Writing by instinct

Today was my first day back in the office after a week off (well, a week away. As much as I enjoyed looking after my son, it was certainly no holiday). So naturally I spent the first hour or so trawling through my unread emails.

It was pretty much as I expected—reminders about tasks I haven’t finished with, messages from clients I wish I had finished with, that sort of thing. But there was one that caught my eye.

A colleague in our head office asked if I was interested in running a session on how to write technical news items for the rest of the organisation. We have a policy that anything technical that goes out has to be approved (and usually edited) by me, and she thought it would be worthwhile me showing her staff how to structure them.

Her list of suggestions were pretty much what I thought should be included—putting the most important information first, cutting out the jargon (we seem to have an acronym for pretty much everything), when to use a bulleted list, and so on.

But then she dropped what may be the deal-breaker: a lot of them come from a non-English speaking background, and so I might have to go into much greater depth.

I’m still trying to pin down what she means by that. What I’m hoping she doesn’t mean is grammar and naming the parts of a sentence.

Because I couldn’t teach that if my life depended on it.

I never studied grammar at school. So while I could probably describe what nouns, verbs and adjectives are, that’s probably about it. If anyone asked me what a gerund is I’d probably say, “Um, an errand that Gerald has to do?”

A while ago I decided to teach myself grammar, and bought myself a copy of “Teach yourself grammar and style in 24 hours”. Unfortunately by about hour seven I was so confused I gave up. As much as I wanted to learn the rules, they just wouldn’t sink in.

Gary Provost, in his book “Make your words work”, talks about how you know a sentence is wrong because you’re seen it right so many times. And I think that’s how I’ve learned a lot of what I know about writing: by reading a lot of stuff written by people who know what they’re doing. I can tell you a piece of writing is wrong. I can even fix it. But don’t ask me why it’s wrong, because I probably couldn’t tell you. It’s just an instinct.

(Terry Pratchett once talked about how someone he went to school with could see the answer to a mathematical equation the way we can see colours. In the end he failed maths because he couldn’t show how he came up with the answer.)

I’m happy to teach them about structure, tailoring it for the reader and so on (though I’ll probably write the information up as a series of articles so other people can learn as well). But if they want me to teach them the nuts and bolts of writing as well, then I’ll have to pass the baton. They need someone who can teach them not only how a sentence can be right or wrong, but why it’s right or wrong.

And then they need to send me their notes, because there’s still a chance it might sink in.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Rob Frost February 24, 2010, 9:48 am

    Hi Bill,

    Check out ‘The Little Red Book of Writing’ and the ‘Little Green Book of Grammar’, both by Mark Tredinnick.

    Extremely easy to read, and useful resources for quickly referencing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the English language.

    Enjoy your blog.



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