Monday, April 5, 2010

Express Yourself Clearly

Recently my son had a short paper to write for school. He’s a sixth grader, and this year is a turning point for him where he’s expected to think a little more about his writing as well as tackle longer assignments. In this case it was a 2 page paper on Sophocles, and he was struggling one night with the paper due the next day.

Before you say that he should succeed or fail on his own, I agree with you. However as a parent, or manager/mentor/helper, you pick and choose those places where you provide assistance, and to what level. In this case he’s had a major change in his life with sixth grade and the beginning of Boy Scouts. While this doesn’t matter for college in terms of his grade, it is the place where he is gaining a base of learning, and I think it’s the time where I provide more assistance than I might otherwise provide.

Next year will be a different story. I’ll let him struggle, and potentially mis assignments if he doesn’t manage his workload. But I digress.

The issues that he had with producing a coherent paper that explains his thoughts while presenting information were similar issues that I see from many of my authors at work. The issues are also similar issues that I see in many blogs. While I’m not a top-notch writer, and I take liberties at times in blogs and editorials, I tend to see a few common mistakes in a lot of pieces that people write.

Don’t use pronouns

That was the main advice to my son as we worked through his paper. He, and many others, tend to use pronouns (“it”, “his” and “they” especially) to convey their thoughts. However they often have not tied the pronoun to a specific noun and the reference in ambiguous.

Most people learn this in grammar school, but they seem to forget it when there’s no grade attached to their work. As an example:

Sophocles was a great writer. He often worked with Aeschylus and his plays were similar.

What does “his” refer to? Is it Sophocles or Aeschylus? Either could be the reference and the reader has to take a guess. It’s possible that context before or after this sentence will help you to understand the reference, but it’s equally likely that you will mis-interpret what is intended.

This same type of ambiguous reference occurs in many technical articles, often when someone is trying to compare two items and show how they work in a similar manner. I correct this type of reference constantly, and often ask for clarification from authors.

So my advice is…..don’t use pronouns.

If you can avoid one, avoid it. Repeat the noun and make it clear. This does two things. One it helps the reader to better understand your meaning, but it also forces you to be more specific.

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