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Squelch the Static!

The whole goal of writing should be to communicate. What you communicate and how you express your message will differ from the what and how of every other writer. That’s your unique style. Even your why might be different. (The why is to inform, to instruct, to call to action, to entertain, etc.) But the unifying goal of all writers is to communicate.

The corollary to that first principle is that anything, ANYTHING, that hinders that communication is bad for your writing. I call such hindrances static. Let me illustrate.

My family didn’t have a TV, so I had to listen to the Braves’ games on the radio. WROL was a low-wattage AM station that powered down at dusk. When that happened, I could pick up “foreign” stations (e.g., WCKY in Cincinnati, WLS in Chicago, and even KMOX in St. Louis) better than I could the local WROL. The biggest hindrance to my hearing Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson give the play-by-play was electrical static that continually interrupted my reception.

Reception of late-night games on the West Coast was horrible. Just as the Braves got bases loaded, two outs, a full count on the batter (say, Hammerin’ Hank), the pitch on its way to the plate, and the runners going, a massive static attack occurred. When it finally settled down, the play was over and I’d missed it!

The “static” might be typos resulting from lack of proofing. It might be omitted words that our minds think are there but aren’t; our minds insert them because we know what we are saying. Since the words aren’t there and our readers read was is there, communication doesn’t happen.

Other forms of static are poor grammar, poor sentence structure, poor word choice, or even lack of sentence variety. It might be the lack of logical organization of our thoughts. ANYTHING that prevents the reader from getting our message as we intend him or her to understand it is bad for communication.

Whenever a reader has to go back and re-read a sentence to get its meaning, communication has been disrupted. When a reader does a double-take after reading an unfamiliar, undefined (or unclearly defined) term, static has struck. In today’s visually oriented society, we could introduce static into our writing by choosing the wrong photos or illustrations to accompany our writing. What we write and the illustrations we put with it could send mixed signals, or at least cause the readers to wonder, What does that have to do with this?!

Our goal as writers should be to eliminate every possible source of static so that readers get a crystal-clear signal (message) from us. Only then will effective communication occur.

But even with our best efforts, static sometimes manages to make its way through. I became most aware of this when I was authoring history textbooks with a major curriculum publisher. I was amazed (appalled if it occurred in books for which I was responsible) at how mistakes could slip past the scrutinizing eyes of so many people: authors, editors, proofreaders, compositors, etc. And yet they did. Invariably, shortly after a book was printed and available to customers, we’d get calls from those customers informing us of an error or a typo or something that was left out or poorly worded.

Every editor (and writer, too, I suppose) is adept at catching certain kinds of static. For example, one editor might have a special eye for catching passive-voice constructions and turning them into the more effective active voice. Another editor might be more adept at ensuring sentence variety. But every writer should strive to become adept at doing such things, too. A “combined-arms” assault on static will be much more effective at ensuring that communication occurs as it should.

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