Thursday, 17 December 2009

How to improve your journaling skills

(A few years ago I was in a design team and, as a part of it, I had to write articles regularly. I saved all the articles I wrote then and never added them to my blog... until now! This one is particularly special as it tackles what is possibly my favorite part of scrapbooking: journaling. Enjoy!)

Journaling is the heart of your scrapbooks. Without it, the little details may be lost, the emotions forgotten and the moment incomplete. Some layouts only need a few written details, like names and dates, to be complete, but others demand a bit more attention.

You may have read fantastic journaling entries by other scrappers: stories that really grab the moment and make you wish you could write like that. How do they do it? Well, generally the follow some easy pointers that come from the world of journalistic writing. These pointers come from the legendary “Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., which is required reading for anyone that wishes to write better, clearer and more efficient sentences - and you don't have to be a journalist to benefit!

Use simple sentences

It may sound fairly obvious but when journaling, keep your sentences simple. Long-winded, convoluted sentences only confuse the reader and make the message get lost among all the words. A rule of thumb is that each sentence should convey one thought. When you need to change to another thought, start another sentence!

Use plain English

The best way to achieve this is to write as you speak. Basically, it’s all about avoiding jargon and using language appropriate to the reader. It isn’t about over-simplifying words, only using short ones or talking down to your audience, but about making sentences readable. Why write “we had a discussion about the matter” when you can use: “we discussed the matter”.

Use the active voice

Now, don’t worry – I’m not about to launch into a grammar lesson! But we do need to talk about it a little so that this concept is clear. An example works best:

  • Passive: Our trip to Spain will always be remembered.
  • Active: We will always remember our trip to Spain.

It's easy to note that the active voice is more direct and forceful and also sounds less complicated than the passive voice. Passive sentences often make the sentence clumsier, more long-winded and weaker. Of course there are exceptions, when it is necessary or simply sounds better, but in the main, keep them active whenever you can!

Use short paragraphs

By now you know to use short sentences to keep things readable. The theory is that a paragraph is a series of related sentences, held together by a common thought. Whenever you change a thought, you should start a new paragraph. A good rule of thumb is that a paragraph should not be more than four or five sentences long.

The “Elements of Style” indicate that each paragraph must have a topic sentence (that is, a sentence that indicates the purpose of the paragraph) and the following sentences simply support that thought or summarize it for the reader. I don’t think it’s necessary to stick to these rules strictly when journaling in your scrapbooks, but it might be a helpful tool to use when organizing your writing.

Keep statements positive

In writing, as in life, things seem better if they are presented in a positive light. Negative sentences may also be clumsy, weak and non-committal, as can be seen here:

  • Negative: He was not often on time.
  • Positive: He was usually late.

The over-use of “not” can sometimes lead to using lots of words when one will do:

  • Not honest BUT dishonest
  • Did not remember BUT forgot
  • Did not pay any attention to BUT ignored

Omit needless words

I love the English language because it is precise and to the point, as opposed to Spanish which can be a bit long and flowery. So it always surprises me when people mess around with the simplicity of English and add unnecessary words to their writing. This is done maybe to seem cleverer but I find that it just adds clutter to the text and makes the reader’s job harder. Consider these examples:

  • he is a man who INSTEAD OF he
  • in a hasty manner INSTEAD OF hastily
  • this is a subject which INSTEAD OF this subject
  • His story is a strange one INSTEAD OF his story is strange
  • the fact that he had not succeeded INSTEAD OF his failure
  • the fact that I had arrived INSTEAD OF my arrival

When you adopt active writing over passive, you will find that a lot of these extra words will disappear, and leave you with clear, pure, meaningful text.

Use groups of threes

When scrapbooking, you may have noticed that using embellishments in groups of threes (often creating a triangle) is the most pleasing in terms of design. The text equivalent is to use groups of threes, especially when describing things. Your daughter might be beautiful and clever, but saying that she is beautiful, clever and adorable lends a certain rhythm to the words and makes them more pleasing. A wet and windy day is fine, but a wet, windy and dark day tells us more and sounds better.

Try it – you will find this makes your writing more polished somehow. I’ve been using groups of threes when writing the article above, so look back now and see if you can spot some. I bet you didn’t notice them the first time, but did notice the pleasant rhythm created by the groups of threes. It’s an easy, simple and effective technique. See? A word of warning, though: don’t over-use it as it can become tiring. Keep it to when it will really make an impact and your writing will take off!

With these few guidelines and a bit of practice, you should be able to create journaling that is clearer, more effective and compelling. This will make your scrapbooks a truly cherished heirloom. Good luck!

1 comment:

JaneH said...

Great tips, Claudia! And very well presented, too.

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