Effective writing

There are many good books about effective writing. They are generally an enjoyable read, because they are written so well. I recommend Kirkman, H and Turk, C (1988) Effective Writing: Improving Scientific, Technical and Business Communication, 2nd ed, Taylor & Francis, London.

If you want to get a flavour of what it means to think about style when it comes to writing, have a look at George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, from 1946. Much of this still holds true, and there is plenty of excellent advice in there.

Effective writing is achieved through developing a style that makes your writing informative and interesting. I particularly like one of George Orwell’s suggestions that good writing should be about choosing the right words to fit the ideas, rather than stringing together a series of stock phrases. Too many writers string phrases together, often riddled with worn out clichés and inappropriate idioms. Writing should be about choosing words, rather than phrases.

I have developed some rules of thumb that may help with the task of putting your thoughts together. But these rules are not sacrosanct, merely suggestions:

  • The first thing, and an extremely common fault, is punctuation, especially apostrophes, commas, colons and full-stops. It seems that many people do not know how to use apostrophes. Basically, never use an apostrophe to make a plural. Always use one if the s is being added to indicate possession, e.g. cars, roads, 1960s, John’s sensitivity, the client’s requirements, several clients’ requirements. As you can see, if the possessive case is singular, the apostrophe is placed before the s, if it is plural, the apostrophe is placed at the end of the word. Commas should be used to separate elements and clauses in a sentence, or items in a list. They are not “breath marks”. Colons and semi-colons are often mixed up. The former introduces a list or an idea; the latter separates closely related independent clauses. Most people know how to use full-stops, they just don’t use enough of them. Short sentences are easier to compose and understand than long ones.
  • Long words are more difficult to understand than short ones. They may be more difficult to translate, too. Generally, never use a long word where a short one will do. For example, change utilize to use. Avoid fashionable terms and jargon, unless you can be specific about the meaning.
  • Sentence length should be variable. For example, this sentence and the next illustrate how some sentences can be quite long, preparing the reader for a point that is about to be made by setting out information that forms the context for the point. Others don’t. Thus, a two-word sentence can be used to great effect, if the preceding sentence has done the work. If in doubt, stick to one idea per sentence.
  • Sentences will be grouped into paragraphs, each of which represents a particular idea or step in the argument. Avoid single-sentence paragraphs. Such writing ignores the important distinction between sentences and paragraphs. If a paragraph should have a beginning, a middle and an end, it is extremely unlikely that all three functions can be fulfilled by one lonely sentence.
  • Similarly, a series of paragraphs is grouped together under a sub-sub-heading and so on, up to the main headings. Never use more than three levels of heading, sub-heading and sub-sub-heading otherwise you will confuse your reader.

Using these rules of thumb helps to make your writing understandable. Split the argument into headings, then each heading into sub-headings, then each sub-heading into sub-sub-headings, then you can write the sentences and the text will flow with ease. Finally, although I dislike the universal use of PowerPoint for making presentations, it is extremely useful for getting the initial structure of a paper sorted out into headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings.

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About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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One Response to Effective writing

  1. Georg says:

    This is actually a pretty good summary of basic rules of English writing. I’d add one more bullet regarding the use of “the” in singular and plural, which is something that I encounter frequently when working with (international) students.
    This brings me to my critical point: Being non-native in English myself (did I use too long sentences?) the native English research community should bear some tolerance to those from other languages. Having published quite a bit in German it is hard to overcome how different sentences are built in other languages. If I would write a German essay according to your sentence rules, I would be qualified as not being able to weave my thoughts into conjoined sentences. Short sentences are something elementary students use.(See, I can do short sentences)
    Though I do think that the English approach is actually better suited to bring complicated topics across, it will require tolerance and persistence from both sides to bring us to a unified communication level.
    Articles like the above are a great step in this direction and I will share it with my students.
    Keep on posting!

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