We all have been there: sitting in front of an open…and absolutely blank… page. What are we afraid of when we start writing a new text? Why is it so hard for us to start? I think we are scared not to be able to communicate our message effectively. We take the effort to express what’s inside our mind, but will it be the same what we wanted to say from the beginning? Will people relate to that? Will we get the result we want: a sale, a connection, whatever?
If you are not a native speaker and not proficient in English yet, this fear grows to terror.
One of the solutions to this is minimising the risks through developing effective tools. And I am not talking here about the software you use, but about your language instruments. If you know how to structure your message properly and are trained enough to write clearly and concisely, you will have more time on thinking over your idea in depth and express it the best way possible.
So, how to make your writing effective?
So, how to achieve that if you’re still learning English?
In this guide, I will give you recipes on how to:
– make up good sentences;
– structure your passages;
– increase your reputation through accurate use of punctuation;
– make your message well-directed though good use of style.
Part 1. Know your structures
English is such a precise language. Your sentence structure is everything; the word order is your Bible.
First, you need to make that structure your second nature; then, you will learn how to use it in your stylistic favour (we like this principle: you need to know all the rules perfectly to be able to break them).
Structure your sentences in a logical way. I know it’s terribly difficult to do for native speakers of Slavic languages, for example (speaking both Russian and Polish, believe me, I know), with our free word order when we just add ideas to the sentence in the process.
It will never work for English. English has a fixed word order, and the most effective way to structure your sentences is this:
Who? (we call it ‘Subject’)
Does what? (‘Verb’ + ‘Direct Object’)
To what / to whom? (‘Indirect object’)
The outline of structure:
Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Indirect Object + Place + Time + Manner + Reason
Example: I (who?) am writing (does?) this article (what?) for you (to whom?) in my room (where?) during the night (when?) because I am busy with other work during the day (why?).
As you see from my example, I skipped the object of Manner, and it is possible. Subject + Verb are essential. Other parts are supplementary.
Tthe main problems you can face with this are:
1) Be careful about non-personal sentences, like It’s warm outside. In translation to your own language (Russian, for example, На улице тепло), the subject could be missing, or even both the verb or the subject, and the place will be opening the sentence. It is impossible in English.
If you don’t have an active subject in your sentence, use some ‘dummy’ ones (like it, there, one, you or they).
If there is no action, you will need to use a suitable form of the verb ‘to be‘.
Incorrect: Is important to discuss it today. Correct: It is important to discuss it today.
Incorrect: That something we have to talk about. Correct: That is something we have to talk about.
Any sentence you write (until you’re absolutely fluent and can break the rules) should always have Subject + Verb. This is an unbreakable rule for English learner.
2) You cannot change the place of essential parts of the sentence. You can’t use Verb before Subject. No way. You could see some examples of that in old prose but it sounds unnatural in everyday speech.
3) Don’t put supplementary parts of the sentence between Subject and Verb. Only Object of Manner can be used between them in some cases, but that’s all.
Incorrect: I every day wake up early. Correct: I wake up early every day.
Incorrect: I there lived for a long time. Correct: I lived there for a long time.
4) Don’t mix up the order of supplementary parts.
For example, you can’t use Object of Time before Object of Place.
Incorrect: We spoke last year at the conference. Correct: We spoke at the conference last year.
If you want to go deeper into your structures, I recommend paying attention to adverbs because they are tricky, and there are quite a few stylistic issues you need to know if you have to write in English. If you are an Advanced English learner, you could also greatly benefit from learning about emphatic inversion structures and cleft sentences.
Part 2. Make effective passages
People rarely read long texts carefully these days, they mostly scan, and your main task is to grasp their attention. For this, you need to be so strong in your idea organisation. Here, how you make them read further.
Your first sentence is what matters the most. Start strong. Formulate your idea in the first sentence. It’s your key sentence, and the chances are people will only have a look at it when scanning. So, don’t make long introductions, don’t create the context for the idea – start with the idea! You will illustrate it with examples or context in the next sentences in your passages. Many people do it the other way around, and it is not correct. They start too long, get lost in the context, and people just don’t read this.
Only use one passage for one idea. If you move on to the next thought, start a new passage.
So, the success formula for your passages is:
Key sentence 1 (purpose of your writing or the thought you want to share or you offer or question) + examples and illustrations
Key sentence 2 + examples and illustrations
and so on
Part 3. Be accurate
Of course, you have spent some time on grammar, and you know basic structures to be able to write. So, what are the grammar stumbling rocks for our professional writing?
Statistically, most of the people remember about grammar, but they often are weak on punctuation. Somehow, it slips our attention in classes, and when time comes to real practice, we just realise we have no idea how to punctuate. About 80% of all my students with the level Intermediate and higher admit they have no idea how to put commas in their sentence. But it MATTERS!
Even if we forget about grammar nazis, punctuation mistakes can change our message completely. Let’s skip that famous “Let’s eat Grandma” (though it’s really funny). This is the example from my proofreading today:
“Besides English people can practise French, Spanish, Polish and other languages there.”
So, is it:
“Besides, English people can practise French, Spanish, Polish and other languages there.” (only English people?)
“Besides English, people can practise French, Spanish, Polish and other languages there.” (other languages, not only English?)
I knew the context but, if I didn’t, it would have taken me a while to figure out what was being said. And I am not sure, I would have succeeded.
So, yes, punctuation does matter. And here is the principle:
Commas in English have a separating role, not subordinating (connecting) one (differently from Russian, for example). So, it is used for elements which are additional to the meaning of a sentence or if the standard word order in the sentence is broken (yes, that word order from the part 1 of my article).
So, we don’t use commas before defining clauses which make clarifications and are an integral part of our sentence:
Incorrect: Send me the results, we talked about yesterday. (If I divide: Send me the results. We talked about yesterday. Which results? The second part is important for understanding what you mean)
Correct: Send me the results we talked about yesterday. (Now it’s clear which results, and I can’t separate these two sentences into two independent ones, so I don’t use a comma here).
Commas separate some additional parts which can easily be removed from the main sentence without change in the main message.
Part 4. Know your style for more effective writing
My business clients care about style a lot. In English, it is really important to adapt your message whether you send it to an unknown person (hopefully, a potential client) or your best buddy from school times.
People will never know if you were just rude or (what’s worse) ignorant when receiving an email which is vulgar or inappropriate. They will not take any time to figure out, believe me. They will choose your competitor if their style is closer to the communication style they expected.
So, be flexible. IT-sphere is more relaxed in the style of communication than lawyers’ circle, for example. So, be sure you know the stylistic preferences on the other side.
How to adapt your style? Here are the main points:
1) Passives are formal. They are only accepted in written, non-personal speech. If you want to establish a personal connection with your reader, avoid passive voice. If you are creating a very formal technical specification or a set of rules, use passives – they will make you look more distant and official.
2) Formal style is all about using longer words, complex sentences, and text linkers. Don’t use ‘converse’ when you can just say ‘talk’ if you are writing to your peers. Here is a sample table of formal and informal vocabulary equivalents.
|to consider||to think about|
|to obtain||to get|
|to reside||to live|
|to implement||to do|
|to demonstrate||to show|
|To start with,||Firstly,|
|to function||to work|
|Thus / Consequently,||So,|
|It will cease to be a problem||It won’t be a problem anymore|
|to consume||to use|
|I regret to inform you||I am sorry to tell you|
Shorter sentences will help your text to ‘breathe’: they are really more speaking style. It’s great for semi-formal or informal emails, blog posts, personal opinions statement. But if you are writing an article or a formal email, too short sentences and lack of complex structure will be seen like ‘childish’, simplified writing and will not create you a positive reputation.
3) Informal stylistic elements:
- phrasal verbs (e.g. ‘to make out’ instead of ‘to understand’);
- contractions (e.g. ‘can’t’ instead of ‘cannot’);
- shortened, pronunciational forms (e.g. ‘gonna’, ‘wanna’)
Formal stylistic elements:
- text organisers (e.g. ‘moreover’, ‘therefore’);
- complex sentences;
- use of passive structures;
- vocabulary of Latin or Greek origin (usually, these words are longer and they exist in other European languages. For example, if you know a word ‘discutir’ in Spanish or “дискутировать” in Russian, ‘discuss’ is highly likely to be of Latin origin (which it IS), and it is a more formal equivalent of ‘talk about’.
Do more research into formal and informal styles if you have to switch your styles in your writing. If you work more or less in non-varying environment, point out and use stylistic markers appropriate for your circle.
Developing confidence in writing in your non-native language requires practice and some work. Much work. Well, I don’t like ‘much’, I prefer ‘well-directed’. Your work will only pay off if you have a clear goal in mind and are clever about your focus. Don’t learn 10000 words or all the grammar reference by heart. Any language resources are just valuable instruments whereas your main tasks are to find your own voice and practise like crazy.
If you want to be sure in the core of your writing, pay attention to your word order (it is not flexible in English), structure your passages properly (the key sentence states your idea at the beginning of your passage), start a new passage for a new idea, mind your punctuation to be accurate and clear, and always check if you are writing if the style appropriate for your reader.
And write, write, and write. Until your idea is totally clear to you. Then, it will be clear to your audience.