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Seeing through the fog – write how you talk, part 3


Photo by ponanwi (CC on Flickr)

When you blog and people link to your site your blogging software lets you know. So you can go and check out what people are saying. You might not always like what you find of course….

A while back on this site I fired off a quick little piece about writing how you talk. It got picked up by StumbleUpon and brought in thousands of visitors. It is far-and-away the most popular article that’s appeared on this site.

However, from the start it has generated a lot of misunderstanding. (It must be the way I wrote it. The fault is all mine.)

One of the latest links to the site is from someone who appears to be rethinking their education based on what I wrote. This has alarmed me, to say the list.

I was going to link to the page but have decided not to, to respect their privacy. (Yes, I know that sounds daft when they published something on the web, but it’s not really on a blog. It seems to be more of a ‘keep track of your thoughts’ kind of site).But this is what the person says:

So, I’ve decided not to pursue a minor in English. I guess somewhere along the line, I lost my interest and I feel that it really isn’t my thing. I mean, I can speak it just fine, so people tell me, but I figure once I have the minor, I’ll not have a use for it. Well, I’m decided in not pursuing, so I won’t be taking advanced composition next semester or any other English class for that matter. Anyway, here’s a nice little article I found on the web. It’s really one of those ‘what you were taught in grade school was all wrong’ kinds of pieces, but I found it interesting. (Here they link back to my original article).

Let’s get something straight here. I’m not saying that you don’t need a formal education in order to be a good writer. I’m not saying that everything you learnt in school about writing is wrong. (It’s also not the English classes that are to blame. It’s the history essays, the French essays, the science reports).

Writers need knowledge

As a writer you need as much education as possible, be it formal or informal. You need to spend your whole life learning. And that’s true whether you plan to be a novelist or just blog a bit.

You also need to know as much as possible about how language works. You need to read the great writers.You need good grammar. Let’s really get this point agreed between us all, shall we? Bad grammar makes you sound like an idiot.

But the point of my original article is that people with a lot of education – such as college and university degrees, masters, PHDs, that sort of thing, can be heavily influenced by an academic style of writing which is far too formal.

This makes it very difficult for them to even start to put words down on paper. That overly-formal style makes them tongue-tied. And what they do write usually lacks clarity, so it’s difficult to read.I’ve found this to be true for people who are hugely successful in other areas of life. They find writing to be almost impossible for them, even though they have many things to say (because they are educated people who know lots of stuff).

They can talk intelligently and clearly. But their writing is stilted, convoluted, passive, old-fashioned or even pompous. Often they know it, and it drives them to despair.

But it is not inevitable. It is easily reversed with a bit of practice. And it certainly does not affect everyone who ever gets educated. It’s far better to get the education, and then acquire a conversational, fluid writing style.

We need to change education – not reject it

I’m not saying that education is the enemy of good writing. In fact, some of the world’s greatest writers are also some of the most highly educated people.

I’m not advocating that we reject education. On a grand scale, we need to reform it so that everyone in our education systems embraces the need to write and communicate clearly. On a personal level, we need to practice our own writing skills and make sure we don’t ape the worst of academia – where writing becomes an intimidating and impenetrable fog.

Writing clearly does not mean dumbing down. Writing clearly requires more intelligence, not less. It requires more knowledge, not less.Writing in an open, engaging, conversation style simply requires practice. If you then find that you have an education, you have knowledge and expertise, combined with the ability to communicate clearly – well, then you are really on to something. Because people who have knowledge, and the ability to communicate that knowledge to others, are priceless. I leave you with the words of John Brockman:

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider helping me promote it through whatever social media you use (Digg, Stumble Upon etc). Or link to it from your own blog. Or make a comment. Or tell people about it, in person or by email. Thanks for your help.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Patrick K. O'Brien March 16, 2010, 12:12 pm

    Misunderstood or not, an article that brings in thousands of visitors is something a lot of bloggers crave. Well done. I’d like to be guilty of making that mistake a bit more often myself. 😉

  • Simon March 16, 2010, 12:20 pm

    Thanks Pat: I’m not sure where all of those thousands of visitors have gone, however. It was a fleeting success.

  • Patrick K. O'Brien March 16, 2010, 1:04 pm

    That’s the problem with a lot of blog traffic, especially coming from StumbleUpon. So you need to build your own mailing list using something like Aweber. And you need to give away a free report to entice people to sign up to your mailing list. Perhaps a report on “How To Write Conversationally, Quickly and Easily, In Spite Of All Your Formal Education”?

    You already know what I would recommend for figuring out how to structure that kind of report for maximum effectiveness… 😉