We’ve all had occasions when we’ve read something and we were left muttering, “I have no idea what that person was trying to say.”
Not only does poor writing not accomplish the goal of communicating the intended information, it also wastes the time of both reader and writer.
The number one goal of good writing is clarity, says Ron Champion, a long-time writing instructor at the University of Waterloo.
And while there may have been a time when the quality of your writing didn’t really matter on the farm, it certainly does today. Increasingly writing — whether electronic or with ink — is an integral part of daily life for farmers.
Whether you’re posting to your farm’s Facebook page, writing a blog, sending emails, creating signage, or commenting on a proposal from a potential business partner, you want to ensure you communicate your thoughts clearly.
Good grammar, spelling and punctuation are also critical.
“You want to make sure you say what you mean and mean what you say,” says Champion.
Before you write
It doesn’t help that “English” and “communications” classes have ranked for generations among the lowest of the low priorities at ag colleges and universities. But getting on track really isn’t that difficult if you remember these pointers.
Before you write anything, Champion advises considering your audience and how the written work will be used. If you are writing for a non-farm audience — which can include various professionals, municipal officers, etc. — don’t use jargon. Non-farmers don’t know what a forage is, they have no idea what a grain cart looks like, and it may even be better to say “young female cow” rather than “heifer.”
“Keep it short, keep it simple” is Champion’s guiding principle when it comes to writing anything. “If you want someone to read an email, don’t make it any longer than it needs to be.”
Champion also warns against the trap of using bigger words to try to sound more impressive. He recommends using the smallest word that expresses what you’re trying to say.
On the other hand, short cuts used for texting sometimes creep into more formal applications where they are not appropriate. “Don’t use ‘ur’ for ‘you are,’” he says. Only use “LOL” and emojis when writing to a friend.
If you’re writing the text for a sign, keep the number of words to a minimum and ensure the lettering is large enough to be viewed, especially if it’s a sign at the end of the lane that’s intended to be read by passing traffic. Also, think about how the sign will be mounted. Champion says we’ve all seen signs put up with bolts that obliterate some of the letters.
If you’ve found English spelling to be a challenge, you’re not alone. Given England’s long history of being invaded by or invading other countries, English has influences not only from German, Dutch, Danish, French, and Latin, but from around the world. This has resulted in many inconsistencies in spellings and pronunciation.
Unlike some languages which have government agencies which set the rules for correct spelling and usage, English is an evolving language with regional variations. Here in Canada, we tend to use some American spellings (organize vs. organise) and some British spellings (colour versus color), but these usages do shift over time.
When it comes to choosing whether to use an American or British spelling for a word, Champion says the most important thing is to be consistent. Whether you use “plough” or “plow,” be sure to use the same version throughout the document.
Spell it write
You don’t have to look far to find examples of weird English spellings (note weird has a weird spelling which breaks the “I before e except after c” rule). Indict, conscience, rhythm, liaison, cemetery and espresso are just a few examples of words with unusual spellings.
If you want more examples of the irregularities of English, consider the following words which contain the letter combination “ei” but with different pronunciations: weigh, seize, height, forfeit.
Champion recommends creating a list of the words that you tend to misspell and keeping it handy when writing. The old adage “if in doubt, look it up” still applies.
Don’t rely on spellcheck to find all of your spelling errors, warns Champion, although he notes the electronic check has prevented uncounted cases of “pubic” being used unintentionally instead of “public.”
Even so, spellcheck will never find the wrong word that’s been spelled correctly.
Champion also stresses the importance of watching that autocorrect doesn’t change the word you meant to another word with a completely different meaning. As an instructor at Renison College, Champion discovered autocorrect had been changing “Renison” to “venison.”
Careful proofreading can help you spot your errors, says Champion. We all make them, he adds.
Reading your work slowly out loud from a hard copy will help you catch your errors, he says. If you have time, leave your written work for a day or two so you can proofread it with a fresh eye, which makes it easier to catch mistakes. And if you can, have someone else read it over to ensure the meaning is clear to others.
Champion offers these additional proofreading tips:
- Work from the top down. Make big revisions before you worry about individual words and marks of punctuation.
- Proofread for one type of error at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
- See the words. Make yourself focus not on what you know you meant to say, but on what you actually wrote.
- Watch for homophones. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings: “weather/whether,” “their/they’re/there,” or “two/too/to.”
Then, if you’ve made changes, be sure to read your work over again to ensure you haven’t introduced new errors into the piece. People often leave extra words after changing a sentence.
This article is only a very small slice of what we need to know when it comes to good writing but fortunately, there are many good resources (both books and online; see below for a few) available to help us improve our writing.
Remember even the so-called experts make mistakes sometimes so don’t be intimidated. Be gentle when you find errors in other people’s writing, and hopefully others will do the same when you mess up (as you sometimes well!).
Common errors to avoid
Some examples of common mix-ups from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) (owl.purdue.edu/owl):
It’s is a contraction for “it is” while “its” shows possession.
Examples: The crab had an unusual growth on its shell. It’s been raining for three days.
We’re, where, were
We’re is a contraction for we are.
Example: We’re glad to help. Where is a reference to location as in, Where are you going? Were is the past tense form of the verb be. Example: They were walking side by side.
Your is a possessive pronoun.
Example: Your shoes are untied. You’re is a contraction for you are. Example: You’re walking around with your shoes untied.
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss