3 min read

A Refresher on Writing

A Refresher on Writing
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

I don't think I have had a lesson on writing and the English language since I was in primary school.

Once you hit a certain age, the focus shifts from the 'structural' elements of your writing to its content.

Each and every year since, including in my most recent university assignments, 'quality of writing' is still included on the marking criteria and forms an abstract, qualitative element of assessment.

Since starting this blog/newsletter/whatever this is, I have spent significantly more time writing. This has been valuable for my personal development in three ways:

  1. It has forced me to think. It is surprising how easily we trick ourselves into believing that content consumption equals productivity and knowledge accretion. If I asked you to recall the articles you read, or the videos you watched, this morning, would you be able to? By writing, I have forced myself to engage with the content I am consuming.
  2. It has archived my thoughts and ideas. When we reflect on life, we frequently turn to pictures; images that represent a snapshot in our lives. I would argue that past writing is considerably more valuable and engaging. At the end of each day on our early family holidays, my brother and I were encouraged to journal our activities for the day. Reading those journals several years later not only reminded me of the events of the holiday but also how I felt at the time. The emotions. I hope that these posts inspire equally blissful reflection in the future.
  3. It has enhanced my social life. If only 10 people ever read each post, that's 10 people with whom I can have more engaging and meaningful conversations. As someone with very limited knowledge or influence, this website is a platform to initiate discussions and engage with people all around the world; all from the comfort of my dorm room.

Although my attempt to publish an article weekly is no small task, it has been incredibly rewarding.

The Quality vs Quantity Debate

I think that the challenge of frequent publication is the balance between quantity and quality.

In reading productivity articles, listening to podcasts, and watching self-help YouTubers, I commonly hear the advice: post content as frequently as possible. Hitting the 'post' button is one of the most important elements of the process. When I think of this method, Casey Neistat immediately comes to mind. Casey posted daily vlogs on YouTube for years. Over time, the quality of his production improved naturally, and he has amassed an audience of over 12 million people.  

Nevertheless, the internet is a bottomless hole of trashy and mindless content. I would rather that my articles are not lost in this void of nothingness. While four years of legal education has been instrumental in my writing style and ability, the simple fact is that I haven't had a writing lesson since primary school.

I was reminded of this fact earlier today as I listened to Tim Ferriss's podcast with Harley Finkelstein, the COO of Shopify. The pair discussed the value of Harley's legal education for his future in business. The most notable takeaway of this discussion was his view on 'writing well'.

I quickly realised that I rarely think about the quality of my writing. Although I write several hundreds of words a day in different formats (texts, emails, blog posts etc.), I haven't taken any steps to improve my writing since primary school.

The Elements of Style

On the podcast, Harley recommends The Elements of Style, a short fifty-or-so page book which provides a refresher on grammar, punctuation, form, and even spelling. After finding the book for free on Apple Books, I finished it in about two hours.

Here are some of the lessons that stuck with me:

  • Business Names: In the names of business firms the last comma is committed: Brown, Shipley & Co.
  • Using Commas: If a conjunction is inserted the proper mark is a comma: It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Word Positioning: The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. The writer must therefore, so far as possible, bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.
  • Parentheses: When a wholly detached expression or sentence is parenthesised, the final stop comes before the last mark of the parenthesis
  • Can: means am (is, are) able. Not to be used as a substitute for may
  • Split infinitive: to inquire diligently rather than to diligently inquire
  • However: In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause. [don't start sentences with however when you can use nevertheless]. When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent e.g. However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best.  

There are several more examples and lessons throughout the book.

This short refresher on writing was more valuable than I had anticipated. It has reminded me to think carefully about my writing style and become more purposeful with my content. As I continue to balance the quantity and quality of my writing, I hope that the elements of style shine through.