Word Up!

Introduction 

This is a Blog full is one of pressure. That’s because I’m writing  about writing!  It’s a form of communication that’s been used since around 3000 BC .

Sometimes I write for enjoyment or simply as a ‘disk defragment’ (to make sense of the random stuff that is zipping about in my brain). But most of the time I do it for you or someone like you. I want to communicate something that may be worth knowing. The written word is a brilliant medium when done well as it communicates messages that we want to send to others. However, it’s often done poorly too.

This Blog is for coach educators, sports students, academics or anyone that writes for others. My aim is simply to get you to think about how and what you write.

process

Impact

A few weeks ago I was inspired by a chap called Geoff Thompson. He’s a 5 times world karate champion involved with the charity Youth Charter. We talked about impact; how government policy in sport and education seemed to change on the whims of people that don’t understand the big picture. It’s not just government to blame. Those charged with implementing policy get caught up with process and key performance indicators (KPI), whilst losing sight of making a difference to the society we live in. Sometimes writing is used to paper over the cracks with spin. The end result is that lots is done but less is achieved than desirable. Lack of impact if you will.

Geoff Thompson
Geoff Thompson

The Youth Charter wants to engage, motivate and inspire young people through the mediums of sport and the arts. Thompson and I both realise that for many young people these mediums offer a way out from tough circumstances and in some cases a life of crime.  In this context, ticking a box instead of focussing on impact is unethical and immoral.

My day job is to educate coaches and it is sometimes the best job I could wish for. It’s possible to influence other coaches who in turn positively impact on the lives of many others. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. 

Even with all the recent advances in technology, the written word is still the main tool used to “show people how to catch fish”. However, we often concentrate on finding out about new things or developing new knowledge rather than presenting what we already know more effectively. Language when used appropriately is a wonderful thing. It helps people develop knowledge which in turn can be used towards positive ends. In contrast, poor writing  can disengage or turn people off a subject entirely. The bottom line is that there is no point in developing knowledge if it can’t be communicated effectively and accurately to others.

Think about the use of words in a contemporary art gallery. Conceptual art can be very difficult to fathom out and a label is required to describe it. Alas the effect is usually the opposite. Curators write in a language of their own and the reader usually ends up thinking “what a pretentious load of tosh”. The end result is that what has potential to be a fascinating work, is only perceived to be relevant to a tiny minority. Grayson Perry suggests that this is done by curators to add layers of complexity to works, when they’re not really that complex. Thus, the intellect of the artist is bigged up, as is the cost of the work. However, in most academic environments, this economic argument does not apply.

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Academic Writing

Many involved in academic writing are guilty of failing to connect with those who could learn from their work. They often use a style of language which is only accessible to like-minded individuals working in a similar field. Such style may be appropriate in the basic/fundamental sciences where the aim is to discover things. It does, however, make life difficult for students or those less versed in the subject to access the knowledge. Is this appropriate?

In applied fields such as the sport sciences, sociology or education I strongly believe that the ‘end user’ should be presented with knowledge as simply and succinctly as possible. That does not mean dumbing down content or over simplifying things.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’.

Einstein-formal_portrait-35

(Albert Einstein, 1879-1955).

One of the most extreme examples of the use of language that alienates rather than educates is here. I’m naming and shaming  Bush, A. J. and Silk, M. (2010). This paper provides some very valuable messages to coach educators, highlighting the complexity of the coaching process. However, to identify their key messages requires the full version of The Oxford English Dictionary and plenty of patience. Most people would give up before they had even finished the abstract. How did you get on?

Bricolage

I kept going, originally for amusement, but then as I started to decipher it, I found it interesting. Why did the authors use overly complex language though? To what end? For the benefit of their egos? To satisfy journal editors? To comply with a sociological or educational writing convention? It was probably a combination of all of these. This text was probably published because it added to the body of knowledge; however, it’s impact is minimised by ‘challenging’ language. What a shame.

The English language is a very rich one, and used in a complex form, it can bring levels of understanding to subjects which would not be possible if done more simply. However, I argue that this is only appropriate in subjects where intellectual musings are important e.g English literature or philosophy.

Writing for Coaches

In coaching and coach education, the challenge of writing is a different one, simply because the audience is so wide. Coaches come in all shapes and forms, some are very practical people whereas others are very scientific. Some may be great coaches but they haven’t really engaged with formal education. Writing for a coaching audience is probably similar to doing an after dinner comedy speech at the UN….finding something that make the audience laugh within the constraints of cultural sensitivities and communication problems.

The solution? Writing has got to grab the attention of the reader like a tabloid, have quality content of a broadsheet and the rigour of a top academic journal. Coach educators have a challenge because they have to bring knowledge from countless disciplines together in a holistic fashion, minimise personal opinion and maximise rigour. However, the path of least resistance is often followed though, and quality suffers.

Personally, if I read something and it contains more than a few inaccuracies, then I find it difficult to engage. I don’t trust the writer’s knowledge on the subject. Of course, everyone makes mistakes and me more than most. However, as an educator, there is a responsibility to transfer knowledge accurately, avoiding guesswork or bias. In coach education it is absolutely impossible to be an expert in all areas of coaching practice. Sometimes things need to be written quickly so process and the use of quality sources is critical in quality control.

coach

The Process

During my undergraduate study the most important thing I learnt about was writing. We were provided with a simple structure to follow; to always have a beginning, middle and an end. Within that structure we were expected to:

a)        Use primary sources of evidence i.e. to avoid secondary referencing.

b)        Use only high-quality sources. It’s impossible to develop a critical understanding of a subject immediately.  Therefore, one must have confidence in the peer review process used is rigorous.

c)        Use up-to-date references, thus avoiding outdated knowledge.

d)       Recognise the limitations in ones own knowledge and any gaps you may have left.

Sometimes it’s ok to break the rules if you understand them. Following  good process is no guarantee to get it right all the time though. There’s no substitute for experience or having a  ‘feel’ for the subject .  Feel isn’t definable but it’s really obvious when a writer does not fully understand the subject matter. Peer or expert review  is essential. But why is process so important?

The Effects

We often hear of government ministers making decisions on a whim, not using evidence based practice or only using evidence that supports their own beliefs. Strong evidence to support views that confoundi their own are often ignored or argued away using rhetoric. If you’re into marketing or spin, this is how you may work  It’s understandable but can it be justified ethically? In education, economics or medicine the implications of getting it a wee bit wrong can sometimes be minor. However, by not following due process when writing can have long lasting effects on the lives of others.

The worst case scenario is something like the recent economic meltdown. Fundamental to successful capitalism as first conceptualised by Adam Smith was his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Contemporary politicians and economists conveniently side-stepped this theory and global carnage was the result.

Whilst not as important as macro-economics, educating coaches is a big responsibility. I may write a chapter and only 100 people will read it.  Not that many you may think. However, these coaches may share their newly acquired knowledge with other coaches and in turn they tell even more coaches! All these coaches may then apply their knowledge in their own coaching environment. Thus, several thousand athletes may be influenced inappropriately. It’s like a pyramid selling scheme.

The implications of taking shortcuts can and has had wide ranging implications in sport. If you don’t believe me, do a bit research on the 220 – age way of determining maximal heart rate; how coaches  talk to athletes with authority on lactate; the application of the 10000 hour rule to training; or Bayli’s and Bompa’s theories.

Fallacy can easily be confused with fact.

Another issue is that scientific information is misinterpreted by coach educators and indeed sports magazines. This is because they do not use critical thinking or have an understanding of the research process. Secondary referencing or lazy statements such as “research has shown” are used. The cardinal sin in my eyes is inferring cause and effect through correlation. However, there are few short cuts in interpreting research findings appropriately. Furthermore, a writer is unlikely to be able to communicate complex information to a wide audience unless they have the ability to apply it themselves.

whateva

The Customer

I have voices in my head. I hear them even as I write. I understand every word these voices say to me. You have voices too. You are hearing them now. You understand them.

These voices, our internal commentary, tell us what to write. The words you are reading now are the result of my voices. By the time they reach you, I will have had the chance to consider them very carefully. That’s because you are my prime concern. I want you to understand. You are my customer.

Last week I was doing a Parkrun (a 5km  running race aimed at everyone). A lad around 12 years old ran past me (little blighter). He was thudding along in an ungainly fashion. His feet were disproportionately large when compared with the rest of his body. I imagined the twin peak ground reaction force curve from his foot-strike and the effects of recent changes in his centre of mass through growth. “Run like an ant, not an elephant” I said. His gait changed slightly and he was soon running more quietly. A few carefully selected words had the desired effect . The words were right for the customer.

It’s the same when writing for others. Thinking about what information they are likely to want and how they are likely to understand and interpret it are key for them engaging with what you write. Think of their perspective rather than your own. They are your customer!

In (coach) education in the UK many sports have focussed on process, hitting learning outcomes based within educational frameworks, However, impact of all this hard work is minimised because the process focusses on the educational framework rather than the needs and wishes of the coaches and athletes.

A quote that I love, but don’t know who to attribute it to is: “Coaches have problems and universities have departments and disciplines”.

Because learning outcomes have typically been developed by those with academic educational backgrounds, knowledge is presented in an academic discipline specific manner. Therefore, topics are ‘ticked off’ the learning outcome list without fully considering they apply in a coaching (problem solving) context. Rather, coaches are given discipline specific information and left to work out how to apply it for themselves. This is fine in some; however, many other coaches fail to engage. This is because they cannot contextualise learning programmes within their own coaching environment or find it difficult to connect with how information is presented to them.

It’s not a difficult problem to solve. Coaches simply need to be treated as customers!

customer

Style and Structure

Talking of presenting, writing is more than structuring sentences together. There’s science behind it too. It’s great sitting behind a graphic designer at work. He understands the ‘why’s and how’s’ and I’m starting to get to grips with the what’s.

For example, there’s a good reason this Blog page is quite narrow, rather than going all the way across the screen. This is to do with the way the eye and the brain processes information. If the page is too narrow, it’s difficult to get momentum going. Too wide and it’s easy to disengage. Big blocks of text with narrow spacing are intimidating too.

Sentence length works in the same way. Shorter sentences seem to work best for me, with an average word count of around 15-20 words.Longer is OK too but not too often. Good punctuation is essential as getting it wrong can change a reader’s interpretation.

A Call to You All

Firstly, if you’ve got this far, congratulations! Congratulations to me because I’ve achieved what I wanted to. I wanted you to read and maybe even learn a bit.

I’m ending with a call to all academics and coach educators to consider impact by being more customer focussed and to think of others rather than being dominated by that voice in the head!

 
Top Tip Description
 Be customer focused <span style="font-size:14px;line-height:

21px;”>Always consider the audience: That’s who you’re writing for, right? Even for the most complex information, ask a non-expert to read what you have written. They should be able to get at least a good feel about what your key messages are.

Word Count If a sentence can be written in 10 words, don’t use 20, unless you are writing creatively.
Read it back aloud Read what you write back to yourself in the style of a Jackanory story teller.   (a fav programme when the presenter simply reads a book out loud for the enjoyment of the audience)
Precision of Language This is critical as it minimises the chance of your writing being mis-interpreted. Ensure that words are used accurately and in context.
Big words and simplicity Only use big words if they add to the precision of what you write and aid understanding. If the reader needs a dictionary, this may be a signal that you need a thesaurus.
Style and structure If you’re an English literature fan, writing in the style of James Joyce may be a goal. However, to connect with the audience, think about ‘building a picture in their head’.  Vary sentence length to emphasise points, but never make them too long.
Tell a story A story has a beginning, middle and an end with a ‘golden thread’ running throughout it.
Ego Are you saying something to sound clever or because it’s worth saying?
Flesch-Kincaid readability test This is a simple test that is included within Microsoft Word. It gives a good indication of writing structure and simplicity.
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2 thoughts on “Word Up!”

  1. I really like what you’re saying here! And I try to employ many of these techniques as I engage in my own writing process. That said, I’d like to acknowledge one thing that wasn’t explicit enough for me in this post: Writing is hard work! It takes time to develop ideas and more time to make them crystal clear for readers.

    I think there is a general cultural belief that writers are those people who can sit down and bang out a beautiful essay in an hour or two; however, this isn’t the case for most writers. Writing an article is like training for a race. Yes, there is the race result, the polished writing product that everyone sees. But there is also the “hidden” training where the writer engages with the arduous process of developing and refining his or her ideas. You don’t have to be a “natural” to be a writer, you just have to engage in the process for long enough to be content* with what you have written.

    A resource that I’ve found useful–especially for American writers– is the Purdue online writing lab (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/). The site covers writing from forming an English sentence to supporting your claims, and from learning the rhetorical triangle to structuring an article, paper, blog, or essay. Check it out!

    Last but not least, if you do choose to write like James Joyce, please choose to imitate his style in Dubliners and not his style in Finnegan’s Wake. The stream of consciousness style of Finnegan’s Wake is brilliant, but extremely confusing for readers. Of course, you are welcome to disagree!

    *I say “content,” here, because not many people are ever really happy with what they’ve written–especially right off the bat. The trick is knowing when to keep going and when to stop. This sense takes time to develop. To start, ask others–your partner, your brother/sister, your friend–and find out what they think.

    1. Jon

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment so constructively.

      I agree that writing can be hard work and to get more than a basic commentary takes a long time. Goodness knows how long it took for Joyce to write Finnegan’s Wake. I only managed two pages!

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