Effective Professional Writing in English – Practical Principles and Tools to Raise Your Game (Part 2 of 2)
By David Rose
So, here we are again with the second part of ‘Effective Professional Writing’.
As outlined in the first part, there are six interrelated principles to consistently apply to your writing: audience, organisation, conciseness, precision, tone and language.
Having already covered the first three of these, it’s now time to turn to the remaining three…
What do I mean by precision? Well, in a nutshell: eliminating ‘avoidable ambiguity’ i.e. clearly saying what you mean within the limits of necessary formality and/or reliability of information.
Precision works on two levels: structure and language:
In the previous edition of this article we established the need for a logical sequence to your text on the global level. Within this, it is essential to provide consistently clear signposts for the reader on a local (paragraph/sentence) level, guiding them more smoothly through your text.
This is where writers often ‘miss a trick’… Compare the two phrases below:
(a) There are a number of critical points to consider in formulating a co-ordinated response to this new initiative.
(b) There are three critical points to consider in formulating a co-ordinated response to this new initiative.
Any real difference? If so, what and what difference does it make?
The second phrase (b) precisely tells the reader how many points are coming, creating a clear framework for the more detailed information that will follow.
Additionally, compared to the more vague “a number of” used in (a), it makes the key message more memorable, helping to raise the impact of your text. Remember – readers often don’t remember all the details of your written message after one reading, but they will more easily remember (if you are precise!) how many points you make and the associated key words. Note the strong parallel here with using well-designed PowerPoint slides in presentations…
(a) Talking about Numbers
Question: what does ‘a majority of’ mean?
Answer: Is it a simple majority (50.1%)? Is it the ‘Qualified Majority’ used in the European Council (73.9% or more, for the curious among you). In reality, it means anything from 50.1 to 100%.
Question: what does ‘many’ mean?
Answer: My mind-reading skills not working so well this rainy Brussels Tuesday, I have absolutely no idea what a writer means by this… more than ‘some’ perhaps? …whatever that actually means!
It often happens in professional writing that you don’t have ‘exact’ information/data, but still need to communicate what you do have. In this situation, you have no choice but to be vague, no? Not at all.
Crucially, being either precise or vague with numerical information is not a black or white, zero-sum choice. With the right language choices, there are degrees of precision.
||83.5% of stakeholders agreed with the proposal||Exact data|
|In excess of 83.5% of stakeholders agreed with the proposal||You know approximately how much, but not exactly|
|A significant majority of stakeholders agreed with the proposal||You have no specific data, but know the ‘big picture’, so can be more precise with language|
|A majority of stakeholders agreed with the proposal||You don’t want to give clear figures (diplomacy)|
As shown in this example, vague terms should be a deliberate, conscious choice where appropriate rather than an ‘accidental’ substitute for clearer, more precise information.
(b) Precise vs. Correct
Consider the six possible options given for this example phrase:
The new European Commission initiatives radically change / will radically change / might radically change/ will radically change / could radically change/ are going to radically change the future regulatory environment.
Here’s a quick test of your language skills: which are correct?
Answer: all of them!
Precision doesn’t just mean correct language. Just because a language choice is correct per se, it doesn’t mean your readers will understand your intended message. If anything, it can lead to real misunderstanding. Like me, their mind-reading skills are probably not so good…
Now, here’s a tougher test for you: how many different precise meanings do these six options represent?
Answer: four (1. radically change; 2. will radically change; 3. may/might/could radically change; 4. are going to radically change).
Precision requires a consistently careful choice of language.
Now, finally we come to the ‘million dollar question’: what does each of these four actually mean?
Answer: if you’re not 100% sure, you can find the answer in the summary table given later in section 6 – Language.
Precision also requires clear, conscious command of language.
Inform vs. tell
A challenge vs. an issue
Cheers vs. Best regards
I’m afraid it is not currently possible vs. we can’t do it now
Your data is wrong vs. we feel your data requires further verification
Looking at the list above, I’m relatively sure you can recognise the differences between them. Equally, I’m also assuming, however, that you might not be so confident about being able to consistently produce such phrases yourself.
Tone is clearly a difficult area if English isn’t your first language. You want to be clear, but in parallel need to make sure you keep a level of formality and directness appropriate to your intended audience.
In all honesty, there’s no ‘magic wand’ here. Consistent control of tone comes from a full understanding not only of the language, but also the (at least basic) cultural aspects intrinsically connected to it. Remember – ‘International’ English may not be the same as ‘Native’ English in this respect, but isn’t completely divorced from it either.
Despite the lack of a ‘magic wand’, I can provide two useful sets of guidelines to help you better choose your words and style of expression:
(i) Word Level: Individual Word Choices
Consider this group of high-frequency words:
request obtain/receive provide further enquire get needs give
inform requirements ask for more possess tell ask have
Question: can you separate them into more formal/less formal pairs of equal meaning?
Answer: you’ve hopefully come up with this:
|More Formal||Less Formal|
|Obtain / Receive||Get|
If you speak a Latin language, (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian etc.), you may have already noticed that the more formal word of each pair often resembles a word from that language.
As a general guideline, words derived from Latin are more formal.
Regardless of your language background or knowledge, a good dictionary will provide you with the origin of a word, allowing you to check if it’s more formal or not. There are lots of reliable online dictionaries available with this feature, e.g. Oxford Dictionaries Online and Word Reference.
(ii) Phrase Level: Direct vs. Indirect
English, like every language, has a ‘code’ allowing its users to phrase their messages in a recognisably more indirect (diplomatic) style. Remember, ‘International’ English respects the basic elements of this ‘code’.
Here are three key elements:(a) Soften Negative Responses
I’m afraid / I’m sorry but I don’t agree vs. I don’t agree
Unfortunately, it is not possible vs. It’s not possible
(b) Avoid ‘Strong’ Words
This could be an issue vs. This could be a problem
The information is inaccurate vs. This information is wrong
(c) Replace Direct Negatives
It could be clearer vs. I don’t agree
It has room for improvement vs. It’s not very good
Last but by no means least we come to the accuracy of your grammar and vocabulary – black and white, correct or incorrect.
Clearly, your language choices can have a major impact on the overall clarity and ‘professional image’ of your text. At one extreme, frequent but minor errors may simply make a less professional impression on the reader. At the other, your text may fail to express your intended meaning in parts.
You’ve probably all studied English grammar at some stage, possibly until you feel you can take no more! Your head is also most likely (quite) full of vocabulary, especially the more restricted set specific to your work area.
So, why do grammar and vocabulary errors still creep into your writing?
Well, I assume you’ve already taken on board my ideas about conciseness from the first part of this article – because over complex sentences make it exponentially harder to maintain accurate language choices.
With this taken as read, three factors spring to mind:
(i) Time Pressure
This affects native speakers and non-native speakers of English alike. Apart from making sure you’ve made a clear, logical plan before writing, I’m sorry but I can’t help here…!
(ii) Not Taking Advantage…
…of all the tools readily available to help you, for example:
- Is MS Word set in English? Does your organisation use UK or US English?
- Are you following the words/phrases underlined in red/green in MS Office?
- Are you using a dictionary to check word choices where needed?
- Are you using a thesaurus to eliminate avoidable repetition?
(iii) Language Doubts
Even if you are using all the available tools, you most likely still have grammar doubts while writing, both with ‘big’ areas such as tenses and ‘small’ areas such as prepositions, articles (‘the’ or no ‘the’?) and phrasal verbs to name a few.
How can you deal with these? Do you have a reliable grammar reference book? If so, do you really have time to look everything up? Realistically, I doubt it.
Covering all the ‘problem areas’ of English grammar is beyond this article’s scope. So, for the sake of practicality I’ve decided to focus on the most common area of language difficulty in the wide range of documents I analyse in my work – tenses.
I’ve developed the following ‘common usage’ reference table to help you:
|Currently/presently, the situation is changing.|
|Present perfect continuous||Since 2007, Member States have been implementing new measures to…|
|Past background/ completed action or event||
|The activity, started in 2008, aimed to…|
Update, change, development (finished, current/relevant consequence)
Present perfect simple
|The new initiative has produced significant resultsConsequently, instances of budgetary difficulties have dramatically fallen The recent development has outlined three key issues|
|Future probability||Certain + evidence||Is/are going to||This is going to bring significant changes in…due to…Its effects will allow all stakeholders to… This is not going to have immediate results, because of…|
|Certain + evidence||Is/are not going to|
|Future intention||Is/are (not) going to (= intend to)||National authorities are going to/intend to implement…|
|Is/are (not) +ing
(=is/are scheduled to)
|The conference is taking place/is scheduled to take place on 14th November 2010 in Brussels|
So, I’ve outlined the six principles of effective professional writing and what I hope are a series of practical, ready-to-use tips and guidelines for you.
Now, it’s over to you to apply them to your writing.
Have you found these two articles on writing skills useful?
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel your organisation can benefit from my company’s personalised, cost-effective training services.
You can find out more information about the range of language and communication skills training services on offer by visiting www.lacstraining.com.
© David Rose 2011