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Clear writing gets attention up high

From: Houston Chronicle, July 12, 1998
By Jim Barlow

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.

  • Keep it short. Huge multi-page reports just don't get read - especially by top management. Sure, all that detail may be necessary. But not for everyone. Tell the main story in as few sentences as possible. Follow up with more detail in appendixes.
  • Tailor the language to the audience. If you're writing for fellow bioengineers, use the specialized words common to that trade. But customers trying to use the machine those bioengineers developed may not understand that language.
  • Think before you write. Clear writing comes from clear thinking. If you don't fully understand the process or the problem, you can't explain it to others. Which means you must first establish your message. Clearly place it up front in the document. In the news biz we call that "the nut graph." Repeat the key idea - using different language - several times elsewhere in the document.
  • Tone is important. You don't write the same way to top management, your peers or the public. Tailor your approach to each.
  • Use clear, conversational language. Another old - and ungrammatical - newsroom directive is, "Write like you talk."
  • Keep sentences short. Omit unnecessary words.
  • Develop one idea per paragraph. Start with a simple topic sentence containing that idea. Follow with details, examples and definitions.
  • Few get it right the first time. Good writing means rewriting.
  • Lively writing contains action verbs, not passive ones. That's not always possible, especially when you're talking about ideas. But try.

    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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