Some resources on written communication

Words

George Orwell very wisely says the following:

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The general principle also applies to expressing yourself in a foreign language.  Starting from English words will very rarely do-you need to see what it is you want to say, and then the words (constructions, grammar) will find themselves.

The Plain English people have followed up with some similar guidance here.  You can see how well you have followed these rules by using a readability checker.

If you want to write about statistics (numbers, etc), the ONS have produced some guidance here.  They also have Effective Tables and Graphs  guidance, and it’s good.

Checking grammar

Word-processors will of course check grammar and spelling for you.  There are also tools online, such as onlinecorrection or SpellCheckPlus.  The latter  will indeed query hypercorrection along the lines of in case of trouble, please speak to John or I.

Style analysers

These can be quite fun.  Among others, there are expresso, textalyser and hemingwayapp, which is rather good.

On a more overtly fun level, you can play with I write like (Orwell writes like Orwell; most text ends up being ascribed to David Foster Wallace if it mentions anything modern or H.P. Lovecraft).  Or you can try Gender Guesser, where Orwell comes out as Weak MALE Weak emphasis could indicate European.

Presentation

There is some advice here that usefully balances more technology-driven approaches.  In fact, it almost comes down to handing round a paper with a few relevant charts and graphs.

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