In this section, we will revisit some of the basics of writing.
The following video outlines the benefits of using short simple sentences, proper paragraphs, and correct punctuation to write clearly and better organize your writing.
(To read along click here.)
Simple writing begins with your sentences. Your essential building blocks are a clear, identifiable subject followed by a strong verb. Consider the following:
The measurement of our quarterly outcomes was undertaken by the task force.
This is written in the passive voice. It has an indirect subject (the measurement) and a weak verb (was). The passive voice forces the reader into indirect constructions and ambiguity (e.g. who did the measuring?).
Now look at this version:
The task force measured our quarterly outcomes.
This is written in the active voice. It has a direct subject (the task force) and a strong verb (measured). The active voice keeps the agent clear, for instance, “We discovered the error” rather than, “The error was discovered”.
Beginning sentences with old information, and ending them with new information helps the reader. They get to start with what they know and then move on to what they are about to discover.
If there is a particular sentence that just won’t come together, take a moment and read it out loud. That often helps to clarify it.
A good paragraph is organized and coherent. It starts with a topic sentence, makes clear transitions from one idea to another, has a consistent order of terms and ideas, and parallel construction. Parallel construction means maintaining a balance in the way ideas in a sentence or clause are expressed. For example, “She likes jogging and to read” is incorrect, whereas, “She likes jogging and reading” or “She likes to jog and to read” are both correct.
Once your topic sentence has made the topic clear, you have given the reader your lead idea. As long as the paragraph follows that lead idea, the reader should be able to clearly follow what you are trying to communicate. If what you are discussing is complex, it is especially important that you write a paragraph outline beforehand so that your ideas are logically connected.
It is important to use punctuation properly to convey the correct meaning and avoid run-on sentences.
Commas are important when it comes to separating ideas or clauses in a sentence. Joining two independent clauses with a comma is called a comma splice. Comma splices are more and more common in written English; however, they can still be a style error. (The comma splice version of that sentence would read: “Comma splices are more and more common in written English, however, they can still be a style error.”)
Semicolons are important when you have complex clauses with commas already in them. For example, “The flags are red, white, and blue; green, red, and white; and yellow and blue.” If you are making a list, the list comes after a colon, for instance: red, white, and blue.
Exclamation marks are useful to indicate emphasis, or even to lighten the tone of your writing, but don’t overuse them!
Question marks are used when asking a question that requires a response from another person. (Depending on the tone, rhetorical questions don’t always need to end with a question mark.)
Hyphens can help to make things clearer, if they are used correctly. Emailing your team and asking them to check all the green-labeled tubes (i.e. the tubes with green labels) is not the same as asking them to check all the green labeled tubes (i.e. the green tubes with labels on them).