Words at Work by Kathy McIntosh: Blend formal and casual writing to better reach your readers

Kathy McIntosh, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.April 30, 2013 

Kathy McIntosh

Whatever our craft or profession, it's important to read widely within it. I am dismayed when other mystery writers say they don't read in the genre, for fear they might copy an idea or plot. That doesn't cut it for me. I think to improve, we need to read about our craft and observe it done well.

I confess that when I read a particularly well-written book, I sometimes despair that I'll ever achieve that person's skill. But had I not read it, I'd have missed the opportunity to learn more about my craft and to enjoy excellent writing. I guess it's worth the risk.

I am reading a wonderful book on writing recommended by reader Bill Mattox. The book is "Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing" by John R. Trimble. Since I mentioned I'm in the midst of the book, I can promise more of Trimble's trenchant advice in future columns. I am so grateful for the recommendation. You can find a copy at the library.

When I speak about writing and words, I stress the importance of writers knowing their audience and writing for them. Trimble talks at several points about writing for readability. He suggests that writers respect readers and their time constraints. He contrasts formal writing, where contractions are forbidden and the language is elevated, with informal writing, where we simply toss our thoughts onto the page as if we were speaking, and suggests (and gives examples of) a style between those: General English.

He sees General English as a readable compromise between the two extremes. He concedes that there is indeed a place for a more formal style, but suggests that place is not so large as we might imagine. And although it may be necessary for some documents, formal style should never be used to impress or create "unnecessary pomp."

To achieve readability, he suggests writing like we're writing to a companionable friend, but taking the time to "frame your thoughts concisely and interestingly."

Trimble gives a rule of thumb I like: "Whenever you've written three longish sentences in a row, make your fourth a short one." He says there's nothing wrong with one word sentences or with contractions.

In an extended and - to word nerds like me - fascinating riff on using "that" in preference to "which" in most cases, he concludes that sometimes he uses "which" because it simply sounds better, or for variety when too many "thats" are lurking about. "So much of writing is finally intuitive, isn't it?" As an editor, I love that statement, even though it makes justifying my decisions more difficult.

Trimble makes, in one chapter alone, 26 suggestions for improving the readability of our writing. Among my favorites is his suggestion that the more abstract the argument, the more it should be laced with what he calls "word pictures - illustrations, analogies, vivid quotations, metaphors, similes." He contends that a word picture will aid understanding and memory. Makes sense to me.

In the book, Trimble uses to wonderful effect the General English style he praises. Here's an example, on the importance of clarity: "Just as no one enjoys looking at a view, however spectacular, through a mud-streaked window, no one enjoys listening to a symphony of words reduced to mere noise."

Trimble's book is a symphony.



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