Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 4

How to Kick Bad Writing Habits -- Painlessly

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In this Lesson:

Let's face it -- you've been writing the way you do for a long time, and you're not likely to change those habits unless (1) you can see a good reason to do so and (2) you can see some immediate payoff that makes your effort seem worthwhile.

Fair enough. I hope that the preceding lessons, along with the experiences that led you to take this course, have convinced you that there are many good reasons to learn clear and effective writing -- reasons that benefit both your organization and you personally. As for the amount of work you have to do, I assume that you're willing to put some work into changing those bad writing habits, as long as you can see that it's doing some good.


YOU'VE GOT TO GET INVOLVED

The old cliche about getting out of any effort exactly what you put into it applies to this course, too. I assume that you're taking this course because you've decided you want to change your writing habits. You're not going to do that by passively reading the lessons. Imagine building a muscular body by watching accomplished weightlifters every day. Or learning how to play the piano by going to a lot of concerts. You have to learn by doing.

That's why this course is full of exercises for you to do as you read along. I call them exercises, rather than problems, tests or games, because their purpose is to exercise skills you have recently acquired. Behavior changes only as a result of repeated and active effort, coupled with a consistent reward system. I have built into the exercises in this course both the structure for practicing new writing patterns and the reward system that is so important for reinforcing them. But the effort has to come from you. It can't work any other way.

If you do these exercises, you'll get the immediate feedback that shows you how well you're doing. Then you'll be well on your way to changing your writing habits. I know the temptation is great to simply read through the text and pass over the exercises. If you do that, any skills you learn will fade very quickly, and I guarantee that the time you spend taking this course will mostly be wasted.

So, as you study these lessons, set aside enough undisturbed time, not only to read a lesson or so, but to do all the exercises you encounter. I promise you that I have made them as painless and enjoyable as possible.


WRITING TO INFORM -- AN ART OR A SCIENCE?

Robert Gunning began his famous book The Technique of Clear Writing with the following statement: "Writing is an art. But when it is writing to inform it comes close to being a science as well."

What does that mean, anyway? And what's the difference whether you call writing an art or a science?

The distinction is not just a philosophical one. It has to do with whether you can actually hope to change your writing habits, or whether you're stuck with the amount of writing "talent" you were born with.

If you try to learn painting, sculpting, gourmet cooking, "creative" writing, or anything that we're used to calling an art, you'll find that you can get only so far by learning specific rules and techniques. Your teachers will tell you that your success depends mostly on practice and inborn ability. In other words, they're leaving out the specific details about how to do it. You have to study how others do it and try to imitate their "style".

A science, on the other hand, is built on precise models for how things work. If the models work, they survive. If the don't, they're modified or discarded. But no science says simply, "This is the truth." Its models are always subject to question and endless testing in the real world.

If you believe that learning how to write clearly and informatively is an art, you can only hope to imitate those who write well. You may or may not accomplish that goal, because no one has had to write before exactly what you need to write now. Copying others' writing may get you no farther than an artist who copies the Mona Lisa.

If, on the other hand, you think of writing to inform as a science, you can hope to learn exactly what the ingredients and skills of informative and effective writing are. Foremost among these are:

  • Breaking down a huge, overwhelming writing project into small, manageable tasks.
  • Defining specific procedures for getting the job done.
  • Measuring how well you're doing with objective tests.

An artist can do none of these things. He is trapped in the world of trial-and-error.

Of course, the exact science of effective writing has not yet been precisely spelled out. No one knows for sure what the specific ingredients of the most successful writing are. That's probably why Gunning said that writing is still an art.

But most sciences were arts before they became sciences. Mysticism and magic consistently give way to systematic and precise models. The same process is needed to convert the art of business and technical writing into a science. So, before I can get anywhere in teaching you how to write, I have to break down the teaching process into elementary, understandable steps and present the material in specific, concrete terms you can immediately apply and test for yourself. That's what this course is all about.

There are no rules in this course -- only models for you to test to see if they work for you. See if they produce the results you want better than what you're using now. You'll find that some will work better than others. Keep the former and modify or discard the latter.


BREAK DOWN A COMPLEX TASK INTO SIMPLE STEPS -- DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Have you ever been curious (and brave) enough to open up a fine watch and look inside to see how it works? Most of us have been overwhelmed by the intricate array of tiny gears, springs and ratchets that somehow all work together to tell us what time it is.

Or have you ever taken the back off a television set to see the maze of wires and electronic components that are all hooked together in just the right way to display the pictures and sounds we all take for granted?

Viewed as a whole, these devices at first glance seem incomprehensible. But if you begin to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces, you eventually reach a level you can easily understand. Everyone can, after a few minutes of explanation, grasp the purpose of a coiled spring or an electrical resistor. Once you understand the principles behind many such small parts, you can advance to learning how they function in combinations. Eventually, you can develop, in building-block fashion, an understanding of large, integrated systems.

This is how most scientific learning proceeds: break down difficult concepts into simple, manageable pieces. If we decide to approach our writing tasks in this same way, a large, overwhelming task like writing this course just becomes an assembly of lessons, which in turn are made up only of paragraphs, sentences and words. Each module serves its own well defined function, which is defined in advance.

The easiest way to break down a complex writing task is to begin with an outline. I'll show you a generic outline that's not only designed to inform your reader more effectively, but is also easier to use than the traditional one.

In the rest of this course, you will spend a lot of time dealing with the smaller, more manageable pieces of your document -- words, sentences, paragraphs and sections. These are the building blocks of all effective business and technical writing. If your building blocks are made of Jello, no amount of attention to the larger-scale architecture can make your paper or report a coherent unit. But if your building blocks are sound, you stand a pretty good chance of putting together a sound structure. The problem of organization is then one of designing a logical structure for these modules. The mortar is made from connective words and phrases and from the logical thread you establish through your ideas.


USE SYSTEMATIC METHODS TO GET THE JOB DONE

As you sit down to face a writing task, you have the choice of beginning in some haphazard way -- perhaps just jotting down random thoughts as they occur to you -- or following a specific and detailed plan.

You know how important planning is in other areas of your work. You wouldn't dream of setting up an aircraft assembly line by merely gathering together all the materials and a labor force at the same place and the same time. Nor would you begin a scientific expedition by loading every instrument in sight onto trucks and sending them in random directions. Why, then, would you approach a complex writing task without a specific plan and a step-by-step set of instructions?

The answer is probably that specific procedures have been set down for just about every important task you do -- except writing. I'm not talking about the formal instructions you're all too familiar with if you work for the government or a large corporation. I mean ways to make sure your writing says what you want it to say -- no more, no less.

To help you get started on your writing assignments, I've made up sets of questions for you to answer. You'll select the set that corresponds to your particular writing job -- from proposal, research report, instruction manual and feasibility study, to journal article and even everyday correspondence. By answering these questions precisely and completely, you will automatically set up the structure of your piece of writing, and you'll even create some key sentences while you're at it.

I'll also give you step-by-step procedures for writing informative paragraphs, for tying you ideas together and for writing sentences that inform. As you finish each step, you'll always know what to do next.


MEASURE YOUR SUCCESS WITH OBJECTIVE TESTS

The third part of our scientific approach to writing is to make sure you know when you're done. You'll learn to use several objective tests you can apply to your writing. One kind of test tells you whether your writing is tuned to the particular readers you have in mind, and whether it contains all the information your readers expect to find. The other kind checks how clear and readable it is, and makes sure you've trimmed off useless fat.


Practice Expressing Yourself in Writing

Here's an exercise to help you feel more comfortable with putting your feelings and thoughts down on paper.

Write a letter to a close friend or relative (or even yourself) describing how your day has gone. Focus on how you feel about the day's events and about the people you interacted with. Use whatever medium (crayons, marking pens, chocolate pudding) seems like the most fun and best expresses your mood. If you like, you can tape-record it and then transcribe it verbatim.

Just let all the disconnected feelings flow out onto the paper, and forget entirely about organization, grammar, spelling, punctuation or neatness. You can even draw pictures. It sometimes helps to pretend you're five years old. Repeat this exercise at regular intervals until you feel completely comfortable doing it.

A NEW POINT OF VIEW -- YOUR READER'S

Most people begin their writing assignments by asking "What do I want to say?" That question leads naturally to other questions like: "What am I most interested in?", "What did I work the hardest on?", "How can I impress people with the importance of my work?" and "How am I going to tell the story of what I did?"

How would your writing be different if you switched your point of view to that of your reader? What questions is he asking as he picks up your report or paper? First of all, he's probably asking, "Why should I read this?" Then he might ask, "What have you done that I can use in my work or that's going to save me time, work or money?" After he finishes, he probably asks, "So what?"

Can you see how different your writing will turn out if you answer these questions, not the ones in the previous paragraph?

All through your paper, your reader is asking himself questions about everything you say. If you fail to answer those questions, you're going to have a frustrated and possibly angry reader on your hands.

By learning how to place yourself in your reader's position and to ask and respond to the questions he might ask, you will make his path through your paper smooth and free of obstacles, dead ends and time-consuming detours. You'll also stand a better chance of winning him over to your point of view.

Remember this Golden Rule of all Scientific and Technical Writing:

Write unto others as you would have them write unto you.


YOUR MISSION -- SHOULD YOU DECIDE TO ACCEPT IT...

As you go through the lessons in this course, you'll be learning new writing skills, and you'll be practicing them in the exercises. But to incorporate those skills into your daily writing habits, you will have to use them repeatedly in the contexts where you actually need them. Here's how to do that:

First, collect some samples of your own scientific or technical writing -- the kind your work requires you to do and the kind you want most to improve. Whenever you come to an exercise that asks you to apply what you have just learned to a sample of your own writing, take a different paragraph or two from your sample and make changes that incorporate what you have just learned.

From then on, add that particular skill to all the writing you have to do. Don't go on to the next lesson until you feel comfortable with everything you have learned up to that point. If you need to at any time, go back and review any material from previous lessons that you might not yet feel comfortable with.

Here are a couple of other things for you to do right now:

Accumulate and keep handy a collection of writings of others who express themselves with a clarity you particularly admire, especially in the kind of writing you have to do. Write down below a brief but precise description of exactly what appeals to you about their writing.

Could you incorporate any of it into your own writing? Before beginning your next writing assignment, read a few pages from your collection and focus on what you like about the writer's style. Try to imitate that style in your assignment. (Don't laugh -- this really works!)

Finally, you will need some real tools to do some of the exercises coming up. Get four different-colored highlighting pens (the nonpenetrating kind used for emphasizing reading material). The colors I recommend, and which seem to be readily available, are pink, yellow, green and blue.


SET SOME GOALS AND STICK TO THEM

Before we go on, I want you to think about a few things that will determine your success in using this course to change your writing habits.

First, write down here exactly the kind of writing you want to improve and what things about your writing you want to change. Be as detailed and specific as you can.

Next, write down how you will know when you get the changes you want; that is, what specific feedback from those you write to will tell you that your writing is being more effective?

Finally, write down how much time you are going to spend working on the lessons in this course. Also write down your timetable for finishing the course.

I wanted you to do that so you will be able to tell whether you're getting what you want from the work you put into the lessons in this course. If, as you go along, you feel overwhelmed or are losing sight of your goal, come back here and read over what you have written. Of course, feel free to change or modify you goal at any time, if you wish.


LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

You stand a better chance of mastering complex technical writing tasks if you approach them scientifically. That means breaking them down into elementary, well specified and manageable subtasks, defining specific and concrete procedures for performing each task, and getting feedback that tells you when you've done it right.

In the following lessons, we'll get down to the nuts and bolts of writing coherently. There are four lessons that help you decide WHAT TO SAY and nine to show you HOW TO SAY IT.


"If language is not used rightly, then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, then that which ought to be done is left undone. If it remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted. If morals and art are corrupted, justice will go awry. And if justice goes awry, the people will stand about in helpless confusion." -- Confucius

-- End of Lesson 4 --

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