Friday, March 23, 2007

Damn their journalistic eyes!

Roughly six weeks until my book is published and The Independent has been running what I believe is known in the newspaper trade as a spoiler: a pre-emptive series of handy free pull-outs on how to be a better writer.

I'd love to be able to tell you that they are garbage. But it wouldn't be true; the pull-outs I've seen so far have been full of good stuff, very little of which I could actively disagree with. And, while I'm at it, I might as well admit that there are plenty of other places where anyone who wants to learn how to write better can turn for similarly sound advice and helpful hints. The Economist's online style guide is just one example:

But I'm undaunted by the presence of so many apparent competitors in my marketplace. Why? Because they don't work.

Well, maybe I'd better qualify that just a little. My observation would be that, despite the existence of a pretty wide consensus on what good writing looks like, and the ready availability of decent quality teaching resources based upon that consensus, most people continue to write badly.

I could write a book explaining why. (Hang on, maybe I have.) But, very briefly, my explanation for this puzzling phenomenon is that all the writing guides I've ever seen issue a multitude of hints, advice and sometimes stern commands on how you should write without ever really explaining why.
More specifically, they fail to understand that good writing isn't about what appears on the page or screen, but what happens inside the reader's head.

Without this understanding - that's to say, a basic grasp of how the relationship between reader and writer works - you'll find yourself trying to follow rules that don't really make any sense to you. (Why is jargon so bad? And what, actually, is jargon? How plain can Plain English be before it becomes Dull, Uninspiring English? What's so terrible about passive verbs?)

Think of it like assembling a really complicated piece of flat-pack furniture. No matter how clear the instructions, you'll struggle to follow them if you've no idea whether you're making a wardrobe or a table. Or, for that matter, what a wardrobe/table looks like.

To become a better writer, you need to change the way you think about writing. And that, I hope, is what my book can help you do. Though I have to admit the Independent has a better sports section.


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