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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Clear communication through writing

Why write?

Everyone needs to write something sometime. So much of our communication is written these days. Texting, Facebook, twitter, blogs, school assignments and job applications all require us to write. The first thing we need to realize is that writing is NOT the same as speaking. It's a separate skill that we need to learn and practice if we want to improve. I've adapted this blog post from a handout that I prepared for a writing presentation at a Relief Society activity in my ward. I believe that the internet is turning all of us into writers. The better we know how to communicate through writing, the more likely others are to understand our ideas properly when they read them. 


Grammar

For me, the point of grammar is to help readers understand the text on the first reading. Poor grammar when you write is like mumbling when you speak; it doesn't matter how good your ideas are if they are hidden behind incorrect grammar. 
Grammar involves a lot of things: knowing what order to put the words, where to put the punctuation, where to start a new paragraph and how long to make the sentences, for example. As a TA, I graded many papers. If I saw grammatical errors or typos, I tended to think that the students hadn't put very much thought into the assignment, or that they had neglected to read their paper before printing it out and turning it in. Improper grammar shows a lack of respect for your readers' time. If you take the time to make your ideas clear and easy to understand, you show that you really care about what you are writing and you make it easier for your readers to care, too. You can tell that writers know how to use good grammar when their writing doesn't get in the way of their ideas.

Outlining

This and the next section are the ones that most specifically apply to writing a paper. You probably won't outline a status update on Facebook or a short blog post. Something that's easy to read was at least somewhat difficult to write. No one writes a perfect paper on the first draft. Before you even write the first draft of a paper, it's helpful to sketch out your ideas and make an outline. You can outline your ideas by hand or on the computer. You may do a great deal of research before you begin to outline or you may outline then fill in with research. As you further develop your ideas, your outline can change if it needs to, but it's good to have a general idea of what you're going to write before you start.

Writing, Proofreading and Revising

After you outline, you can start writing. When you finish your first draft, go back over it and fix any obvious errors. For a longer piece of writing, it can be especially helpful to ask a friend to read your work and give you suggestions on how to improve. One of my friends from my freshman English class and I traded papers throughout our undergraduate studies. It was helpful to have him point out things that didn't make sense so that I could clarify what I meant to say. For shorter papers, two or three drafts might be fine, but for others you may need go through many drafts and revisions before you are satisfied with the result.
If I'm writing a school assignment, I will actually create several files: Outline, 1st Draft, Revision 1, Revision 2 and Final Draft, for example. This helps me keep track of the changes I'm making, and I can look back at previous drafts to figure out what I was trying to say. Your final draft should be as polished as you can possibly make it. This is one reason to start early when you have a writing assignment. It allows you enough time to do your best work. Even this blog post needed several revisions.

Proofreading other pieces of writing

When you finish school and write things besides papers, clear writing is still important. I dream of a world where human beings communicate calmly and politely, taking time to understand other points of view and expressing their own opinions without degrading others. Taking time to read our own writing before publishing it is a small step in the right direction. Some of the ideas I've mentioned here apply specifically to writing a paper, but the principals of grammar and proofreading are vital to anything we write, from fiction to Facebook updates.

Good resources

I am not affiliated in any way with the authors or publishers of the following books and sites. I have, however, found them useful in my attempts to improve my own writing.
Writing with Style by John Trimble. I used this book in my Junior English class at BYU. It is the most enjoyable grammar/style book I've ever read. If you apply the things it teaches, your writing will improve. The second edition is available used on Amazon.com for as little as $1 and is well worth it. The 3rd Edition would probably also be worth getting if you are really interested in this.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. A fun read about punctuation. Available on Amazon, and probably at the local bookstore.
grammar.yourdictionary.com is a good site with grammar basics. It has games that you can use to practice.
Owl.english.purdue.edu has great ideas about how to write. It's includes specific resources for research papers as well as basic writing tips.
sophia.org/paper-writing-outlines-tutorial is a quick guide to outlining. You can also google other ideas about outlines.