What writers really need to worry about (hint: it’s not spelling)

My working life consists of words.

Writing them, editing them, loving them.

And yet, words themselves are not as important as the places where they fit.

Here’s the thing: faced with an editing job, I hope for one thing, and one thing only. And that is not that the writer has a good grasp of grammar and spelling.

Nope: what I hope for is that they will have structured their writing in a way that is logically appropriate to their subject.

That’s because I can fix grammar and spelling quickly – if my own knowledge of the language means that some finer point of grammar eludes me, there are hundreds of reference resources I can consult.

And there are technical tools I can use to scan the text to fix all manner of problems.

But if there are structural problems, that might be hours of work that no reference or technical tool can help me with.

What do I mean by structure?

First I must make clear that I am writing here about typical ways in which a text in English might be structured. Other languages and cultures do things differently – there are many ways to tell a story, or write an academic paper.

But the reality of the world we live in is that the English language is dominant, particularly in the business and academic worlds. Second-language English speakers need to be able to communicate in “standard” written English. But their thought patterns and world views are formed by their mother-tongue culture, and that influences the way they structure a text.

An example of this kind of difference is described in a study of the way mothers tell stories to their children:

European American mothers primarily focused on the organizational aspects of the narrative… Central American mothers emphasized the conversational aspects of the narrative.

What does structure mean when you write in English?

This small text points to the way texts are structured in English.

One – there is an assumption that there is a beginning, a middle and an end, a series of events or thoughts that are causally related.

Two – there is an assumption that too much detail is a bad thing. Generally, a writer should only provide detail that is needed to support an argument, or to describe something that is relevant to the argument.

Three – there is an assumption that there is tension or conflict, and that this needs to be resolved. (Scientists who need to communicate their work to the general public are repeatedly told to find ways in which to structure their article so it answers the question why, or follows an “and, but, therefore” sequence).

Four – there is an assumption that the text should “get to the point”. That means that the writer will have in mind the idea or ideas they want to communicate, and that they will proceed directly to these points.

Five – there is an assumption that related ideas will be grouped together. That means that the text will be organised into sections, with each section conveying one set of ideas (as I have done in this blog post).

Where is structure important?

Some of these assumptions about writing might not apply in fiction, where rules can be deliberately broken. But most other forms of writing will need to work within this framework.

Or the whole text will need to be changed by an editor so that the text does work in this way.

Advice to people writing in English as a second language

Focus on structuring your work. Before you start writing, think about what you want to say and see if it can be organised along these lines recommended by the BBC:

  • Introduction – engage the reader, or outline the main point of the article to follow
  • Middle – make clear and interesting points about the topic
  • End – provide a concluding paragraph that draws the points together

Then, take these main points and write them down as simple sentences. Use these as subheadings, and then write your thoughts below each one. Try to avoid adding details unless there is no other way to explain what you are saying.

You could start thinking about grammar and spelling only once you think you have organised your material, and written it down in a structured way.

If you are still worried about grammar and spelling, then think about hiring an editor. If all they have to do is check spelling and grammar, this could be a far cheaper exercise than you think!

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).

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