Thursday, January 24, 2008

Three Ingredients to Good Writing

On Words

Three Ingredients to Good Writing


Jakarta – Writing hurts.

First of all, ideas are hard to cage elusive creatures. And then once we have been fortunate enough to secure a collection of thoughts to work with, we need to wrestle them into some sort of coherent order all the while deciding which to keep for further development and those of which we need to discard.

Understandably, many never get past this initial prewriting stage.

This does not need to be the case. The most talented, so-called natural writers schedule regular time to work at the craft. They know that writing is a skill that can be practiced and mastered the same as any other. They treat writing much the same as many of us approach golf, cooking, or any other hobby.

Indonesian residents often face the additional challenge of writing in a second or even a third or a fourth language. This hurdle brings with it its own set of unique difficulties since language is in a large part a manifestation of the thought patterns of native speakers.

Just as rules for eating differ from culture to culture, the rules for writing are different all around the world. When it comes to writing, being conversant in the grammar and the vocabulary of the target language is not enough just as when it comes to dinning it is not enough to bring your hungry Acehnese mother-in-law to Tony Roma’s. In order to write well, we need to understand how these speakers organize and communicate their thoughts and their language.

The three main ingredients that determine the organizational patterns of your written English are subject, purpose and audience. Increasing your understanding of these three elements will have you well on your way to becoming an effective writer.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to writing is not having anything to say, that is, not having a suitable subject. Good writing needs a subject that is neither too general nor too specific. Think about having your school or your workplace for a subject. Both are too large to grip. They must be narrowed down.

The whittling of the former subject may go something like this:

My School

Long Days

Many Classes

Limited Free Time

45 Minute Lunches

Not Enough Time for Lunch

“Not enough time for lunch” is a subject that most students are interested in and would like to explore further. A strong subject is something that you know or that you want to learn more about. Finding a hook to your interest is a large part of the writing process.

The purpose behind your writing is just as important as your subject. Simply put, you need to know why you are writing. Are you writing to entertain, to inform or to persuade? Most writing will have more than one purpose, such as attempting to entertain while at the same time trying to persuade or inform.

An activity that you can do to help build your awareness of purpose in writing is to skim through some newspapers and magazines to find articles that entertain, inform, and persuade. Also, you can look for some that have more than a single purpose.

The final ingredient we are exploring today, audience, strongly affects the first two. Whom you are writing to helps you decide upon your subject and your purpose.

All audiences read your writing with differing expectations. To best be understood and, more importantly, to not be misunderstood it is vital that you keep your audience in mind as you proceed through the writing the process. You probably have incorrectly read between the lines of an email or have had your own emails incorrectly read. As more of our daily communications become less face-to-face and more frequently written, this type of misreading will become more commonplace. By paying attention to your audience you can avoid this error.

A last exercise to tie your understanding of subject, purpose and audience together is to narrow a subject down from the broad ideas of either your school or your workplace. Once you have discovered a subject like “not enough lunch time” determine a purpose and an audience. Then write a paragraph that meets the demands of your subject, purpose and audience.

After you have written this paragraph, change the purpose and the audience while keeping the same subject and write a new paragraph. After you have your two paragraphs compare them and see how writing is controlled by these three ingredients.

If you play with these three basic steps until you are comfortable with them you are sure to make quick progress in your written communication.

Until next column happy writing,


This article was originally published Jan. 6, 2008 in The Jakarta Post.

1 comment:

Yuli Amalia Husnil said...

This column is absolutely what I need to improve my writing skill. I've been doing English writing for about 6 years. But it's all about my daily journal, not something for public. Now, I have started to write for public. I just realize now that 6 years of writing diary in English is not helping that much. There are audiences to consider. But then again, writing is still fun!