The writer is responsible for the reader’s understanding.
Writing is a means of guiding the reader from one idea to another; a barrier gate that closes and opens the way at the same time. This is valid for any language, from the symbolic language of literature or daily uses of speech to the transactional utilitarian language used in expository texts, in both the work environment and personal messages proliferating in social media. However, it is particularly true in the academic environment. Here, writing is one of the most prominent instruments to communicate among its members: university assignments, e-mails and formal letters, scholarly articles, reviews… All of them require texts that get just where they should get and say just what they should say.
If we assume that writing means taking a stand and proposing a relevant idea about it, the most dangerous thing that can happen in the process is not that the reader does not comprehend what is being said, but that he understands something different from what the reader is proposing. If this happens, the writer’s position is distorted and, whatever he had to say, turned into a lie. This is exactly what we have to avoid at any cost.
A text is a weave: A package of signs whose interaction forms a unit and gives it meaning. Thus, anything happening inside and outside such interaction is the result of the decisions made by the writer at the time of structuring and developing his ideas. The use of spelling and specific punctuation marks and the selection of vocabulary and certain grammatical forms over others are only tools of which the writer makes use to take the reader where he intends. Moreover, his command of these tools determines the scope he can give to his idea and purpose. This is precisely the aim of the book La ortografía de Tarzán. Claves para escribir en la universidad [Tarzan’s Spelling. Keys for College Writing], with a first edition in 2014 and a second one in 2016, both published by Editorial CESA.
It is a book built on a comparison, justified in our opinion: that Tarzan, the character we met in the movies, just like our students, could become the king of his world, but he could not communicate clearly with his fellow men. The text was initially written for the Written Communication classes at the Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración-CESA, but concerns, as many other products of the Centro DIGA at CESA, anyone who is interested in the rudiments of formal writing and some resources to write or teach how to write (APA style, writing essays, minutes or reviews…)
When talking about formal writing, it is clear that one writes in a context, that is, no one writes to no one and just because. There is always a communicative purpose —which is the starting point— and an environment —which is where the text is going to be read— within which one should consider two elements: The reader —the audience expected to read the text concerned— and the context. In other words, someone, with whom I intend to communicate, is going to read what I write and will do so in a specific setting.
The first key to write successful texts, even before writing, is to ask yourself what you intend to achieve with each text and for whom. Then, the path is simpler. You only need to select the features that such text should have to attain it: the register in which it is going to be written, the tone, the type of words to be used… This means that you start to write before writing and that the physical exercise of putting words on a screen or on paper is much more bearable, much less difficult than you think at the beginning, if you assume that it is convenient to think before doing ¾and to fail on the first try¾. Nobody writes a good text without thinking; nobody gets a good draft without having doubted and deleted. A lot.
Another important point when writing formal texts is that, given that by definition the reader is located away from the writer (by a physical, hierarchical or functional distance), simplicity of form should prevail. It is common to find, for instance, that academic texts have specific structures that are replicated by different articles, regardless of the country where they have been written. With this, editors of journals seek, among other things, that they are easier to read, that the reader is clear about where to find the information he is looking for.
Another instrument to accomplish that communicative simplicity and effectiveness is the way in which sentences and paragraphs are structured. Any writer, no matter how novice, will notice that his first versions of a text are full of long, very long sentences that agglutinate many of the ideas he had in mind. This happens to all of us. However, this cannot happen with the final version, which should be structured based on short sentences making up paragraphs with relatively autonomous ideas. This ensures that the reader easily stores the ideas he finds and, therefore, that he puts them together and understands them effortlessly.
Considering the above, it should be clear that simplicity is not easy, that a clean, effective text is the result of hard work that begins way before sitting in front of the keyboard for the first time. This work never ends: There can always be a new version. A word, a turn can always be corrected; there is always a better way to present the central concept. This is probably why Jorge Luis Borges would state that he actually published his texts to get rid of them.