G=Garner, Madison, and the Art of Writing (Feb 8)

Good writing lifts the fog and makes everything clear // Shutterstock

In document #39 of The Federalist Papers, James Madison stated that communication fails for three reasons: (1) the language is inaccurate, (2) the brain behind the language is cloudy, or (3) the object or idea itself is indistinct.

There are marketers and PR people for the last; there are meditations and substances for the second. 

You as a writer can only control the accuracy of the language – that is, how it is used.  Thoughts about this range from proper-is-best-forget-the-rest to anything goes . . . as long as the words can be understood as the writer intended.  Author Bryan Garner tries to bridge this gap, and provides a guide that points to how words work in reality. 

Garner is a lawyer by trade, and his book Garner’s Modern English Usage is one attempt to define how writing and language is most effective.  The physical book is a tome; outside of language, it is best used as a building block for housing or a cinder block for cars. Contrast that with another, more famous book, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  The slim book’s minimalist approach (in such maxims as omit needless words) reduces instruction on how to write into its simplest terms.  Both books are excellent references.

Both books get at what it means to write well.  So what are the elements of good writing?

Rather than focus on what could go wrong (a la Madison), we prefer to spotlight, in general, how to write well (like Garner and Strunk & White).   A good writer will vary sentence structure, sentence length, and paragraph length.   Topics will connect from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph (for clear ideas on this, see below). 

In terms of ideas, describe physical things from the senses (reveal how the thing tastes-feels-looks-sounds-smells) and mental things in terms of how they manifest, either in terms of behavior or thought process.   Usually the more relatable the example, the better . . . and give people the background info they need to understand each point. 

Good writing is more than choosing, as Twain said, “the correct word and not its second cousin (we’ll address this in our lesson for the letter N).  Yes, FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT, but then what?  A piece of writing is you, putting your words together in a way that is immediate and intriguing.  Whatever the subject, you want your readers to follow your words and the ideas they convey.   Below are six rules (which we’ll explore in detail in our W essay) to make sure the ideas flow well:

(1) Make the person doing the action into the subject of your sentence. 

Note: Choose humans over institutions.

(2) Conditions for the main sentence (when, if, before, after, because) come before . . . but make sure the condition is no more than eight words long.  In addition, if the condition is the most important part of the sentence, move it from the beginning to the end.

(3) Know the psychological subject of each sentence – that’s what you connect to the sentence before and the sentence afterward.

(4) To move from sentence to sentence, there is (a) parallel structure: when the next sentence has the same topic as the previous one, and (b) sequential structure: when one action causes the next action to happen.

(5) Every sentence has a topic and a comment; every paragraph has a topic sentence and a discussion.

(6) If you write a long or complex paragraph, add a summative sentence at its end to either (a) connect the end to the beginning or (b) restate the main point of the paragraph.

In the end, reading or hearing people talk about writing is good . . . but writing is better. 😉

LEARN: Read the six rules again and think about them; then read the following sentences: 

  • In the end, a writer puts together ideas with a combination of style, word choice, and arrangement.
  • Let’s talk about style, first of all.
  • Style comes from knowing your audience and your purpose – that is, your intention as a writer.
  • What are you trying to do?
  • An expert in your topic can understand high-level vocabulary and sophisticated explanations; a reader who is not an expert cannot.
  • This affects word choice, as an expert has the background to understand more about your subject.
  • For example, someone who knows comedy knows what punching up is while this must be explained to a reader unfamiliar with the term.
  • Joking about someone with more status or authority than you is what punching up means, for the record.
  • Finally, we come to how to arrange your ideas.
  • Just as a DJ arranges beats to flow smoothly from one song to the next, a writer must do the same.
  • In the end, as a writer, you want your ideas to flow in that same smooth way.

USE: Re-arrange two of the above sentences to make the paragraph clearer.


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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