Thursday, June 22, 2006

Writing Style!

At most times, the problems in writing a good blog, article or essay are more rhetorical than grammatical. Most of us are aware of the grammatical structures (S+V+C, S+V+IO+DO) and familiar with the commonly used words and their spellings (Who said so?! I was generous in lending another 'm' to the word 'coming' (comming) until Nitya corrected me sometime back!!); Even otherwise, in case of grammatical mistakes, there are hard and fast rules that draw a thick line between what is correct and what is wrong. If one has good memory, grammatical mistakes should be hardly a problem. In general, a problem becomes complex only when you have multiple choices. That's exactly what one will encounter in deciding their writing style. As a writer one must determine what style would suit to express his thoughts with greater clarity and cogency. In doing so, he should take into account various other parameters as well. For instance, the style that suits a formal writing ( say, writing an essay) may not suit an informal writing (say writing a blog).

At a high level, the steps in determining the 'style of writing' may be broken into steps as

1) creating an appropriate voice for one's purpose,
2) choosing the right words for the subject and audience,
3) constructing elegant sentences whose rhythm reinforces their meaning,
4) presenting an argument in a logical fashion that is both engaging and easy to follow,
5) finding vivid images to make thoughts accessible to the readers.

As discussed earlier, all these steps have to be decided dynamically and cannot be generalized. One has to reconceive all these rules/steps before starting to write. Below are some of the common mistakes that one makes in writing a blog.

Voice - Active/passive:

In case of writing technical documents like specification or design, active voice is considered the most effective style. The guidelines for those documents suggest to use 'Active Voice' because passive voices are generally wordy and hence result in ambiguous statements. But it doesn't mean that we should always follow active voice in our writing.

There are a number of places where passive voice would suit better.

1) Where the subject is not known.
Egs: The car was thrashed.

2) When one wants to hide the subject. This is probably the best use of passive voice. We software engineers tend to use this quite often than not.
Egs: The document was written ambiguously. (by whom?!)

3) When one wants to create a suspense (like an anchor in an award ceremony).
Egs: Centum in CAT 2006 was achieved by...Pradeep Sundaram, the GCT 'peter'.

4) When one wants to write a technical document or research paper.
Egs: The experiment was performed at 0'C. - PAssive
I performed the experiment at 0'C - Active

5) In some cases, passive voice will help to maintain a good flow and preserve coherence.

But in general, the key in writing clearly and concisely is to use strong active verbs. This means that you should only use the passive voice when you have a solid reason for doing so.


This is the most common mistake that most of us do. Let us take a common sentence - "Democracy is the government by the people, of the people and for the people." Each part of the sentence maintains the same grammatical form. Sentences that do not follow this rule like "She had a strong liking to read books and for playing tennis." should be avoided at any cost.


Redundnacy is also another common mistake that most of us make. "Revert back", "close proximity" are some of the phrases that we use in our blogs often. But sometimes in case of informal writing, we do use it willingly to add more style to our writing. I don't find anything wrong with it either, as long as it doesn't look odd.


Many have a tendency to write more than what is required. We not only waste our time in writing those extra words but also waste the time of the reader. By the way, why would the reader want to read more pages than required to gather the information?! If there is an opportunity to convey the same content with less number of words, we should prefer it (doesn't it sound analogous with code optimization). Also, usage of more words means there are more chances to commit grammatical mistakes and more chances to deviate away from the topic (Ain't this sentence wordy?!). But sometimes, we may want the sentence to be wordy to stress our point. For instance, consider the following passage from a speech by Winston Churchill during world war II. It could certainly be made shorter with fewer repetitions, but it would hardly be more inspiring:

"We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

A certain amount of repetition and redundancy has its uses.

Ref: Book of English Usage

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