Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Three Fundamental Principles of Writing

I have read a lot about how to write well. It was only recently that I had the "ah ha" moment. Philip Yaffe hits the nail on the head on the three principles of writing. The earlier things which I read about writing are tips and techniques which tell you what and how to do. Fundamental principles should tell you why you need to do so.

Once we understand the "why", it will help us to understand the "what and how" portion and we will then apply them wholeheartedly.


Three Fundamental Principles of Writing

Below is an extract from Philip Yaffe, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal on writing. I could not agree with him more. He has also cast it into mathematical formulae to add strength and substance to the principles.

Principle 1: Clarity = Emphasize * De-emphasize * Eliminate

We will need to decide at the onset the points which are the most important and emphasize accordingly. This is not always easy. It is far simpler to say that everything is of key importance, so we put in everything we have. However, unless we do the work of defining what we really want our audience to know, the audience won't get our point. They will simply get lost in our verbiage and either give up or never realize what they were supposed to learn.

For those of secondary importance, we will need to de-emphasize them so that readers know what the key takeaways are. Details (information of secondary importance) explain and support the key ideas. They must never overwhelm them.

To enhance clarity, we will need to eliminate information that serves no purpose. Otherwise, they will obsure the key points and add to confusion.

Principle 2: Conciseness = Long * Short

This is an interesting principle - we should elaborate as long as we need to for the main points. However, we need to do in the shortest way possible. As short as possible means staying as close as you can to the minimum. Not because people prefer short text, in the abstract, the terms "long" and "short" have no meaning. The important point is: All words beyond the minimum tend to damage clarity. Subconsciously, readers will continually try to understand why those words are there, and will continually fail because they serve no purpose.

Principle 3: Density = Precise Information * Logically Linked

This is a less oft-encountered principle. Use precise information rather than wishy-washy weasel words will aid clarity. An example will be instead of a "hot" day, if we can mention the temperature, everyone will better understand the intensity of the heat. Using precise information also builds the audience's confidence in your knowledge of the subject.

Precise facts - data - are insufficient alone. To be meaningful, data must be organized to create "information". Apply thse two important tests when converting data into information:

Data Test One: Relevance - Is a particular piece of data really needed? Any information that fails to aid understanding or promote audience confidence should be rigorously eliminated.

Data Test Two: Misconceptions - The logical link between data must be made explicit to prevent the audience from coming to false conclusions. To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the two pieces of data as close to each other as possible, preferably right next to each other. When data are widely separated, their logical link is masked.

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