I’ve always loved language: reading, writing, editing, talking.
People who know me know that I love to talk.
But with isolation to stop the spread of COVID-19, I’m talking with fewer people.
I don’t know if it’s because I have unspent words or because I’ve had more time at home, but I’m really enjoying learning and thinking about language. Which I haven’t done since university.
It was novels that got me started.
The first was The Dictionary of Lost Words by Australian author Pip Williams. It’s about the power of words, family, love and loss, set on the backdrop of the Great War and the women’s suffrage movement.
The protagonist Esme’s father is part of the team compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary. From her spot under the sorting table, Esme sees which words are left to fall on the floor, which are thrown into the fire, and which are included in the tome. As she says, “all words are not equal”. Words continue to be the framework for the rest of her life.
The second novel was The Loudness of Unsaid Things, the debut from Hilde Hinton. While it also tells the story of a woman’s life shaped by the early loss of a parent, it is a very different book.
The world, and the language Hinton uses to create it, is harsher. By seven years old, narrator Susie has had her fill of character building. Despite the themes of mental illness, grief and loneliness, Susie is determined and funny: “Admitting defeat is like being able to laugh at yourself. A must.”
Hinton uses language to create dialogue I could hear and locations, including Melbourne and Sydney in the 1980s, I could feel. The novel is also about accepting things that go unsaid.
Through reading we pick up new words and see how authors can use grammar to great effect. Great writing can get us excited about language. We also see the world from different perspectives and learn lessons about life.
Recently I’ve tried to harness this excitement and apply it to my work. I’ve found some great educative resources about language, particularly about writing clearly and concisely.
I love that its first section is ‘User needs’, directing communicators to learn about the user and their needs, with a big focus on accessibility. It directs people to write in plain English. That means using common words and short, active sentences. It says to write to an Australian year 7 level, so between 12 to 14 years old.
The Victorian Government’s Writing plain English guide provides practical tips to achieve that reading. They include:
- Use the Hemingway Editor website
- Average sentence length of 20 words or less
- Less than 10% passive language
- Use common words (including words that are searched for in Google)
And my last recommendation for writing resources is The Elements of Style. Now in its fourth edition, this style manual has explained the basic principles of plain English to millions of readers.
The book’s mantra – make every word tell – is as important today as when Professor William Strunk Jr. self-published the first edition early last century. The book phrases the rules of grammar as direct orders (e.g. use the active voice, omit needless words). It concentrates on fixing the most common mistakes so make people’s writing clearer.
As E. B. White (a former student of Professor Strunk who went onto write Charlotte’s Web) says in his introduction for the 1979 edition:
All through The Elements of Style one finds evidence of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will* felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain the swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least throw a rope.
I’ve bookmarked links to both government guides on my computer and my edition of The Elements of Style is on my desk. I’m trying to apply the lessons to everything I write or edit for our clients and partners.
As professional communicators we write for other people. So, we need to make sure our writing is easy to understand for the widest audience. Only then can it get them ‘up on dry ground’ when they need it.
*As he called Professor Strunk