TIM ALBERT writer and trainer
TIM ALBERTwriter and trainer

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Effective writing: a practical definition

Effective writing:  Defining this is one of the most important issues in my book. Unfortunately, many people are vague about what they consider to be good writing, and define it in subjective terms: 'I know it when I see it. It sort of flows. And it’s elegant'.


I favour a more practical definition: effective writing achieves the purpose we set it. Effective writing does not set out to be obscure and misunderstood (see political writing), nor is it written to satisfy some urge within the writer (see great writers). It is not an art form but a tool, and the way to measure it is to set out in advance what you want to do. This then becomes the standard you can measure it against.


For instance, you can consider an article a ‘good’ one when it is accepted for publication in your target journal (waiting for praise is likely to disappoint).


Consider a report successful when your preferred recommendations get accepted. Be satisfied with a letter if the recipient comes back for more information, or (under different circumstances) does not come back for more information. A leaflet appealing for blood donors can be considered a success when the target number of donors appears.

The principle is that writing is your servant, not your master. If you define in advance what you want your writing to do, you can also define in advance how to measure it. Failure to do this can lead to confusion and depression as you start to believe those who tell you, for all kinds of reasons and with no real evidence, that your writing is poor (see PIANO, above).


This passage comes from from A-Z of Medical Writing, by Tim Albert, BMJ Books, 2000

PIANO to Polyfontophilia: some of the concepts in the book

Evidence based writing: Instead of arguing endlessly whether to use jargon, or pompous initial capitals, or split infinitives, or the passive voice, look at the evidence of what your target audience prefers. This approach will save hours of argument and stress.


First six words test: This test involves reading out loud the first six words, and asking the question: 'Could I persuade more people to start reading if I were to use different words?'


Law of late literals: At least one mistake in a piece of writing will be discovered once it is too late to do anything about it. The only consolation is to think of all the things you did get right.


PIANO: My very own acronym. And it provides a vital principle for effective writing: Put It Across Not Out. Actually it’s quite hard to do.


Polyfontophilia: The love of many typefaces. Modern programs allow us to use a wide range of them nowadays but this does not mean that you have to use all of them at the same time.


Post spelling bee traumatic disorder: The surprisingly common fear that, unless we can trot out long and obscure words – and spell them correctly – we will be judged as dunces. This tends to demotivate otherwise good writers.


Premature expostulation: Some people start writing as soon as they have an idea – and before they have done any thinking about that idea. This can be deeply unsatisfying.

Pub test: Whenever you come across a particularly impenetrable piece of prose that you have written, ask: ‘How would I have explained this to my target reader, face to face?' This invariably produces a sentence that is simpler and easier to understand.


Putting on the posh overcoat: We can go to enormous lengths to make an understandable spoken sentence, “Please turn off the light” into gobbledegook: 'It is recommended that the overhead illumination be forthwith terminated' On some occasions (such as writing for people who believe that writing is only of value when they have to struggle over the meaning) you may have to write to impress, but do not expect readers to act on what you have written.


These definitions come from A-Z of Medical Writing, by Tim Albert, BMJ Books, 2000

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BBC Radio Surrey: to hear my interview with Sarah Gorrell about my USA bus tours, click here

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