Write Like a Boss: forget what you've learned in school

Write Like a Boss: forget what you've learned in school

In the second part of our Write like a Boss series, we look at what you learned about writing in school and why it’s rubbish

Get right to the point

Those of you who have been subjected to my rants about writing will know that I think there is a lot wrong with the way you learn to write in school. And here it is in a nutshell: They make you write to a word count. You view the word count as something to write up to. Actually the word count is a limit, but no one tells you that.

Writing up

When you have only a little real information, and you have a lot of space to fill, you get into the habit of “writing up”. So instead of saying something like “use an umbrella to stay dry if it rains” (nine words), you would be more inclined to write “in order to keep oneself moisture free, one should employ an umbrella during inclement weather” (15 words). But, as a reader, which one is easier? The first one is, obviously. Does the second one offer us one more piece of information? No! The only thing it does is to fill up space on your page, and make you use big words.

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Big words are not best

Another thing we learn at school is in order to get good marks we need to use big words, because big people use big words. Have you ever wondered why some people love US President Donald Trump so much? He never uses big words. He even invents his own words so that everyone can understand what he means. That is why he won “bigly”. Now, I would never suggest you invent your own words unless you’re doing some serious creative writing, but don’t use a big word when a small one will do. For instance, the word “utilise” means exactly the same as “use”. “Utilise” just takes up more space.

Long sentences are killers

In journalism, we are taught that the first sentence of a story is the most important. That is because journalism is about speed and simplicity. The first sentence should tell the reader what happened. (See Box 1 for an example.) But it is easy then to let that first sentence run away with you. You’re tempted to cram everything into that one sentence. So generally, for an adult newspaper, that first sentence is limited to between 25 and 30 words. At Young Post, we try to limit it to 20 words. Later on in the series I’ll tell you how to get that first sentence.

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Ability vs clarity

While in your exams you need to show you are able to write compound sentences and that you have an extensive vocabulary, when you are writing for clarity, you should keep your sentences as short as possible. This keeps you focused and minimises the chance of confusion.

Active vs passive voice

It would seem many schools and universities prefer students to use passive voice (see Box 2). I personally disagree with this approach. When you are writing certain kinds of essays for assignments, you might not want to include your personal view. Writing in the passive voice can kind of help prevent that. But it does nothing to help the marker understand your essay. And remember one of the first things I told you about writing? Know what you want. If you want marks, you want to make it as easy as possible for the marker to give them to you.

The word LIMIT

Remember I said that students tend to write UP to a word count. Rather, you should have so many ideas and so much knowledge that you should be throwing out words so that you can pack in more information. Before you start writing your 2,000-word essay, you should have enough information for 5,000 words. That way, your struggle shifts from trying to pad your work with rubbish, to choosing only the best facts that will go in to your essay.

1 Speed and accuracy

News is about speed and accuracy. People don’t read news the same way they read a book. They read it to get information and they read only what they find interesting.

So, let’s imagine that we’re going to announce that Britain entering the second world war in a news story. We would never start the story by saying: “London is a very busy city with millions of people in it. It is famed for its industry and businesses. Also, it is seen as one of the world’s great financial centres. Today the Prime Minister declared in London that Britain was at war with Germany. Wearing a dapper black suit and bow tie, Neville Chamberlain announced from the cabinet room that this country is at war with Germany.”

Rather we would say: “Britain is at war with Germany. The announcement was made today by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain from the cabinet room in Westminster.

2 Just to be clear

Active voice is where the subject is acting on the verb. “The cat sat on the mat.” This is an active sentence because the cat, the subject, is doing the sitting.

Passive voice is where the verb is acting on the subject. “The mat was sat on by the cat” is passive because the mat, which is the object of the sentence, is being acted on by the verb “sat”.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Make your writing count


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