Better writing

Jul 11, 1994

Some readers might think that a discussion of writing has no place in a management publication aimed at architects, engineers, and scientists. They couldn’t be further off the mark. Good writing skills are absolutely critical to anyone who wants to be a success in the A/E/P or environmental consulting business.

One of the greatest single complaints from top managers in this business is that professionals don’t know how to write. The principals of a 70-person environmental firm recently told me that only six people in their firm even knew how to write!

Most of what we do requires writing— proposals, letters, reports, memos, and so on – yet many technical people have had absolutely no formal training (or informal, for that matter) on how to write effectively. That’s too bad, because writing is something that all of us can improve on. Unlike some other aspects of management, good writing skills can be taught.

Here are some pointers on writing that I have found helpful over the years – maybe you will, too:

  • Avoid jargon, buzzwords, and cliches. One of my biggest complaints with the writing samples that I review from people in this industry is that we get carried away with jargon and buzzwords, which may be familiar to us but aren’t to the rest of the world. I mean phrases like “change out the coil” or “introduce prestressing into the cables.” We also tend to overuse the same old tired cliches like “state-of-the-art,” “innovative,” “cost effective,” and so forth. The result is that we either intimidate, confuse, or bore the reader, who is often one of our clients (or potential clients).
  • Keep sentences short and minimize multi-syllable words. Why use “utilize” when “use” will do? Why have a 49-word sentence when three 15-word sentences could be used? I’m not sure I know why we do these things, but the fact is that we do. Maybe we think it makes us look smart. But it doesn’t! Once again, the effect on the reader is boredom, intimidation, or both.
  • Watch out for stilted language. The reason we use stilted language, particularly in business letters, is that we all learned how to write them from our bosses. Our bosses learned from their bosses, and so on, going way back to the 19th century! When I talk about stilted language, I’m referring to terms such as “enclosed herewith” or “as per your request.” No one talks like this conversationally, so why make your letters that way? The use of stilted language hurts your ability to communicate.
  • Know what you want to say and make an outline before you start. It’s amazing how few writers actually do this. Before starting anything, I decide what I am trying to communicate. I make sure those things are addressed in my letter, report, memo, article, or whatever. I also use an outline. The term paper format taught me by my 10th grade American History teacher (the first teacher who gave me a “D” on a paper), can be adapted to any type of writing. You start with an introduction that tells the reader what you are going to tell them. Then in the next three paragraphs (or three pages, or three sections) you tell them what you said you would tell them. Then the conclusion tells them what you told them. Try the formula – it works!
  • Cut, cut, cut. It’s easy to be long-winded; it’s hard to be concise. But the effort is worth it. Revisit everything you write and omit needless words. Cut pointless paragraphs or sections. Eradicate all of the excess garbage. Then your message will shine through loud and clear, and you’ll truly look smarter to the outside world.
  • Don’t always fall back on the last proposal, letter, or memo you wrote. Sometimes you are much better off taking out a clean sheet of paper than you are going back to a similar document and using that as a starting point. That way, you won’t tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again. You’ll also find that new ideas come to you more easily when not surrounded by a lot of old ones.
  • Read what your wrote out loud. Does it sound ridiculous? If so, change it.
The writing skills of the professionals working in this business are weak. At least that’s what many top people in the industry think. That’s why teaching your people to write could really separate your firm from the rest of the pack. Originally published 7/11/1994

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