Clear writing gets attention up high
From: Houston Chronicle, July 12, 1998
WRITING well ranks second only to management skills in business today. But job candidates with good writing skills are a rare species.
Communications skills don't come easily to many executives. That is especially true for those with scientific or engineering backgrounds.
One explanation may be that their reading is more narrowly focused on their particular expertise. Keeping up with their field means they have little time to read general writing - especially fiction, which tends to have better writing than nonfiction. And the easiest way to pick up good writing skills is to read good writers.
What's good business writing ? It's clear writing . Most of us just aren't capable of elegant writing . We all can't be Leon Hale. But we can keep it simple.
Clear writing can be taught. Dr. Kathy El-Messidi does it three times a year. While her day job is associate director of the Center for Research in Parallel Computation at Rice University, she teaches writing on the job in night classes for Rice's School of Continuing Studies.
Engineers and administrators make up the majority of her students - mostly mid- to upper-level professionals.
She teaches writing the usual way, by making students write and then having the class critique each other's work.
El-Messidi always starts the same way, by having her students describe a simple process like how to tie a shoe. Try it. It's more difficult than it sounds.
Take advice from a pro
Here are some rules about clear business writing . They come from El-Messidi's course outline and also from my own experience.
Mumbling has its moments
Of course one problem with all this clear writing is, if the project collapses, they know just whom to blame.
So if your company has a "gotcha" culture, perhaps you should adopt the advice of the International Association of Professional Bureaucrats, a gag organization founded by James H. Boren. Its motto is, "When in doubt, mumble."
Or you might take a lesson from the safety announcements given by airline flight crews prior to takeoff. They are masterpieces of ambiguity - and deliberately designed that way, of course.
That's because - as strange as it may seem - there are people who regard riding in a metal tube going at the speed of a fired pistol bullet at an altitude high enough that the air outside will not support life, as an unnatural act. The announcement is designed to tell passengers what to do "in the event of an emergency" without actually using any alarming words.
So they tell you all about the life vest under your seat or, "Your seat cushion is your flotation device." They don't mention just why you might need to be floating or the frightening necessity of determining how long you can tread water.
For the airlines, obscurity here is the best policy. But for most of us, clear writing provides more brownie points.
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