FUNCTIONAL WRITING

Functional writing is simply the art of writing clearly so that everyone can understand what you're trying to say. The content should come in a sensible order which doesn't irritate the reader. Creativity and artistic flare are usually not required, but the ability to make a reasoned argument is often very helpful. You should write in simple language wherever possible, only using technical vocabulary if it is difficult to avoid it. If you are writing a manual for an electronic gadget, you need to imagine that you are writing it for an ordinary person who may be frightened of any device with more than two buttons on it. Similarly, if you are writing pages for a website like this one, you need to think about the people you hope will read it and then to try to write using language that they will be able to understand, but it can often be hard to succeed. The best way to improve your functional writing is to get other people to read it and tell you where they think the faults are.

The exercises below will ask you to write a number of different passages to see if other people find them easy to understand. You will need to listen carefully to their opinions to work out where you might have gone wrong so that you can see where you need to improve. If you can, get a friend to do the same exercises at the same time so that you can compare your efforts with theirs and learn from each others mistakes. Each exercise covers a different kind of writing, so you should work your way through them all to make sure that you have acquired all the skills necessary.


Exercise 1: Giving Instructions

Write a manual for a computer, explaining how to switch it on, start up a wordprocessor and how to write and save a document which says "task complete". It should be aimed at a complete novice. Get a friend to pretend to be that novice and to try to use a computer according to your instruction manual: he or she should deliberately misunderstand your instructions as much as possible, wherever they can be twisted to mean something else. WARNING: MAKE SURE THAT THIS PERSON IS SENSIBLE ENOUGH NOT TO DAMAGE THE MACHINE OR THE DATA STORED ON IT. Your parents would probably be the safest bet.

If your efforts were inadequate, rewrite them until they work properly. Then repeat the exercise with different gadgets until you are able to write a manual that works properly first time. A suitable challenge might be to write a manual for a digital camera, explaining how to switch it on, put it into a special mode for taking a shot in dark conditions, take a picture, and then to switch into playback mode and display the picture (but again make sure the person who is to try to follow your instructions is sensible enough not to damage the camera or to delete anything valuable from its memory). You can think up other challenges depending on the gadgets available to you.


Exercise 2: Giving an Explanation

Your challenge this time is to learn something complicated to the point where you understand it fully (assuming you don't know it all already). Once you have done this, you must write out in your own words an explanation of the thing you have learned so that someone else can learn everything you have just learned purely by reading what you have written. You will be able to learn all the necessary stuff by looking up pages in the Primary Science section of this Web site, but when you write out your own explanations you should try not look back at the pages where you got the information from: you should be doing everything using just the information in your head so that it all comes out written in your own words. You must then test your document on a friend who will again deliberately try to misunderstand everything you've written. Your job then will be to rewrite it so that it can't be twisted to mean anything you didn't intend, and also to fill in any gaps that need filling.
indentYour first challenge is to write an explanation of why metal ships don't sink. Get a friend to do the same thing at the same time, then compare what you have written with each other. If you need more practice, go on the Internet and do some research into how lightning works, and then write your own explanation from your memory of what you learned during your research. A site called howstuffworks.com would be a good starting place, and you can practise writing explanations of all manner of other things that you learn on that site until you feel that your writing is up to scratch.


Exercise 3: Making a Reasoned Argument

Write an argument in favour of the death penalty (why people should be killed if they have murdered someone). Give as many reasons as you can think of. Once you have finished that, write another argument against the use of the death penalty, giving as many reasons as you can think of for why it might not be a good idea. If your friends are doing the same thing at the same time, you should compare your arguments and see who has got the most and who has made them the most convincingly. If your work is inferior, do your best to bring it up to standard. Once you have finished with this exercise, you can then get together with your friends and argue whether you think the death penalty is a good idea or not. You may not agree with each other, so be careful not to fall out over this matter: you will never find any friend who agrees with you about everything, so don't let your beliefs get in the way of your friendships.
indentIf you need more practice, you can try these other subjects: should boxing be banned; should drivers have to wear seat belts (might it actually be safer if they weren't allowed to wear them?); should dog-walkers be banned from wearing shoes; should children be allowed to vote.


Exercise 4: Writing an account of an event

To help journalists remember not to leave out any of the details of a story, they are taught to chant the following mantra: "who; what; where; why; when." The result of this is that they often forget all about the "how", but the idea is generally sound. What I want you to do is think about an interesting incident that you have seen happen or perhaps even been a part of, and then write about it as if it is going to be a report in a newspaper. It would be best if this incident is one which your friends also witnessed or were involved in so that they can write about the same story. You can then compare your reports and see whose is best. If it isn't yours, you need to improve yours until it is up to standard. You can then do the same thing again with other incidents and try to get to the point where you and your friends can all write good reports about stories first go, always making sure that you answer the who, what, where, why, when and how questions adequately.


Exercise 5: Write a speech

Write a victory speech for a vacuous idiot who has won an election to become the Prime Minister or President of his country. In this speech he must promise the Earth to everyone, and pretend he cares about all the issues that matter most to the people. One of the key skills here is to group things in threes, never giving a list longer or shorter than that (though you can make the three items identical, as Tony Blair famously did when he said that his top three priorities were "Education, education, education", even though it was an issue which he actually knew nothing about). "We will do this, this, and that" is a punchy construction which seems to give weight to the issues mentioned, whereas a longer list becomes dull because it's only the last item that can carry the really big punch, and a shorter list can't build up to a proper punch. Issues you may wish to touch on might include global warming (where he should promise to tackle it while at the same time promoting policies that will clearly do the exact opposite), law and order (where he should pretend that he's going to get tough with criminals while in reality his policies will make it much easier to get away with crime), the health service (where he will promise to improve things, while his policies will in fact cause doctors and nurses to have to waste even more of their time doing pointless paperwork), and wars (where he will promise to make the world safer by fighting terrorists, while his policies will obviously only generate more and more terrorism). If you wish, you can try to make this comedy, but there's a strong market for this kind of material either way.


Exercise 6: Write an advert

The idea here is to try to make people want to buy some product or service which they aren't likely to want or need. I'm sure you can think up products and services for yourself, but if you're short of ideas, you could start with a crash helmet designed to protect the wearer while in bed (and bear in mind that most people actually die in bed, so it is quite a dangerous environment). You can think up other ideas of things to promote in the same way, perhaps writing the text for a brochure advertising a damp bunker as holiday accommodation, or why not write a TV advert for bottled London tap-water? Be imaginative and inject some humour into it.


Exercise 7: ...

More will be added later.