Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to write comments and letters to the editor

One online forum I participate in had a contributor enter George Orwell's rules for good writing. I didn't think they were really to the point for the ordinary Joe who wants to write a comment on a newspaper article's online Comments section or write a letter to the editor.

So here are my rules for you to use:
Orwell's stated rules echo that nemesis of college first year English class students, The Elements of Style (4th Edition) by Strunk & White. Orwell's rules focus on using good grammar and word choice. 

I'd suggest a very different set of rules:

1. Don't write anything unless you really have something to say. 

2. Make sense. It doesn't matter how beautifully you write, or how concisely, or with what beautiful word choice, if it's a defense of the idea that the Earth is flat. What you write should have some connection to reality, and the ideas you express should be organized logically in some way.

3. Use your own voice. The only thing worse than a Faulkner wannabe is a Hemingway wannabe. Be whoever the hell you are. If that's someone who uses tired old cliches all the time, do it. At least you'll sound like yourself. What you write should sound kind of like how you yourself speak.

4. Suit the language to the occasion. Locker room talk isn't a funeral oration and vice versa. 

5. Write concisely if someone's willing to pay you to do so. It takes twice as much time to write something half as long. I'm glad to do that at the going rates for veteran editors. 

6. Structure what you write. At the top, tell me what your topic is and what your point is, unless you want to be artful and hope that I'll stick around long enough to find out. Break your entry into paragraphs--at the very least, that shows me that you aren't just some rambling loon. 

7. Use active constructions where it makes sense to do so, use passive constructions where it makes sense to do so. The way you organize a sentence also communicates what you want to focus on. Active constructions focus the reader's attention on the actor, passive on the act. Think about it.

8. If you want me to care about something you care about, tell me why I should care, not that you do. To put it more snarkily, hoist people on their own petards. Don't tell me how I fail to meet your standards--tell me how I fail to meet my own standards. 

9. If you want to argue in writing, learn the rules before you get in the ring. A good start: Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders.

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