Did I Make Myself Clear … about Writing?

Clear WritingSmall words require clear thinking and large words often make writing unclear.

Obscured ideas fail to communicate, as in this example: Our inability to approve your application for credit based on insufficient down payment and the potential inability to meet repayment obligations as scheduled due to inadequate income.

Small words make you sound courteous and large words may make your writing sound cold, robbing it of charm. For example: Mr. McClain addressed this office’s August staff meeting. Attendees were duly impressed with the multitudinous tasks involved in the accumulation of relevant, pertinent data and how these tasks are implemented by the MDSI team.

Use the Active Voice
When you learned the basics of sentence structure, your English teacher used a sentence like, “The dog buried the bone.” You also learned some basic terms – subject, transitive verb, direct object (Dog – buried – bone.) That sentence is fundamental in the structure of the English language. It is in the ACTIVE voice. The same thing in the passive voice would be, “The bone was buried by the dog.”

The active voice tends to be clearer and more persuasive than the passive voice. In the active voice the subject is the doer. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action. Typically, the passive voice does not tell by whom the action was performed and that is usually an important part of the information.

The passive voice may be appropriate at times when you want to keep your writing impersonal (communicating bad news – you don’t want to state who made a decision that will have a negative impact), or you want to slow the reader down. The passive voice is often used in news reporting when sources cannot be named.

For example: The red light goes on, the instrument panel should be shut down and all settings should be checked. It should be turned on again only when it is confirmed that all pressures are within tolerances.

Alternatively: When the red light goes on, the operator should shut the instrument down and the supervisor should check all settings. The lab assistant should turn it on again only when the research manager confirms that all pressures are within tolerances.

The statistics are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 shows the statistics.

The procedure is illustrated by the diagram.

The diagram illustrates the procedure.

The F2 key is used to call up the help menu.

The F2 key calls up the help menu.

Get People into Your Writing
Some believe that good business writing must be impersonal. There is even a name for this style called the “third person.” This translates to “no person.” People are often an important part of what you are writing about and that fact does not need to be hidden.

Don’t use “I” and “we” interchangeably; that is inappropriate. Use “I” when referring to yourself and “we” when referring to your company. When you are in doubt, “we” is probably appropriate. Your English teachers probably told you, “Don’t repeat I, I, I, over and over again.” They were right. An occasional “I” is perfectly proper, even in the most serious writing.

Use a Conversational Style
A conversational style does not mean using slang. Writing should be more precise than conversation, because in writing both the writer and reader have more time. The reader expects and will not ignore carelessness in your writing.

Most people communicate better orally than in writing because we have had more experience talking. You also get instant feedback in conversation. Here is a suggestion from professional writers. When you are having trouble finding just the right approach to express an idea, ask yourself: “How would I say this to a friend?” If you can imagine how you would express an idea to someone in relaxed conversation. That is close to the best way to write. You must be more careful to be grammatically correct in writing than in talking.

Gather All Information before Writing
You cannot express an idea concisely until you have thought it through clearly. You cannot think it through clearly until you have all of the necessary information. For example, you should keep detailed notes from the beginning of any project. Do not begin writing the finished report until you have all of the information you need for the clear thinking that clear writing demands. That is usually at the end of the project.

You increase your confidence in your ideas when you have gathered all of the information in advance. You can now begin writing with the attitude that, “I really know my subject.” This level of confidence is achieved after you have finished gathering the information.

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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