I love the variety in what I do. Academic, corporate and fiction work have all come across my desk over the last week or so, giving me the opportunity to exercise different editing and writing muscles. This got me thinking of the old cliché: variety is the spice of life.
Everyone fulfils a number of different roles in their lives – with family, with friends and in their professional environment. It is notoriously hard to get the balance right, but when we do, this variety can be energising. When my daughter was a baby, I felt great excitement (or was it relief?) when my husband arrived home to take over the baby-whispering so that I could have a break … to do the washing up. And this proves another old cliché: a change is as good as a rest.
So, what has this got to do with editing and writing? The great variety that there is in the writing styles that we use, that’s what. Writing can be done for ourselves – a private journal, a to-do list – but whenever we are writing for someone else, that reader must be at the forefront of our minds, and this dictates the style.
Whatever you are writing about, you need to know why you are writing it and who you are writing for.
Why Is it intended to be entertaining, or is it purely for information? Is it a list of instructions, or should there be wordy explanations? Are you trying to persuade someone to buy a product, or follow a cause? Or are you trying to show what you know?
Who What background knowledge does the reader have? What is their level of education or experience, or familiarity with the language? What payback do they expect from spending their time reading your work?
The major categories that come to me are academic, corporate, non-fiction and fiction. The below is not an exhaustive list of the different types of writing, as that would be impossible; instead these are just some of the points to consider when working in these different areas.
With all types of academic writing the purpose is to inform and educate, as well as to prove what you know.
You can usually assume the reader has a good level of knowledge within the general subject area, although it’s still good practice to explain abbreviations and jargon. Sentences and paragraphs can be quite long if the meaning is still clear. While the tone may appear quite stuffy, being concise and eliminating unnecessary repetition will prevent it becoming boring.
Objectivity is vital, as your audience cares less about what you think than what has been shown in your research. Papers and dissertations are generally written in the third person and in a passive voice (e.g. ‘participants were interviewed by the researcher’ rather than ‘I interviewed the participants’).
Formality is expected, so the author should avoid contractions, colloquialisms and casual language. This can be difficult for for non-native English speakers, as it is not easy to tell if a word or phrase is considered formal or not (e.g. ‘to look over’ is less formal than ‘to examine’, and ‘to figure out’ would often be replaced by ‘to determine’).
There are many purposes and audience types for business writing, so many styles are used. Companies pay a lot of money for their branding, so their approved colours, logos and fonts should be used throughout for almost all internal and external communications. When material is compiled from several different sources, care must be taken to ensure coherence and consistency.
One problem every organisation struggles with is the use of jargon and those pesky abbreviations that no one actually knows the origin of and everyone interprets in a slightly different way. These should always be explained in the text or an attached glossary.
Blogs & website material
These can have a relaxed and conversational style, so you may choose to use the active voice and first person (‘we are proud to announce the success of our new venture’). As this is public, you cannot take the knowledge of the reader for granted. The tone must entirely reflect the values of the business, from the level of formality to the content. Biographies of the senior staff in a company that makes meat substitutes probably shouldn’t talk about the managing director’s love of hunting…
Reports about trends in technology may have a less formal feel than the annual report of a venerable financial institution, but they still need to convey information in a way that is is accurate and credible. While the audience may be familiar with the sector, context and explanations to company-specific terminology are often necessary.
If you are trying to impress potential investors, your tone needs to reflect your idea and be in keeping with the investors’ values. You must be certain of your forecasts and be prepared to back up your claims.
Here, the purpose is to convince people from within the industry sector to come to the conference, and then to particular sessions. Use the active voice and let people know what they will get out of attending. While the reader will probably understand the language of the sector they may not know the details of each company or speaker.
Some writing, such as business requirements or technical design documentation, is purely functional. While it will still follow certain style guidelines, its main focus is to present information or provide instructions as concisely and unambiguously as possible. While a large amount of background knowledge may be assumed, this type of document should be written as if for the newest member of the team.
Whether you intend to inform, educate or entertain, you want to keep your readers reading. The active voice is generally more engaging, but reference and text books for older children and adults often use a formal, academic style.
For younger or less-educated readers, keep sentences short and simple in structure, and use vocabulary that can be easily understood. For more sophisticated readers, the sentences may be longer with additional clauses, as long as the meaning remains clear. For example, the steps in a cookery book for kids will need more explanation (and warnings about hot ovens and sharp knives) than one aimed at experienced cooks.
You may need to decide between avoiding repetition and using it to enhance retention of information, or deliberately repeat some information in the case of a reference book that will be dipped into rather than read from start to finish. Humans have always used stories to educate others, so use case studies and examples to bring the material to life.
There is even more variation in fiction writing. To a degree, the author can make the rules of the grammar and vocabulary that they want to use, as long as the reader can still follow it! Vary sentence length and rhythm to keep it interesting, and to control the pace of the story telling. You want to avoid being boring – unless you are portraying a boring interlude in the story. Repetition can be a useful device when used sparingly.
Just because it’s fiction, don’t underestimate the research that may be required. It’s obvious that you need to check your facts for historical novels or crime fiction, even if you have made up your own universe, keep track of your new ‘facts’ to avoid continuity errors, which readers can find annoying or confusing.
Narrative and dialogue should be appropriate and consistent for each character so they can be differentiated as if being spoken out loud by different people. One person may be monosyllabic in conversation, while another is always interrupting.
I have not mentioned all the different genres of fiction, nor have I gone into all the types of non-fiction work. The way in which we write is constantly evolving, and the way in which content is shared changes so quickly that the rules about style and formality are shifting. The important thing is to engage your audience, and only your audience can tell you whether or not you have succeeded.