Avoid Static

Mr Easton was a quirky teacher, complete with a deep love for smoking and Terry Pratchett novels. He preferred to be called by his first name (Toby) and happily inserted sexual innuendo into everyday conversation. In hindsight, he was far too inappropriate to teach thirteen year olds.

But somehow, Toby was our favourite.

We were impressed by his nuanced understanding of language and literature. He was able to communicate advanced ideas with clarity and ease. We often wondered why he devoted his life to teaching – he was capable of writing award winning books.

By the time we finished our year with Toby, he had pulled persuasive essays out of us, drilled the importance of iambic pentameter into our brains and inspired us with writing analogies.

Of these analogies, there is one that I still remember fifteen years later.

Avoid static. 

It might sound strange, but if you grew up with old fashioned radio you’ll know what I mean.

For my millennial friends, this is worthy of a detailed explanation.

Back then, smart phones didn’t exist. Radio wasn’t a station like iHeart radio that you clicked open. You had a chunky box with a tuning dial button. You had to carefully turn that button to tune into your chosen station. Anytime you missed the mark, you would hear fuzzy static that would interrupt your listening experience. It really was as laborious and slow as it sounds.

Radio could be unpredictable. There was also a chance that you might be listening to your favourite song and some static might come up. If you had a few moments of static, you would continue to listen and hoped it would disappear. But if the static was particularly bad, you would turn off the radio. If we were lucky we could listen to a cassette tape or CD, options like Spotify or Apple music weren’t around.

To make it clear, radio static is the equivalent of pop up ads.

There is nothing more annoying.

In writing, static is anything that disrupts the reader’s attention or distracts you from focussing on the writing. It can be misspelled words, incorrect grammar or a rampant lack of punctuation. But static can also arise in more subtle forms too – confusing structure, long paragraphs or words that don’t seem to be a right fit.

Each time one of those pieces of “static” pop up, it becomes an annoying whisper. Most people will forgive a few whispers. But at some point, these whispers can become so frequent or disruptive that it turns reading into a headache inducing experience. It’s insane to think someone should have to continue through that.

It’s why the best writers are deliberate and precise. They know that writing isn’t just spilling your thoughts out on paper and hoping it comes out sounding okay. It’s also not using a thesaurus to replace every seventh word with a bigger word, something that sounds smarter. It’s a crafted process that requires mastery and an understanding of how to use language appropriately.

For true writers, accurate spelling should be a given; correct usage of grammar and punctuation are non-negotiable. Word choice matters because one word can change the feeling of an entire sentence.

In fact, it all matters to them.

So how does one avoid static? Is it even possible?

I’m no expert, nor am I claiming to be one. But there is one tip of my own that helps to at least minimise static, where possible:

Read AND write as much as possible.

Doing both of those will give you sufficient exposure to quality writing. Once you’ve been exposed, you’ll have a much better understanding of the elements of language and style. It will equip you so that when you see and hear static, you’ll recognise it and more importantly, know how to remove it from your work.