Writing: Help for bad bloggers
I am experiencing the bad writing blues. They appear when I read too many poorly written pieces in a short period of time. Within the last 48 hours I've read several sad excuses for blog entries and tortured myself with the worst written of the magazines for Macintosh users, MacHome. Though, as some of you know, I have written for Mac periodicals and sites in the past, I try to avoid MacHome, because, despite changes in ownership and staff, it is consistently inferior in regard to both writing and content. Still, I pick up an issue from time to time lest I let something slip by me on the Mac beat. Pick it up only to throw it across the room in frustration numerous times while trying to read it.
But, the bad blogger problem comes first. Let's examine an example of poor blog writing and consider what can be done to improve it.
Degrees of Separatism (Dammit I'm Hungry)
My company has relocated to a new, more modern and highly secure building. Every morning I run, literally, down to the cafeteria for breakfast. We have been warned: not to eat at our desk, not to have drinks at our desk, any food must be consumed in the cafeteria. We are urged to sit in the front of the cafe, not to fraternize (read: bother) anyone from other departments and any food left from the meal must be disposed of before returning to the floor. Anyone caught with food at their desk will be reprimanded. For food?
The building we just left, I agree was nasty, but they had been in that building upwards of 8 years of course it was going to be nasty, especially when you only have 1 person cleaning in behind 500.
I understand their train of thought: Keep this new building new. But is treating adults like children really going to accomplish this?
You can see people at their desk choking on crumbs when management walks by. Nabs are hidden in the far crevices of desk drawers. Should people really fear losing their job if they spill water? (And yes it really is that serious)
The saddest part is the walk to the cafeteria. You have to take the elevator down to the Plaza and then walk through the hub, 1/4 mile, to get to the cafe. The hub is basically the stock hall. Everything that doesn't work or has no more use is stored there(Cletus are you trying to tell me something?). The hub is straight out of a major motion thriller. It leaks. Its dark. You can hear unidentified movements lurking behind unaccessible doors. Did I mention my department is the only section that has to use the hub? To take the conspiracy theory even further, our access to floors and doors that would be quicker en route to the cafe are off limits.
The major issue is that, none of the other departments are under such stringent guidelines. And it is causing quite the issue in the office. We feel like we are the step children of the company. Whenever we attempt to address our discourse it is simply implied "Be glad you have a job!" Is that truly the right response? What about work morale? They are doing nothing to improve it but they continue to expect outstanding results.
It's like High School all over again. Managers patrol the floor looking for any sign of edible contraband. That lets me know that my job has to be expendible if this is all you have to do all day!
Whats even worse than us being the children under the stairs is the cleaning people in the building are treated even worse. They sit on the far side of the cafeteria in nothing less then a corner, where they are instructed to sit. They sit by themselves, too themselves. If we make eye contact (as is the Southern way) they speak then proceed on their way with heads down. Why aren't we able to mingle amongst one another? What separates management from us and us from them besides title and responsibility? And the most important question: would I have noticed had I not been in the same position as them?
Likely, the first problem you've noticed is a tendency toward run-on sentences. The best way to remedy the habit is to remember that a sentence can be defined as a complete thought. If you are communicating more than one complete thought, you probably need more than one sentence. Caveat: Good writers can use long sentences effectively. But someone writing at a level this low should not try to.
We have been warned: not to eat at our desk, not to have drinks at our desk, any food must be consumed in the cafeteria. We are urged to sit in the front of the cafe, not to fraternize (read: bother) anyone from other departments and any food left from the meal must be disposed of before returning to the floor. Anyone caught with food at their desk will be reprimanded. For food?
The passage above is easily rewritten to fix the problem:
We have been warned not to eat at our desk and not to have drinks at our desk. Any food must be consumed in the cafeteria. We are urged to sit in the front of the cafe and not to fraternize (read: bother) anyone from other departments. Any food left from the meal must be disposed of before returning to the floor. Anyone caught with food at their desk will be reprimanded. For food?
Better, you say. But, there's still a problem with subject-verb disagreement. Let's repair it, too.
We have been warned not to eat at our desks and not to have drinks at our desks. Any food must be consumed in the cafeteria. We are urged to sit in the front of the cafe and not to fraternize (read: bother) anyone from other departments. Any food left from the meal must be disposed of before returning to the floor. Anyone caught with food at his desk will be reprimanded. For food?
I also think the parentheses interrupt the flow of the middle sentence. Away they go:
We are urged to sit in the front of the cafe and not to fraternize with, i.e., bother, anyone from other departments.
You will notice I corrected the use of fraternize by adding the preposition 'with.' A verb, 'having,' should also be added to the last sentence for clarity. There are other grammar and usage problems throughout the entry. Here are some rules to follow to prevent them:
Numbers under 10 should be spelled out.
Only proper nouns should be capitalized.
Contractions require commas.
Make sure a word is a word before you use it.
And let's not forget the important matter of spelling. If you are not naturally an excellent speller, it is a good idea to keep a pocket dictionary next to your computer. You can check the correctness of a word in a snap. Just as easy is using an online spellchecker, particularly if you have a broadband connection. There is one built into Jaguar's version of Sherlock on the Mac. Just type in the word and, voila!, its spelling, meaning and synonyms will appear. Alternatively, you can add Dictionary.com or a similar site to your bookmarks.
Some readers will ask: But does it matter? Yes, it does. The way information is presented can influence how people interpret the issues it addresses. In the entry above, the topic, which it is not presented as clearly as it should be, seeks the reader's sympathy. It is the creation of a demoralizing work environment that also mirrors class, and, possibly, race divisions. A reader not particularly sympathetic to the writer's perspective would probably use the entry as evidence against better treatment of the workers, viewing the many mistakes as proof of the incompetence of one of them. Obviously, that is not the writer's goal.
Here are some more suggestions for poor writers:
Your problem started when you were in elementary school. You may need to revisit that level of writing. Many semiliterate adults improve their skills by reading books written for children. They learn what they missed the second time around. This can be done cheaply. Check out books, starting out at the third or fourth grade level, from the public library.
Once you have progressed to at least a high school reading level, study texts designed to teach people to write effectively. An old favorite of mine is The Holt Handbook. Do not skip doing the exercises. They are an important part of the process. Back in the days when I did adjunct teaching of writing and journalism, I also found an earlier version of Writing and Thinking: A Handbook of Composition and Revision useful when working with college students in Philadelphia. (Many of them came from the city's horrid public schools and could barely read and write on the 9th grade level.) For reasons not clear to me, people who are poor readers and writers also often have abysmal skills when it comes to analytical thinking. So, the latter book serves two purposes. Other excellent resources are The Gregg Reference Manual and the tried and true Bible of writing, The Elements of Style.
There is also software available that can help you with your writing. Be sure to start off with the easiest level and move up gradually.
Read. Read. Read. Good writers are usually people who read quality material on a daily basis. They pick up writing skills by a sort of osmosis. That material can be anything from newspapers, to novels to well-written web entries, but you must read.
Note: This entry has gotten pretty long, so I will save what I have to say about MacHome for a later one. The magazine, which I will hold to a higher standard than I do bloggers, will not get off lightly.