Effective Professional Writing in English – Practical Principles and Tools to Raise Your Game (Part 1 of 2)


Effective Professional Writing in English – Practical Principles and Tools to Raise Your Game (Part 1 of 2)

By David Rose

If you’re reading this, it’s likely to be because your everyday work involves writing any given combination of the diverse range of common professional documents: reports, position papers, press releases, marketing materials, meeting minutes or any of the others out there. What’s the one thing you probably all have in common? More than likely, it’s that achieving a consistently clear and effective writing style under time pressure in your second (or perhaps third?) language is challenging at the best of times.

Prior to working in Brussels, I was based in Milan, using Italian on a daily basis for ‘bread and butter’ internal documents like emails and reports. Here, I had to make regular use of a dictionary, thesaurus and grammar reference to avoid the ‘typical’ mistakes that could creep in when my busy brain was thinking a bit too much in English and not Italian.

The real ‘time-eater’, however, was when I had to produce documents for external consumption, mainly project reports, client proposals and marketing materials. There, I really needed to influence with my text – not only clients or stakeholders but also my own hierarchy too. That meant I couldn’t afford any little (often repetitive) language errors or a style of construction that didn’t meet , or better exceed, people’s (often unforgiving) expectations of what such texts should (and shouldn’t) be.

I found myself looking for a clear framework to help me write better and quicker, a sort of checklist to guide me when writing.

Well, I never did find a clear one for Italian, only lots of technical and long-winded writing textbooks that, in all honesty, I simply didn’t have the time to read, let alone spend many hours separating out the tips relevant to me.

Here, though, I’m happy to be able to propose such a framework for your professional writing in English – a straightforward, value-added framework designed for busy people!

First, an important question: are there really a set of ‘underlying principles’ of good professional writing in English we can apply across the full range of different document types and fields of work? In a nutshell, yes.

In fact, there are six interrelated principles of effective professional writing to consistently apply to your writing regardless of your field or role: audience, organisation, conciseness, precision, tone and language.

1. Audience

Do writers generally have a clear idea of exactly who they are writing for? On a general level, perhaps yes. On a more detailed level, perhaps surprisingly, often not.

I’m sure you’ve all had the experience at some stage of reading a text, for which you were part of the intended audience, where you simply ‘got lost’ – i.e. the writer assumed background knowledge you didn’t have, used acronyms you weren’t familiar with etc. Alternatively, it might have gone the other way. The writer might have over-explained things that the intended audience would obviously know, including standard, commonly-used acronyms for your field.

So, how can you avoid these common issues in your writing?

You need to consider at least three key questions and their consequences before you start writing:

(i) What background knowledge do/should they have on the topic(s)?

Consequences:

How much background is needed? Should I play it safe and provide ‘extra’ because although they should know this, I know some of my audience probably don’t…? If so, is it best in the text, as a footnote or simply as a reference?

(ii) How familiar are they with the acronyms and terms I want to use?

Consequences:

Which terms need to be defined when first used? Which don’t? Which acronyms are ‘common currency’, so I can simply use them without any further clarification? Which will need to be given in their full form when first used with the acronym in brackets?

(iii) What is their probable position(s) in response to my message(s) Receptive? Resistant? Surprised? Other?

Consequences:

What are the most suitable approaches to best deliver my message(s) relative to their position(s)?

2. Organisation

Many institutions now work with templates, providing you with a general structural outline for each specific genre of writing you work with e.g. reports, official letters, meeting minutes etc. Does yours? If not, in the absence of standardised official templates, examples of previously produced documents can provide a useful substitute to guide you in general structural layout and style – assuming of course they are well-drafted…

However, within the pre-established framework of a template, organisation is still important. Why? Because you still need to plan your writing before you actually put finger to keyboard.

Now, you may be thinking along the following lines: “I don’t do this in my language, so why is it needed?” and “Won’t this cost me rather than save me time?” These are both logical thoughts, but here we meet my second key point, namely planning well before writing is essential for efficiently producing effective text:

  • Without a solid plan of the key information you need to include in your text, it is very hard to maintain a consistently logical thread while writing. Copy and paste is a useful function, but…
  • Clearly mapping out your main sections, sub-sections and key points of content before you start allows you to more easily and quickly produce a consistently logical text that needs less revision/editing both while and after writing, so saving you time.
  • Having a clear overview of what you want to communicate, together with the hierarchy between its component parts, allows you to be more concise and clear when you do, i.e. you can focus your energy solely on approach and choice of words to achieve your desired key message(s) and intended impact(s).

3. Conciseness

As a starting point on ‘conciseness’, I have a well-known quote for you:

“Let us have an end of such phrases as these: ‘It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations’. Most of these vague phrases can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not hide from using the short expressive phrase. Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer understanding [for the reader].”

A quote from the latest best-selling book on writing skills in English? Strangely no. This quote is from a memo a British Prime Minister sent his cabinet of ministers over 60 years ago.

It serves to clearly illustrate one point: conciseness or economy of words is a central feature of professionally effective written English. A longer, more ‘wordy’ construction is not more formal or professional. It is, unfortunately, simply clumsy and often unclear – i.e. counterproductive to clearly communicating your intended message(s) and with little or no impact.

“Ah” you might say, “but I work in an international environment where most of my audience is made up of non-native speakers of English. Is that quote only relevant to native speakers of English?”

In simple terms, no. Bearing in mind the majority of your audience might well have English as a second (or third?) language, it is even more important your text communicates as clearly as possible, while of course still respecting the required level of diplomacy. It must avoid unnecessarily overcomplicated or overloaded phrases that need to be re-read to be fully understood.

So, that’s the ‘what’ and ‘why’. On its own, however, this doesn’t actually help you in practical terms, does it? You also need the ‘how’.

Recognising English favours a more concise style, how can you achieve an improved level of conciseness in your writing? Well, there are six practical principles you can apply to help you produce consistently more concise and consequently clear text.

3.1. Limit content

Question: What should be the benchmark for an ‘economic’ sentence?

Answer: Use the ‘Two Line Rule’ – if your sentence is 2 lines or longer*, stop and check to see if you can remove any unnecessary words or re-structure it into several shorter, connected sentences.

* Unless the sentence contains an extensive list or a long, complex subject and/or object e.g. the name of an organisation or title of a document

3.2 Avoid ‘overcomplicated’ phrases

Some ways of expressing yourself are obviously ‘better’ than others, but which? You should use one-word options where available.

Replace, for example:

  • ‘in the event of’ with ‘if’
  • ‘as a consequence of this’ with ‘consequently’
  • ‘despite this abovementioned fact’ with ‘however’

Additionally, use verb phrases instead of noun phrases where available.

Replace, for example:

  • ‘The objective of the initiative is to…’ with ‘the initiative aims to…’
  • ‘The completion of the first stage has…’ with ‘Completing the first stage has…’

Remember – these more economic alternatives have the same meaning and are no less formal or professional.

3.3. Eliminate surplus words

Regularly, writers include words that can simply be cut with no change in meaning, tone or grammatical correctness – termed ‘padding’.

Replace, for example:

‘The recent EC directive aims to harmonise the existing legislation in Member States and also to raise the overall level of co-operation between them in order to minimise…’

…with the ‘padding free’:

‘The recent EC directive aims to harmonise the existing legislation in Member States and also to raise the overall level of co-operation between them in order to minimise…’

3.4 Favour active instead of passive forms

The passive form, per se, doesn’t make a text more formal. If anything, it often simply makes the intended message more complicated and therefore less clear and ‘readable’.

For example, consider the following extract:

“An awareness campaign on the day-to-day aspects of health and safety has been launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It has been developed on the back of an agreement that has been made with the Ministry for Trade and Industry. This campaign aims to create new opportunities for dialogue and practical training on health and safety in both the workplace and home. In addition, companies, teachers and individual citizens will be provided with specific tools to address the issue across all environments and age groups.”

How many times is the passive used here? What does it contribute to the clarity (and so effectiveness) of the text? We can answer this by considering the same extract, but this time re-written using active instead of passive verb forms:

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched an awareness campaign on the day-to-day aspects health and safety. They have developed it in on the back of an agreement with the Ministry for Trade and Industry. This campaign aims to create new opportunities for dialogue and practical training on health and safety in both the workplace and home. In addition, it will provide companies, teachers and individual citizens with specific tools to address the issue across all environments and age groups.

This new version offers three advantages:

  • Clearer – it now more clearly informs the reader about not only the what but also the who in each case
  • Less ‘heavy’ and so more ‘readable’ – it communicates the main messages in an equally professional yet less complex form of language
  • More economic – it uses c.7% less words to say more

Note, however, that the passive does have its uses, for example when we need to be more diplomatic.

Compare: “An error was made…”  [passive]   vs.  “Finance made an error…”  [active]

The passive here allows you to report what without specifying who, so avoiding direct blame.

3.5 Use the Saxon genitive (‘s/s’) or compound

Many European languages naturally use noun phrases – i.e. phrases using the construction ‘the <noun> of/for/in the <noun>’. Writers often directly ‘translate’ this style into English text, for example:

The recent report of the British government

The meeting of the management

The cuts in the budget for 2011

English, however, generally doesn’t use this style of construction. We use the shorter Saxon Genitive – otherwise known as the ‘possessive’ – or compound noun phrase:

The British government’s recent report   [c.28% shorter]

The management meeting   [40% shorter]

The 2011 budget cuts   [c.43% shorter]

As you can see, this drastically reduces the length of each of the three examples above but still maintains the same professional tone and exact meaning.

When scaled up to the level of a whole text, consistently using the Saxon Genitive and compound noun phrase significantly reduces the length of the text, raises clarity and maximises impact.

3.6 Use linking structures

These are the ‘glue’ that bind concise ‘pieces’, whether sentences or parts of sentences, together to form clear, coherent text.

Well-written English connects ideas in a number of ways. The most common type of connectives are conjunctions – e.g. ‘and’, ‘but’.

You will most likely already be aware of the numerous general groups of linking structures, including:

Addition – also, additionally, furthermore etc.

Contrast – but, however, nevertheless etc.

Time/chronological order – previously, subsequently, in parallel etc.

Cause and effect – so, consequently, therefore etc.

Example – e.g., for example, for instance etc.

Emphasis – not only… but also…, in fact, indeed etc.

When using these, you must bear in mind three basic, important considerations:

(i) Grammatical use

Links of identical meaning may be used differently from a grammatical perspective, for example:

‘However’ requires no reference to the previous sentence:

The economic situation is challenging for the retail industry. However, sales in some sectors have been higher than expected.

But ‘despite’ does:

The economic situation is challenging for the retail industry. Despite this, sales in some sectors have been higher than expected.

(ii) Tone

Links of identical meaning have differences in tone, for example:

‘Nevertheless’ is more formal than ‘but’

‘Hence’ is more formal than ‘so’

(iii) Suitability

Each link is simply a tool to achieve clearer and more effective text. As with all tools, each is best used in the most suitable way. I assume none of you would use a hammer to try and open a tin!

Example – ‘either…or…’ vs. ‘alternatively’

Both are used to present two alternatives, ‘either… or…’ in one sentence, and ‘alternatively’ in two:

We can either outsource this or train up some of our existing staff. (1)

We can outsource this. Alternatively, we can train up some of our existing staff. (2)

Which of these two options is most suitable? Here, (1), as it avoids the repetition of ‘we can’, communicating the same message in a shorter and clearer way.

However, in other circumstances, the opposite would be true:

We could either send a further communication to try to elicit a response from them or simply accept that they have no intention of replying to our complaint and pass the issue on to the Legal department. (1)

We could send a further communication to try to elicit a response from them. Alternatively, we could simply accept that they have no intention of replying to our complaint and pass the issue on to the Legal department. (2)

Each of the two alternatives is longer and more ‘complex’ in this case. So, the message is clearer if we present each alternative in a separate sentence and connect them with ‘alternatively’, i.e. (2).

Conclusion

So, now you’ve been introduced to three of the six interrelated principles of effective professional writing – audience, organisation and conciseness – as well as a range of related, hopefully practical tools to immediately apply to your own work.

In the upcoming second part of this article, I’ll be introducing the remaining three principles: precision, tone and language.

In the meantime, please contact me at lacstraining@gmail.com if you feel your organisation can benefit from my company’s personalised, cost-effective training services.

© David Rose 2011     www.lacstraining.com

2 Comments

Filed under 3 Professional Writing Skills

2 responses to “Effective Professional Writing in English – Practical Principles and Tools to Raise Your Game (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Effective Professional Writing: Linking Words | The LACS Training Blog

  2. You have made some decent points there. I checked on the net for more
    info about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website.

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