WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE GET IT WRONG?
WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE GET IT WRONG?
Now I said earlier, writing well is easy and writing badly is hard work. So why do so many people seem to mess it up? Why do they get it wrong?
Firstly, we have lack of clear objectives. The reader needs to know, and remember our readers are often very busy - they may have competing demands on their attention - they need to know the objective of the writing, the purpose of the writing as quickly as possible. It needs to be clear and it needs to stand out.
In my experience, I often receive mails that are very indirect. They begin by saying, Dear Sir or Madam, our organization was founded in 2020 to uplift the well -being of street children in Bihar or I don't know, and they go on and on and on and on and I'm scrolling down thinking, why am I reading this? Maybe in the last paragraph, there may be an indirect request for aid or support or cooperation, often not very specific. The end result is, by the time I've reached the end of the document, I feel like my time's been wasted and I'm still not clear what the objective in the writing was.
And there's a big tendency for people working in development, especially when communicating with their donors, to put their objectives at the bottom of their writing, buried away at the bottom of a paragraph or the end of a document, because they feel there's this big power distance between them and their audience. And yes, there is a power distance in the sense that donors have money, but what else have they got? Not much.
Whereas what do you have? You have the ability to turn that money into social change, into results. So there is actually a balance here and you should not be embarrassed or shy to put your objectives clearly from the beginning, respecting the reader's time and attention rather than status.
We'll talk on that more when we look at organizing ideas in writing. But one thing that people get wrong is they don't make their objective clear.
Another problem I see very much in writing is too much information. They're not being concise. They're giving too much data, too much information, and that generally gives readers headaches.
They're not there to learn everything there is to learn about the topic. They want to know what is the action and why they should take it, whether it's supporting your project or following your recommendation.
I remember one time I had a client sent to me by DFID from the Kathmandu School of Law. He had a 100 -page proposal on sensitivity training for police, judiciary, media and so on, on children's rights, legal rights. And that was great.
It was a great project and it was a great proposal, but it was 100 pages. And the proposal began on page 51. The first 50 pages were the entire history of the Nepalese legal system. And I removed those 50 pages. I deleted them and the author did almost cry. He said, "It took me three months to write that section. " And I said, "Look, nobody's ever going to read it. That information is not relevant to this particular project that you're proposing."
So it takes us back to that point. It's easier to write well than to write badly. He didn't need to write those 50 pages history of the law in Nepal. So being concise matters. Concise in terms of the amount of information that we're expecting our reader to process.
It's not just too much information that's a problem. Sometimes it's too many words as well. The writing isn't clear. The sentences are too long, too many long words when short ones would be better. Using unnatural language and complex grammar eventually causes some kind of strain for the reader and makes it difficult for them to follow your ideas.
We discuss clarity in depth in the next module, but think about it. Have you ever read a paragraph and had to go back to the beginning of the paragraph because you'd forgotten what was there? Or, and this often happens, have you ever reached the end of a sentence and then realized you forgot the first part of the sentence? That's not your fault, by the way. That's the writer not being clear.
Long sentences, unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, using long words instead of short ones too frequently all add up to making our writing unclear or, as you can see in the picture, foggy. And I'll be teaching you the Fog Index later in this course so you can measure your own clarity of writing.
Now, when it comes to writing style, that's very, very subjective. Some people wear checked shirts. Some people will wear stripy shirts. Some people will wear no shirt. Style is all about how you dress yourself. And in language, style is about how you dress your ideas. So, of course, just while there are certain clothes that are suitable for a formal dinner party and there may be certain language that's suitable for a proposal and suitable for an email, at the same time, our style is still personal. It's still our choice. There's still quite some flexibility.
A good style needs to be interesting, personal and persuasive and not put you to sleep. The only way to really test if your style is good is to show your writing to somebody else. And if they want to read the second page, that's great. But if you find yourself reading something and you're starting to get distracted, it's not keeping your interest. That's a sign of poor style. As I say, it's subjective, but we will give some tips on style quite a bit later in this course.
Be careful with the language that you use, too. Try not to use obscure words, words that are out of date or idioms. When I say obscure words, if you have to look it up in a dictionary, if you have to look it up, heaven forbid, in a thesaurus, you're going to create problems. Because if you have to look it up, so may your reader.
I remember one time training project proposal writing and one team, they presented their concept paper and in the very first sentence was a word I had never, ever seen before. I didn't know what it meant. And when I asked them, they said, we forgot, but we looked it up in the thesaurus.
We're not trying to impress our reader with our vocabulary or our language skill. We're impressing them with our ideas, our recommendations, our concepts.
Same goes for idioms. Idioms we only use jokingly in English. We never use them. They always sound strange in writing. So when you're going to say something is easy, don't say it's a piece of cake. Only say piece of cake if it's a piece of cake. I'm talking about real cake here.
Tentative language too. That can be a big weakness in terms of style. You're the expert. You're the authority. You've done the research. You know the stakeholders. You've gathered the information. Don't ruin it by saying it might be a good idea if we were to blah, blah, or could it could be caused by or perhaps or possibly. Tentative language shows a lack of confidence. Please don't shoot yourself in the foot, as it were, and use tentative language when you're making recommendations or talking about the causes of a particular problem or proposing a particular solution.
And another concept I want to share for you is the ladder of abstraction, the ladder of abstraction. At the top we have concepts, abstract ideas, for example, agricultural inputs. What are they? Agricultural inputs. If you close your eyes, can you see an agricultural input? It's not very tangible when we really want to say seeds and tools.
What about educational human resources? What do we mean here? Educational human resources. Ah, teachers. Health facilities, or, coming down the ladder, hospitals and clinics.
What about sources of livelihood? Do you ever actually say that when you're talking to somebody? Hello, what's your source of livelihood? No, we say what do you do or what's your job?
A tip I'd like to give you is actually to never, ever write something that you would not ordinarily say. That's a very, very good rule to live by. Not to live by, I'm sorry, a very good rule to write by.
So at the top of the ladder, we have abstract ideas. At the bottom, we have practical, real, visual things. At the top, we have nutrition. At the bottom, we have noodles and bread and cheese and vegetables.
Okay, so top is concept, bottom is object. And good writers will jump up and down the ladder and alternate between one and the other. But if you're always at the top, if you're always talking about abstract things - "the lack of agricultural inputs have had a negative impact on sources of livelihood for the community" - it's so abstract, the reader has a hard time following.
Whereas if we can express it using more concrete terms, or combine the two, then we can keep our reader connected. So "the lack of agricultural inputs such as insufficient seeds and tools have affected sources of livelihood, leading to fewer jobs for the community." Here we combine them, the top and the bottom. But as a general rule, avoid the top, except when you're generalizing and try and be specific and talk about real things.
Finally, poor spelling, grammar and punctuation. Why is this a problem? Why can't people check their spelling? Ah, they do, but they use a spell checker. A spell checker will not find every error. And I think you know that.
And you do not want your errors to be on your proposals or, as has happened to me, in 20 feet letters on a PowerPoint presentation before you notice. I recall one time going into UNICEF HR to discuss something. And the HR manager should not have done this. But he said, look at this, he was laughing. There was a proposal from a very prestigious British training institute. A training proposal, however, on the front in 48 point letters were the words "cleaning proposal". How did they miss that?
We will discuss editing later and how you can avoid that. But if you write clearly, if you write simply, you're very unlikely to make so many errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. But if you make these errors, it makes you look careless and we do not want that.