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Style Chapter 19: Internet Writing

Internet has changed the rules of the game, even the game itself maybe.Anyone with internet access can write and post opinions. Since the writing does not go under the merciless scanner of the editor, writers can get away with writing anything. But writing and posting is not the same as being read. In that sense, the rules have not changed very much. If you want to be read and get loyal visitors, you still have to have something substantial to say and say it correctly and in as few words as possible.

Internet writing is not about literacy alone- at least not one kind of literacy i.e. alphabetical. It requires more skills: computer literacy , networking and relationship building, researching, effective long distance communicating and speedy delivery.

Internet writing is nothing if not short, snappy and crisp. Good internet writing does not sacrifice grammatical correctness to make it so.To make an impression amongst the ten other tabs the reader has open on the same subject, your writing has to be data dense and interesting at the same time. Internet readers are skimmers. If randomly slected lines from your text do not catch the reader within a few seconds, you are banished. And there are no second chances here. Unlike in print journalism where you just had to impress one editor and had a readership of a few hundred thousand captive, here you have to win over each reader one by one.

Internet writing has put the evolution of writing in fast forward. It has done what Gutenberg did with the invention of printing press. It has opened big markets. It has made the world of writing very democratic and non elitist. There are no external entry barriers for any one and you can reach out to anyone irrespective of the geographical, demographical or economic boundaries. You can air shockingly dissident opinions and feel instantly connected with billions of people.

There is no target audience, everyone is your potential reader till you build up a base of loyal follwers and can cater to them. Hence it is possible to be utterly original and writers feel safe to take extreme stylistic risks. It works some time, for some people and with certain audience but conventional wisdom in writing seldom fails. So unless you are prepared for the experiment to fail and start from a scratch all over again, it is better to keep in mind all the rules of writing for print media.

Great thinking is the first pre requisite of great writing. So if your thoughts are original, meaty and clear, it is easy to win the audience over.Then to keep the readers , you have to make the reading easy and effortless. Only develop one idea per paragraph, so scanning readers can get the gist in a few seconds if they want. More paragraphs will also give the additional benefit of lots of white space.

In print media it is possible to slowly develop an idea, examine it from various angles and put forth many view points. But words are severely limited in internet writing. You do not have the luxury of swinging from tree to tree exploring . You have to write a short, concise piece with a clear opinion and then halve the number of words and then quarter them and still keep your voice strong and distinct. That voice is what draws the reader to you. Like an actor, you don the garb and deliver yet another historic speech.

Internet writing offers good networking advantage helping with your author branding. Once you establish yourself as a certain type of writer, you can quickly scale the heights by blogging and mingling with like minded people, sharing comments and opinions on message boards and bulletins. Although the world of internet seems vast , internet writers generally confer in select pockets and by sharing opinions, you can slip into the community. That is also why it is not advisable to antagonise people by getting into arguments and criticism. Reputations travel very fast here. And they become a permanent part of your web presence.

Research assumes a much more important role in internet writing than in print. Since it is so easy to reasearch on the internet, it is expected that you use the resources fully. That is also a luxury afforded by this genre. You can attach whole documents and reports for the reader's reference to make your writing more useful and interesting.

Internet writing can be oppressive with the need to write relentlessly, comment on others' writings, make your pieces crisply opinionated, obsessively cut down the length, keep a tab on the traffic and take steps to build it up. All this while competing with a few thousand others who share the same morbid need to fight for the attention of your audience and are doing the same things to get it. On the other hand it can be a very rewarding experience for the instant gratification it gives. You have the satisfaction of seeing yourself published instantly. Hard to imagine that even a little more than a decade ago the writer's world depended on mailing a piece and then waiting for weeks for the editor's verdict.

Style Chapter 18: Commas

Commas make the meaning of a sentence clearer but used indiscriminately they can make the writing even more confusing. By and large, commas can be put where they can be 'heard'.
They are the breather and an automatic, psychological pause. The shortest pause in writing is represented by a comma. Commas should be thought about carefully as they can completely change the meaning. It should be possible to justify each comma in your writing.

  • Commas should only be put if there are two or more clauses in a sentence and not just because the sentence is long.
  • Comma should always be inserted before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses.eg.The governor had rejected his appeal, and he was executed at 10.30 hrs today.The coordinating conjunctions FANBOYS ( for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) should use commas only if they join clauses not if they join words or phrases. eg. Tie and dye is a popular dyeing technique in India.
  • Comma is used to separate the items in a list. It should be put before the and in the last item only if one of the items includes another and. eg. There were four thing on the menu - hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fish and chips, and pizza.
  • Commas should be put inside quotation marks. eg, 'I am going out,' he announced. But there is only room for one punctuation mark there so if the sentence in the quotation marks ends with a question mark or an exclamation mark, comma should not be put.
  • Commas should be put between coordinate adjectives which equally qualify the noun and meaning would remain the same if their order were reversed. eg, The dry, creaking leaves will take a comma but no comma in angry young man.
  • Commas should be put to segregate geographical references. eg. New Delhi, India.
  • In large number commas must be used after every 3 digits .eg. 100,000,000.
  • Commas should be put to clarify the meaning where needed. eg. The teenager killed the man with a gun. It is not clear here whether the teenager or the man had the gun. Comma would make it clearer. The teenager killed the man, with a gun.
  • Two commas should enclose an interruption in a sentence. eg. My work, of course, takes precedence over everything else.
  • Commas should be used to indicate a missing word. eg. The day was hot and humid; night, cool.
  • Commas should be used for parenthesis. eg. My mum, the best cook in the world, went horribly wrong with this one.

©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter17 : Punctuation

Punctuation serves only one basic purpose in writing; that of clarity. Unlike some other style features, it is not a matter of taste but of correctness. Same text with no or poor punctuation can be misinterpreted, misunderstood or at best be ambiguous.  According to one style author '(without punctuation) ... a sentence no longer holds the door open for you to walk in, but drops it in your face as you approach.'

Punctuation has to serve the purpose of pauses, rhythm, gestures, tone, stress, repetition which we use in our speech to indicate emphasis and to make ourselves clear. It has to follow the standard grammatical practice, rules for which are consistent and clear. The writer needs to know exact subtleties of a particular punctuation mark and use it appropriately and correctly. Semi colons and colons are not interchangeable and commas cannot be used wherever they look good just to break a long sentence.Purpose of punctuation is to effectively convert our speech and thoughts into clearly understandable text and to show reader how to follow the writer's thought process.  For example
I think of the life I left behind with pain, it makes me both nostalgic and sad.
This sentence could do with a bit of proper punctuation. Two separate sentences should be treated as such.It should read as 
I think of the life I left behind, with pain. It makes me both nostalgic and sad.
Punctuation also controls the pace of the writing. It can be used to vary the writing style and create an impression.For example here fragmented sentence and alternating the marks is used to convey the sense of desperation. Commas have been replaced with ellipsis( three dots. Not two, not four: always three)
Do something... anything... just do not bother me.
Intricacies of punctuation can sometimes be cumbersome but a writer cannot bypass them. Well researched and well worded content should not have to suffer poor readership because of  being poorly punctuated. Writers have to study the principles of punctuation thoroughly. Anyone with writing ambitions owes to the readers to provide a scrupulously punctuated piece.
Unnecessary and arbitrary peppering of punctuation marks is as much of a writing crime as having too few. Reader needs to be shown direction through your thoughts and words; where one clause has ended and another begun. Punctuation  should be used to control and channelise the text. Even though we live in an era of short texting , for serious writers attention to detail is imperative.
Good punctuation builds the credibility of the writer with the reader as poorly punctuated piece reflects badly on his ability and familiarity with language. Errors distract the reader away from the content.Good punctuation , on the other hand, establish his writing skills and  makes the reader receptive to the ideas.
©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style chapter 16: Avoid Adverb Sentences

 There is an annoying new trend in Indian writing in English to make prolific use of sentence adverbs which modify a sentence as a whole rather than just the verb.
Curiouslythe minister did not show up till one hour after the conference was scheduled.
Interestinglyno one knew the whereabouts of the the new mother.

These adverbs do nothing for the sentences except making them irritating for the reader. It is best left to the reader to decide if the circumstances are curious or interesting. In an otherwise well researched and written book on Km. Mayawati, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajoy Bose uses Interestingly in nearly every third paragraph. By the third chapter it only evokes laughter in what is otherwise  a serious and authoritative work.

Adverbs like actually, apparently, basically, certainly, clearly, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, incidentally, ironically, naturally, predictably, presumably, regrettably, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, truthfully, ultimately, wisely lend themselves very well to making sentence adverbs. They are definitely not incorrect, just a style liability. Hence the need is not to banish them altogether but to look for alternatives.

Reader sees sentence adverbs as blatant attempts by the writers to force him to have the same opinion as them . Instead of advancing convincing arguments and converting the reader gradually, writer nudges him to his point of view telling him that now he should be 'thankful' or 'clear'. It is a crutch used by the writer when his arguments are not powerful enough.Words like 'unquestionably' and 'undeniably' render the writing weak and limp.

Sentence adverbs can serve a sometime useful function as they do have the benefit of compactness. Instead of saying ,'it was now clear that',you can say it more succinctly as 'clearly'. It is good to question the purpose of using the sentence adverb. Is it to express your emotions or is it to arm twist the readers to feel what you want them to feel? 

Sometimes writers try to dodge the criticism associated with adverb by depriving it of 'ly' as in 'More important, we were fed up' or the admonition 'Think different'.

Sentence adverbs can be used in their disembodied form while answering questions to make the reply more emphatic as with 'obviously', 'naturally', 'definitely', 'positively'.

Some adverbs used in adverb sentences are particularly annoying and have come under lot of criticism from writers and readers alike. Here is a compilation of some common ones that go on the rubbish heap.
  •  'Hopefully' is a favourite one that eveyone loves to hate. Besides being too colloquial, it has been called a "slack-jawed, common, sleazy," and a specimen of "popular jargon at its most illiterate level." In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say , "This once-useful adverb meaning "with hope" has been distorted and is now widely used to mean "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly". The Associated Press Stylebook also advises "Do not use [hopefully] to mean it is hoped, let us or we hope." and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says : "Writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write they hope or with luck." 
  • Ben Yagoda, in If You See an Adjective, Kill It, Broadway Books, 2007 says "The single most abused and annoying sentence adverb is actually. . . . The degeneration of actually is signaled by a Doonesbury cartoon in which a Hollywood mogul, Mr. Kibbitz, instructs his young associate: 'Listen, Jason, if you're going to make it in this town, you have to start using the word "actually." A Hollywood assistant always says, "Actually, he's in a meeting," or "He's actually at lunch." "Actually" means "I'm not lying to you."'
  • "Ironically" mostly gets thrown out of the window because of its incorrect usage . What a writer calls "ironic" is usually just an interesting, an unexpected or an odd development.
  •  Adverbs like 'Arguably' are disliked as they are an attempt to shirk responsibility and unwillingness to take blame.
  •  Some like "Basically" are just too common and thus tiring.

©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter 15: Numbers

It is inevitable that certain numbers - dates, age, measurements etc,  will be part of your writing.

Some guidelines to follow when writing numbers:
  • Any number less than nine should be spelt out.55 bags, four pens, eight men.
  • When numbers appear together, combine numerals and words to avoid confusion.5 seventh-floor flats,  Eight 60-Watt bulbs.
  • Prefer million and billion to lakhs and crores. In the global media age, audience can be gloal and we should follow international standards.
  • Approximate numbers above a million should be written as numeral and word. About 1 million not about 1000000.
  • Fraction figures should be written as words. One quarter of the pie, a sixth of the students, a half of the bottle. They should also be hyphenated when appearing like this: six-seventh.
  • Use hyphen for 'to' when it appears between figures, not between words. 20-25 people but not six - eight cars.
  • Ages should be in numerals. The minister, 48, is survived by his wife ,35 and a son, 7.
  • Do not begin a sentence with a numeral. Number should either be written in words as in Fifty two people attended the wedding or the sentence should be rewritten. Instead of saying 5000 copies were sold of the first edition, it can be rephrased as The first edition sold 5000 copies.
  • All modifying numbers maybe written in numerals. 120kmph, 20 percent, page 67.
  • Unit of measurement when qualifying a noun should be in numerals and be separated with a hyphen.50-foot barge, 30-cm ruler, 10-minute delay.
  • When many numbers are involved, use all numerals. The Fibonacci sequence 0,1,1,2,3,5,8....forms the basis of many mathematical formulae.
  • For decimals use numerals.1.68, 2.05.
  • Dates should be written in numerals and without ordinals. February 14, 2009. Not February 14th.
  • For money write in numerals. Rs. 35.50 apiece. Also write  Rs.180 or Rs. 180.25 but not Rs.180.00.
  • While comparing do not mix fractions and percentages. It is wrong to say that There were 62.5 % men  and only 30½ % boys under nine.
  • For a ratio qualifying a noun, figures and hyphens should be used. 60-40 proportion.
©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter 14: Statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881) 
Using statistics in your writing is  very tricky. When writing an opinion, their use should be minimal. Limited and selected use of statistics could benefit your writing but an injudicious overuse could kill it.
Here is an article destroyed by statistics. A taste of the Russian pie at Live Mint.com by Poonam Madan is an example of how an article peppered with statistics which reader cannot relate to, impresses no one. It only exposes the writer's lack of first hand knowledge of the subject.
Good writing should have very few numerals. Words work better because passion is best expressed in words. A writer without knowledge of a subject uses overdose of statistics to impress. The effect usually is the exact opposite. Writing with statistics needs to find the crucial balance between presenting facts to a casual reader unfamiliar with the subject and stuffing an article with them.
Opinions based on statistics do not need to detail them. They just need to be cited so that the reader can make his own interpretation. Statistics are used to support a persuasive argument and enable the reader to reconstruct your argument . If the article gives a point of view that readers may see with skepticism, it may then be supported with evidence.
Statistics cannot replace facts and logic. Statistics are considered manipulation of truth. You can't persuade anyone if they are convinced that you are manipulating them.
Readers relate better to empty numbers if they are given a comparison. For example this article from National Geographic gives daunting numbers, 'The human heart beats 100,000 times a day propelling six quarts of blood through 60,000 miles of vessels- 20 times the distance across the US from coast to coast.' But it goes down well even with readers not familiar with the intricacies of human body because the converted distance gives it a perspective. 

Similarly in this headline from the Daily Mail, '£2trillion - the terrifying total of our national debt... that's £33,000 for every man, woman and child in Britain.' the comparison makes an empty grand amount of 2 trillion into a  frightening reality that strikes a chord.

Be especially wary of using  numbers that are not from a known source. Such numbers maybe poorly researched or completely wrong. It also gives a better credibility to the article if you can name the source. For eg.' Interleague games averaged 34,900 fans per game, 15% more than intraleague contests, according to Forbes.'

©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter 13: Cliches

Good stimulating writing demands you omit cliches. They have outlived their usefulness through excessive use and over familiarity.

Cliches are antiquated expressions and do nothing to clarify or inspire. There is no surer way to put the reader off than to use dead expressions like 'thin as a rake', 'raining cats and dogs', 'all and sundry', 'pretty as a picture' , 'quiet as a mouse', 'cool as a cucumber', 'cry over spilt milk', 'nipped in the bud', 'stick out like a sore thumb, 'selling like hot cakes'. 

Reader must never get the impression that the writer was too lazy to think of a good phrase to express himself. Even worse that the writer was not bothered. He did not mind serving an unappetizing, flat and boring piece with  tired cliches.

Besides staleness cliches are one-size-fits all expressions, rather than descriptions perfectly crafted for the circumstances. If the writing is original, it must avoid cliches.

Best writing provides a connection between the writer's mind and the reader's. Tired, worn out expressions will not rouse the reader to make that interaction.A reader who has read the same expression over and over again has become numb to it and will not take the time to make the connection between the idea and the cliche.

Writing must be scanned for phrases, metaphors, similes and images that appear too familiar and replace them. Ideas can seldom be too new, so freshness  and originality is in presentation. If you have heard or seen it before it is probably a cliche or on the way there.

There are any number of websites that will give you a list of cliches to avoid;
A very useful one is cliche finder where you can paste your prose and it will give you all the cliches that have slipped in. It's based on the Associated Press Guide to News Writing: 

But the list of cliches is ever evolving. What were discarded as cliches sometime ago, may seem fresh and novel now as they are not used so extensively any more. Similarly the expressions which were considered original and forceful till now, may not be so any more as they have become overused.
There have been stories of people who didn't like Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' because it  had too many cliches, little realising that the master piece is so brilliant that its originality has been cliched over the past few hundred years through overuse.

Getting rid of cliches from writing is not easy and needs lot of original, creative thinking. They crept into our writing and have been used so extensively because they describe the idea so well.
To create a fresh, forceful image, one must use all the senses and look for new comparisons. There are multiple ways to describe a thing; choose to rephrase and restate with imagination.

Sometimes, though, readers' familiarity with cliches can be turned in your favor very effectively by twisting them to lend novelty, humor and  fresh imagery to the writing. Like this one

Never put off to tomorrow what you can put off indefinitely.

©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter 12: Hyperbole

Hyperbole, an expression so exaggerated that it could not possibly be taken literally,lends itself beautifully to dramatic.You can get away with making ludicrous overstatements.

For example,'The blast was so loud it could be heard five kilometers away' is not exaggerated enough and could be true.
But 'The blast was so loud it could be heard on Mars', is undoubtedly a hyperbole.
Most  writers are guilty of exaggeration but honest writers would not leave readers in any doubt that they are exaggerating. Hyperbole is also an ironical exaggeration. Referring to aging Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan's god like status with the masses, Ajay Goyal says, "In a thousand years from now when Hindu mythology decides it is time to make next round of celestial appointments, he (Bachchan) will be the top candidate and still acting."
Like everything else, hyperbole should be used selectively, judiciously and in moderation. It loses its effect when reader thinks you get worked up about everything.The parts to emphasize should be identified and then hyperbole used to highlight the thrust of the argument. 
Avoid hyperbole when the writing is already emotionally charged, otherwise it will make the writer appear too bitter, sarcastic, sentimental and generally not worthy of being taken seriously.
Hyperbole is  best used to create humor. With a bit of imagination, it can be used to create very vibrant images and to drive the point home when commenting on something or someone.Like:
I circumnavigated the world in the time it took her to finish her make-up.

Better still is this excerpt from article , Taste of India ,by Vir Sanghvi at Hindustantimes.com

The Gujaratis are as agitated about Hindu non-vegetarians as they are about Muslims or Christians. (And no doubt, if they came across a non-vegetarian Gujarati like myself, they would probably club me to death with rolled-up share certificates.)

Brilliant hyperbole. It creates humor and a powerful image which stays with you long after you have read the article.

©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter 11: Proofreading

"First draft of everything is shit."
Ernest Hemingway

Famous author Mark Twain says, "..when you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don't know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes--but not often enough--the printer's proof-reader saves you--& offends you--with this cold sign in the margin: (?) & you search the passage & find that the insulter is right--it doesn't say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn't light the jets.

Writers are often lazy about the quality of grammar when they publish on web. But it is unacceptable to write something with misspellings and typos. You need to make sure that there are no syntax, spelling or grammar errors in your writing. All weight of your ideas can be lost if there are mistakes in the prose.

It is also important to make sure that the presentation is immaculate. The margins should be right and the formatting done properly.

Proof reading must be done slowly as mind tends to fill the gaps and overlook the errors if it is done in haste. It is good to learn to proof read properly. Leave wide margins on the right hand side when you take a printout for proofreading so you can make clear marks. Here is one guide to proofreading: http://www.espressographics.com/text/proofreader.html

You will know that your document is proof read and ready for submission when:

  • the punctuation is correct
  • words are spelled correctly
  • words are used correctly
  • all modifying words refer clearly to the words they intend to modify
  • all verb forms are correct and consistent
  • all verbs agree with the subject
  • there are no inconsistencies in dates, names, times and numbers
  • margins, headers/footers, spacing, indentations in the document are done properly
Proofreading is as hard and time consuming as the initial manuscript and hence demands the same effort and attention. Tools like Spell check do make the job easier but they are not enough.  Spell check can choose a word but it cannot choose the right word.You need to check for correct uses of homonyms like sea/see, to/too/two as it cannot identify suitable ones.You also need to solve eternal riddles like whether  'who' or ' whom' will make the sentence correct.

There are some handy tips, though, to make proofreading easier and more thorough:

  • Read the document with one objective at a time. It is better to read once for content issues, a second time for grammar problems, a third time for formatting and so on.
  • Reading the document in reverse helps. Typographical errors and duplicated words are particularly easy to catch as there is no logic or sense in what you are reading. For detecting other errors of content, punctuation,grammar and syntax read the final sentence first and work your way towards the beginning.
  • Re read the text after correcting the errors.
  • Make smaller blocks of text from a large one so you can concentrate better.
  • Make the font size bigger so that it is easier to mark.
©2008 VisionIndia2047

Style Chapter 10: Editing

  • All work should undergo thorough editing. No matter how perfect the first draft is, it will always be tighter after good editing.
  • Do not fall in love with all the information you have sweated for. Do not be tempted to cram some more where it is not needed. Reader does not have time to indulge you.
  • You can have the heart of a poet while writing but you should have the heart of a butcher when editing. Go at your work with a hacking knife, not a scalpel. You should be prepared to cut out paragraphs not just words.The fewer words you are able to use to deliver the message, the better chance you have of drawing the reader in and keeping him there.
  •      Some tips to edit your work:  
    • Make sure the writing does not keep the reader waiting too long to tell what you will talk about.
    • That the writing does not make him angry by preaching to him.
    • Make sure it does not give irrelevant details to make him turn around and say 'so what?'
    • Check each paragraph if  (a) it has a topic sentence to say what it is about, (b) it has clear and specific details (c) all other sentences in the paragraph relate to the topic sentence.
    • Put yourself in place of your audience reading the document for the first time. Then judge whether the writing makes sense and if it is interesting from start to finish.
    • Edit after some time has lapsed. You will have a better perspective. Ajay Goyal says "No matter how much I love what I have written today I have come to understand I will dislike it tomorrow and probably hate it next week. I edit articles with next week's perspective."
    • Edit with your ears.  It is easier to detect the flab when you are reading aloud.  To check sentence length, a good test is to see if you can say it in one breath.
    • Do it in print. Only few professional editors can edit on screen. Its best to print a copy and edit with pen.
    • Nothing daunts readers like dense blocks of text. Break the text into as many paragraphs as you can to give space.
    • Confirm that all the names are spelt correctly.
    • It is also good to let someone else read for you. Such editing is an act of humility. It is hard to accept critique of your work. But it can help to detect flaws that you cannot see and bring your thoughts closer to the readers.
    • Edit only after you have finished writing. Editing and writing do not go hand in hand.
  • Writing a good piece is not luck. It takes painstaking editing to nurture the seeds in first drafts. It needs trimming and polishing to create a great final piece. First drafts are often like diamonds in the rough. They need to be cut and polished for them to shine and glitter.
  • Example: This is an article Manglore Mistakes by Trisha Gupta on op-ed page at indianexpress.com
  • It is a good example of how good content can be buried in long sentences, blocks of text and confusing punctuation. This is one article that could definitely have done with good editing.  The whole article is three solid pieces of text with run on sentences and numerous quotations.It is so annoying that it takes all your will power to stay with the article even though the writer has a fresh point of view.

©2008 VisionIndia2047