By Guest Writer and Outdoor Enthusiast Roger Dawkins
There’s a guy that I occasionally bump into in the street who finishes every sentence by saying, “…you know what I mean?” It drives me crazy. I find myself thinking, “No, I don’t know what you mean and asking me if I know what you mean doesn’t help me understand any faster.”
I’m quite sure that I’m especially sensitive to this guy’s lame attempts to clarify what he’s saying because I went through a period way back, in another life, when my supervisor/mentor/nemesis used to scrawl the following on my work: “I have no idea what you mean.” Ever since, communicating information transparently and economically has become an interest of mine. I wouldn’t say it’s a “hobby” for the same reason you wouldn’t say spear fishing was a hobby for Robinson Crusoe – it’s been more about survival, really.
Back to the guy that I bump into on the street; he makes me realize (again) the importance of clear communication. As part of Gear Patrol’s Be a Better Man in 30 Days series, I’m going share some ideas I’ve been trying to implement towards improving my own communicating and writing. I’m still no expert, so this is more like a checklist for me than it is a prescription for you. As always, if you have any tips of your own, feel free to add them in the comments section.
Find my thoughts after the jump.
Take Charge Like Arnold
Has anyone seen that French gangster movie, Le Samurai by Melville? It’s weird, because the hero in the flick doesn’t really do anything. He smokes, he sits, he sighs; then he smokes, sits, sighs some more. Compare that to Arnold in Terminator, and you’ve got two completely different heroes; the first drifts and (I guess) is poetic and ambiguous, while the second grabs a gun and blasts the bad guys to kingdom come. The Governator indecisive? No way!
If you want to write poetry, then Melville’s movie would be good inspiration, but if you want to write clear, transparent English that everyone understands, then look to Arnold. Clear writing needs well defined actors and actions—just like a Hollywood movie; I mean, when you’re writing make sure your subjects are clear and what they’re doing is obvious. You might not win any awards writing like this, but at least you won’t be saying “…you know what I mean” every five minutes.
Put up Some Signposts
Imagine a middle ground between your “what the f#@& is happening” reaction you had to David Lynch’s sprawling narrative in Mulholland Drive and your “I’ve seen this all before” attitude to Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code. You want the effect of your writing to be rooted exactly in that middle ground. You want to create some excitement by what you’re saying, certainly you want people to wonder what’s going to happen next, but you don’t want it to be too obvious or tedious.
What you need are appropriate signposts. You need to help your reader along every now and then by recapping what you’ve said and where you’re going. The skill is in doing it so your readers get the benefits without really noticing. For some tips, look out for how great authors (fiction and non-fiction alike) signpost. Pay attention to crappy movies, too, because there are often moments of really bad signposting—like when a character fills in the blanks in the plot with shonky expository dialogue.
I’m a slow learner, which is another reason I’m writing this post. I’m hoping to correct some of my bad habits, too.
One of my biggest faults is the fact that I don’t take enough of a breather after writing something. That’s especially my problem when it comes to emails. Dear oh dear, if only I could go back in time and wait till I had a clearer head so that I could rephrase some of those emails that ended up coming across a bit snarky. Sure, I probably was snarky at the time, but if only I had taken a breather I’m sure I could have expressed my snarkiness more maturely and achieved better end-results.
The long and the short of it is this: write, pause, and rewrite. It’s amazing how much better and clearer (and less snarky) your writing can be after a bit of a breather.
Mind Your Tone
Tone is a hard one to get a grip on, and I’m no master. In fact, I’m pretty terrible at using tone in language. I’m the guy in the cafe who is so over-the-top-polite about asking why my eggs are thirty minutes late that may waiter doesn’t end up really caring. I’m not saying I’m some sort of super nice guy either, just that I’m a big scaredy cat. I’m also the guy who couches his instructions to colleagues in such gentle language that nothing actually gets done. Still, I am aware of how important tone is and how the right or wrong tone can make or break the point you’re trying to get across.
So here’s my advice: when you’re writing something—whether it be an email, a report, or a blog post or whatever—be aware of how you can use tone, but don’t be a slave to it. I mean, think about how using soft, instructive words like could, should, maybe, and perhaps might be gentler, less aggressive ways of getting your point across—you might even like to slow things down to the same effect with a few more commas and a well-placed “however” or two—but don’t allow this language to cloud the end result you’re trying to achieve. Be polite and considerate with your tone, but don’t be ambiguous and afraid to ask for something either.
Get Your Bits in the Right Place
My last point is an obvious one, really. If you want to make a good impression, check your spelling. It takes but a jiffy. And a couple of other things (maybe not so obvious), are to get your capital letters right and to work out how to use quotation marks and apostrophes. Have you seen The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quote Marks? Enough said.
Writing is hard, and I’m the first to admit it. Even a simple email gone awry can end up sounding your death knell. It’s hard, but like I used to always tell my students, a little bit of effort can make a whole lot of difference. I know, it’s ironic to end a post about “good writing” with a cliché but, heck, it’s a cliché for a reason.