When I came to Kenya in the late seventies I was struck by how very differently people here wrote from the way I had been used to in the UK. It was as though I had journeyed back in time to the Edwardian or even Victorian eras of stiffness and formality.
As I wondered why the way I had been brought up to write was so much more relaxed, I same across how “Commercial English” was taught in schools and colleges.
Just as at occasions where formal speeches are delivered, everything was (and to a large extent still is) about being “proper” and observing “protocol”. Never mind among lawyers in court, with their horse-hair wigs and their white bands instead of ties.
No wonder bolder speech-givers, not wishing to waste time, now open with the “All protocols observed” short cut… except that too many still only do so after already having recognised a long list of dignitaries present. (At my cheekiest I have taken this further by launching speeches with “No protocols observed”.)
The formalised writing style is perhaps at its most stultified in minute-writing, as those taking them too often prize convoluted elegance over meaningful, punchy reports.
I experienced a classic case of such “proper” minutes following a recent council committee meeting of a state body of which I have been a council member.
The minutes were presented at the full council that followed, with all the statutory requirements fulfilled but with nothing of the robust brainstorming that had dominated the proceedings included: all that was important had been ignored, leaving only empty expressions of compliance.
In a session on effective written communication I ran a few weeks ago at the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications I asked the participants how alive their writing was. “How different is the way you write from the way you talk?” I posed, and not surprisingly the reactions were overwhelmingly that their writing was indeed very different, requiring so much more effort.
I then introduced my central message, urging them to write much more like how they talked, to think about dictating what they would otherwise have said: to write conversationally, as though it were a transcript. And for this to happen it was essential that they unlearned what they had been taught in school and college about what was “proper” English.
Here I quoted novelist Elmore Leonard, who claimed: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” And a further thought came from another novelist, Ray Bradbury: “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” Tell a story, I suggested in my last column, which means have your narrative flow, with a good beginning, middle and end.
Next I turned to my experience as an editor, where (particularly for those with “at least a Master’s degree”) I help them simplify their language, using short words in short sentences in short paragraphs. Another quote helped me on my way, from Churchill: “Short words are best.”
I couldn’t have put it more clearly! I talked about using verbs more interesting than “have” and “get”, about keeping to the active rather than passive forms, and I encouraged them to occasionally pose questions that they then answer. Oh, and to sort out the difference between colons and semi-colons.
Not just here, too many people merely aim for adequacy in their writing – more so in this age of texting and tweeting. It’s just to get the basics of a message across, with no thought of quality.
Others, though, feel disrespected if they receive scruffy writing that hasn’t been Spellchecked or proof-read. So as we rush out our texts, whether on our laptops or our phones, it pays to pause and read through what you have written – and not just once. I don’t know about you, but I am frequently surprised by some typo or other issue that had escaped by notice till that extra perusal.
My concluding advice for those at my session was to “Write, write write; keep getting better; and be proud of what you have created.”
Greek philosopher Epictetus put it well: “If you want to be a writer, write.”