Poor writing style, like bad manners, makes someone appear less intelligent than they are. Writing style, like manners, can be learned in many ways. Reading and writing a lot is the first step. Having people critique your writing is probably the next best thing. There are many basic writing mistakes that people make, which can easily be avoided by being aware of them.

I have never been a great writer and I am self-concious about my writing style. If you are serious about your blogging, I think that time spent polishing your writing style is well worth the investment.

My favorite reference is the Chicago Manual of Style.

Some web pages:

Special thanks to my editors on #joiito.

22 Comments

Here's another good one... since lawyers use the written word so much, they have a lot to teach us...
Good Legal Writing: of Orwell and Window Panes by Pam Samuelson
46 University of Pittsburgh Law Review 149 (Fall 1984)

I think you are a great writer and you keep us all informed on all the new crazy cool blogging information etc. I do however have strong disagreements with people feeling the need to conform and format how blogs should be written. I for one could never take on someone else's ideas on how my blog should be written and still be able to write freely. But if someone were looking for their own style and wanted to learn those links are look pretty helpful. :)

Good point gnome-girl. I think it's good to understand where the norms are, then feel free to free-style it afterwards. ;-)

While I agree with Joi's post, I definitely enjoy gnome-girl's response, which makes an excellent point in what is, according to the manuals, atrocious style. :)

First, I also like gnome girl's response. I also want to add that it's hard to worry about proper grammar when you're being hit by script kiddies determined to force you into closing comments, or having to implement the next big OPML/RSS/whatever.

Not to mention A-listers (not you, Joi) determined to force us all into being Edward R Murrow.

In terms of style, it's easier to have one (a good one) if you first know what the rules are, then break them, than to not know them and hope that sheer "blood and guts" will compensate. People invariably overestimate the amount of "blood and guts" they carry around with them.

I don't think in terms of "proper grammar" so much as clear communication. After years of misunderstanding and finding myself misunderstood in online forums, I've grown more sensitive to the way unclear communication can lead to conflict (or blunt one's attempts to persuade or argue).

When I started writing professionally, Terry Carr, a science fiction editor, sent me some advice on a rejection slip. I break the first two rules at times, but I usually realize I am doing so. The last one, I rarely break without good reason:

1. Never use two words when one will do.
2. Never use a big word when a small one will do.
3. Avoid the passive voice like the plague.

(For example, "There are many basic writing mistakes that people make," could be stated more actively and directly as "People make many basic writing mistakes.")

Usually, the rules that make most sense to me are those that clear up ambiguity and remove obfuscation.

That doesn't mean that one has to abandon the informality that accompanies passionate argument or opinion.

A parochial aside: the byzantine Chicago is the bane of the professional editor's existence. All but narrowly technical academic publishers prefer the sublimely sensible Words into Type.

I make my living as a writer. I never send an invoice until I've made sure everything is perfect. If I were to approach my blog this way I wouldn't be able to pay my rent. So I try and strike a balance between immediacy and quality.

I determine my standards according to what I'm writing about. If I want to relay news effectively I go for a hard news style. If I'm writing a review I tell them what they need to know about the product and add some thoughts of my own. If I'm expressing an extended argument I may choose a feature or personal essay style. All of these styles have taken time and effort to learn.

Readers are preconditioned by these standards and they'll bring them to your blog. For example, readers of news stories are used to sentences that begin with a strong opening, a subject, and active verbs (and voice). Everything in 8 words or less.

If you want your audience to engage with you on a scholarly level your writing should feature critical mindedness, facility with theoretical terms and models and be structured according to academic form with proper citation.

You cannot ask for a readers respect without accomodating their expectations - or, at least, attempting to.

Blogs are, Rebecca Blood so correctly argues, a form of participatory media. Readers play a sort of editorial role because they have the option to comment or build on what you've presented. The level of participation is determined by how well the blogger meets his or her readers expectations.

Those who wish to bypass the rules or, worse, invent their own will suffer the consequences of the amateur: to be unread.

By far, the best How to make a blog more valuable to readers guide I have ever seen is on Dave Pollard's How to save the world.

While this is a guide for informative blogs, rather than entertainment blogs, I wish more blogs I already enjoy employed his methodology, making them that much better.

And there's not one mention of grammar and spelling...

(check out the right hand side bar about what bloggers and blog writers want to see more of too.)

I was going to ask who Edward R Murrow is, but then realized how technologies like Google destroys such social bonding rituals.

When mobiles become more ubiquitous, informational questions could disappear in real world conversations, turning convesations into exchange of statements. How sad...

A slim volume called The Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, Roger Angell) is a great foundation for any writer.

On the other hand, how wonderful it will be to instantly remind myself of pertinent facts and relationships without holding up the group conversation, and to be more informed as I participate in those conversations.

While writing my book I became familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style, as that is the house style of my publisher (Palgrave, which I don't think is a "narrowly technical academic publisher"; in writing the book, I tried to strike a good balance between academia and a mass market). Unfortunately, CMS changed a lot between the 14th and 15th editions and I had to make some quick alterations as I was finishing.

I find the minutiae of words and language to be endlessly fascinating, although this fascination doesn't always manifest itself in quality writing. I learned a lot from going over my copyedited manuscript: I am often needlessly wordy, I tend to begin sentences with "while" when I mean "although," and am guilty of engaging in a unwholesome relationship with the passive voice. (I pretty much break all three of the rules Howard lists, although I feel I must be given a bit of leeway on the second point, having honed my writing skills in graduate school where big words reign supreme.)

I have to love any drive to improve the quality of online discourse. Thanks for the links, Joi.

Hi Brian,

You said that a lot has changed between the 14th and 15th edition of the CMS. Can you be a little more specific?

Thanks!

I second Robin. Strunk & White is most excellent.

eg "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Full text

Perhaps now that text is making a comeback over TV, we should go back to a more archaic style. Those guys could really let fly when they needed to. English has lost its sharp edges from playing second fiddle to images for so long.

What is a writer?

A writer is one who writes.

A writer knows a story. Not how to construct one or just how to tell one. A writer knows the difference between a good story, an inherently good story, and just a story told well. You can tell bad stories well, and some people mistakenly think it’s a good story. These folks are what I call, “mainstream.”

A writer knows not to let things like punctuation rules get in the way of getting a point across.

A writer knows the difference between a point and babble. A true writer can turn a babble into a point. Anyone can turn a point into a babble.

A writer knows critics are critics because they can’t be writers. Except for the critics who are writers themselves. These critics we call “smart.”

A writer knows a word is cheap, but a thought is not.

A writer knows the value of an anticipated, allegorical, (but sometimes non-sensical) alliteration.

A writer knows when to go, a writer knows when to

-----

By the way: I’m not a writer.

See: Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do) at Holt Uncensored

http://www.holtuncensored.com/ten_mistakes.html

Joi, you're a fine writer, what are you talking about?!

I would however ...

Be happy ...

To send you some CARRIAGE RETURNS ...

That is, if I had one thing to suggest as an improvement to your writing --

(and I can only think of one thing)

It would be to add

a little

white space

by chopping longer posts into paragraphs. That's my only thought.

H

P.S. In the attempt to make my point, I know you realize this example is an example of OVERDOING it and that I don't mean to suggest you get THIS choppy.

Here's a contribution on the 'proper' use of the English language from another Brit:

"Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," by Lynn Truss.


Here's an excerpt of a review from The Guardian:

"To read Lynne Truss's tiny, bubbly book in defence of punctuation pedantry is to witness an obsession pushed to extremes. One may be irritated by misplaced apostrophes in shop notices, but it is quite hard to make up an example in which such a mistake might lead to a real ambiguity of meaning. I know what a sign saying "Banana's" is telling me: there are bendy yellow fruits for sale. Yum. But Truss becomes outraged at such solecisms, lamenting the name of the pop group Hear'Say, pouncing on (suspiciously anonymous) newspaper headlines with missing apostrophes, and even telling us how she demonstrated outside a cinema showing the film Two Weeks [sic] Notice, with a large cardboard apostrophe on a stick. Rather you than me, dear. ... "

Thinking more about it though, blogs do deserve their own style guide, because, as someone else pointed out, if we were as precise on blogs as in our other forms of published writing, blog entries would take forever. They'd also lose their spontaneity.

What's needed is a minimum standard to ensure a basic clarity of intention.

Ah...yes.

The fragrant and lovely Lynne Truss is to be celebrated indeed, for the many great gifts and giggles in her glorious guide.

Perhaps the finest gift she brings us is her use of the superbly economical label: "the greengrocer's apostrophe" - accurately nailing this infuriating gaffe.

Contrary to the impression conveyed by the Guardian's review, however - Lynne opines that the greengrocer's apostrophe could be considered a permitted usage when selling banana’s and pineapple’s. She reasons, persuasively, that the greengrocer’s apostrophe is the apostrophe which belongs to the greengrocer.

Back on topic: I like both kinds of bloggers. The kind who write good. And the kind who just write good things.

YMMV

/m

'Greengrocer's apostrophe' is the standard British term - it wasn't invented by Lynne Truss.

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I woke this morning ready to dive into my code and put in other comment fixes. Both Phil Ringnalda and Jacques Distler sent code that could help, and Sam Ruby offered help. As grateful as I am for their kindness, I don't know if I will make the changes... Read More

Joi Ito's entry about writing style and blogging contains a link to Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). As I was reading it, I was thinking of all the times I'd made those mistakes, especially on my blog. Especially mistak... Read More

I woke this morning ready to dive into my code and put in other comment fixes. Both Phil Ringnalda and Jacques Distler sent code that could help, and Sam Ruby offered help. As grateful as I am for their kindness, I don't know if I will make the changes... Read More

Joi Ito links some excellent articles on writing, including this one: Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). Really great stuff.... Read More

Following on from a discussion on Handakte WebLAWg on style, here are some style guides: For the USA: The Chicago Manual of Style The Chicago Style Manual website also has FAQs, for example on how to write Internet and Web... Read More

Following on from a discussion on Handakte WebLAWg on style, here are some style guides: For the USA: The Chicago Manual of Style The Chicago Style Manual website also has FAQs, for example on how to write Internet and Web... Read More

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