and remember, and can be read by anyone. The aim is to come across as naturally as possible and at the appropriate level for your audience.
Writers at the Financial Times are told to assume their readers are clever 16-year-olds – articulate, interested, but not all-knowing. It’s a good tip – assuming you know any clever 16-year-olds.
Which brings me to a related tip – avoid the temptation to be funny. It’s much harder than you think. Even in the hands of the professional, attempts at humour can give rise to writing that is dangerously open to misinterpretation. It’s the same with fancy metaphors. Avoid them. If your writing is going to be edited by anyone who has worked in a professional publishing environment, they’ll certainly be on the lookout for over-used metaphors and will probably let only one through if you’re lucky.
Finally, don’t sweat the small stuff. That’s my job. But do get someone else to read your copy before pushing publish. At the very least, heed Wynford Hicks and read it aloud so you can edit with your ears. If you’ve written it and you’re stumbling when you read it out, the chances are your audience will too.