“Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.” ~Anonymous high school essay.
It’s impossible to know whether that young man or woman will ever make a dime at the craft of writing, but you have to appreciate the precision, don’t you? Pithy analogies clearly aren’t his or her strength, but details matter a lot.
Those are the sorts of young minds I had the pleasure of working with a few years ago at the Energy Department in Washington, D.C. As brand-new hires, six scientists and engineers spent two days with me on the basics of clear, concise writing. Not a one of them had had a writing class in college, but along the way they reinforced a valuable lesson when it comes to putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
First, we had to get over a looming obstacle – what to write about. Writing exercises are most productive and least daunting when the topic is familiar to participants. At settings like the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Office, which supervised their training, that would mean writing about cleaning up radioactive waste sites.
The problem was that these recent college graduates knew virtually nothing about the specifics of the jobs that awaited them after leaving DC. All they had was a location, like Idaho Falls or Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or Cincinnati. So what, I asked myself, could I expect them to write about?
My concerns were short-lived. College had filled their heads with so much useful knowledge – details – that all I had to do was prompt them to view me, the reader, as a lay person (a congressional aide, perhaps) who’d asked a question about a technical matter with far-ranging policy implications.
As they began to develop that idea, I told them to fill in with facts, following the “show don’t tell” precept that governs any worthwhile explanatory writing: Don’t tell me that the groundwater has been contaminated by radioactive waste. Show me with details about type of waste, measurements that depict degree of damage, cause of damage – all of which set the stage for what environmental clean-up types love to call “remediation.”
Framed by a four-stage process – exploratory, draft(s), edit/revise, and publish/send – the young professionals followed the three guidelines of successful writing, whether a project report, a technical evaluation, a follow-up sales pitch, or a brief e-mail:
- Writing is thinking. It should be viewed as an opportunity, a gift of time to show how smart you are.
- Know and respect your readers. Good writers use inclusive language, not pompous, jargon-laden phrasing that excludes. They write to edify, not to impress.
- Edit/revise. The first two guidelines are meaningless if you don’t check your work carefully. Sloppy or nonexistent editing can make you and your agency look foolish.
The result was a revelation to each of the students, who’d begun the first day telling each other that they found writing intimidating. Aided by one-on-one peer review, they came up with straightforward, concise, get-to-the-point-at-the-start writing that I, the lay person, understood.
A Peruvian-born lady who had so little faith in herself and her command of English did a bang-up job describing vitrification – turning nuclear waste into glass. A young engineer from Michigan wrote an unambiguous argument for an employee drug-testing program and described how a hypothetical small business dealing with potentially dangerous substances could put it in place. What lubricated the process for him was calling on details he’d picked up in a college class and putting himself in the place of the hypothetical reader – in this case a business owner who was skeptical about drug testing.
”The best style is the style you don’t notice.” That’s how the novelist Somerset Maugham described writing that works. The world of business communications is no different. Effective writers get their points across concisely without calling attention to the way they write. The reader understands what is being conveyed – questions, answers to questions, a call to action, a persuasive point – in one reading.
Dave Griffiths has taught writing (honoring the federal Plain Writing Act), presentation skills, and media relations at 15 federal agencies. Following a 27-year career in journalism that included Pentagon coverage for Business Week, Dave, a Vietnam veteran, helped design a course linking writing and critical thinking for the VA.