Better writing can result in proposals that win contracts, advertisements that sell
products, instruction manuals that users can follow, billboards that catch a driver’s attention. stories that make us laugh or cry, and letters, memos, and reports that get your message across to the reader. Here are 12 tips on style and word choice that can make writing clear and persuasive.
1. PRESENT YOUR BEST SELF
Your moods vary. After all, you’re only human. But while it is sometimes difficult to
present your best self in conversation, which is spontaneous and instant, letters are written alone and on your own schedule. Therefore, you can and should take the time to let your most pleasant personality shine through in your writing.
Be especially careful when replying to an e-mail message you have received. The
temptation is to treat the message as conversation, and if you are irritated or just outrageously pressured and busy, the tendency is to reply in a clipped and curt fashion — again, not showing you at your best.
The solution? Although you may be eager to reply immediately to e-mail so you can get the message out of your inbox, a better strategy for when your reply is important is to set it aside, compose your answer when you are not so time pressured, and read it carefully before sending.
A Tip: Never write a letter when angry. If you must write the letter when angry, then put it aside without sending it, and come back to it later.You will most likely want to throw it out and start over, not send it at all, or drastically revise it.
Remember, once you hit the Reply button, it is too late to get the message back. It’s out there, and you can’t retrieve it. Same thing when you drop a letter in the mailbox
(it’s actually a felony to reach into the mailbox and try to retrieve the letter!).
2. WRITE IN A CLEAR, CONVERSATIONAL STYLE
Naturally, a memo on sizing pumps shouldn’t have the same chatty tone as a personal letter. But most business and technical professionals lean too much in the other direction, and their sharp thinking is obscured by windy, overly formal prose.
The key to success in business or technical writing? Keep it simple. I’ve said this
before, but it bears repeating: Write to express — not to impress. A relaxed, conversational style can add vigor and clarity to your letters.
3. BE CONCISE
Professionals, especially those in industry, are busy people. Make your writing less time-consuming for them to read by telling the whole story in the fewest possible words.
How can you make your writing more concise? One way is to avoid redundancies — a needless form of wordiness in which a modifier repeats an idea already contained within the word being modified. For example, a recent trade ad described a product as a “new innovation.” Could there be such a thing as an old innovation? The ad also said the product was “very unique.” Unique means “one of a kind,” so it is impossible for anything to be very unique.
Many writers are fond of overblown expressions such as “the fact that,” “it is well
known that,” and “it is the purpose of this writer to show that.” These take up space but add little to meaning or clarity.
4. BE CONSISTENT
“A foolish consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little
minds.” This may be so. But, on the other hand, inconsistencies in your writing will
confuse your readers and convince them that your information and reasoning are as sloppy and unorganized as your prose. Good writers strive for consistency in their use of numbers, hyphens, units of measure, punctuation, equations, grammar, symbols, capitalization, technical terms, and abbreviations. Keep in mind that if you are inconsistent in any of these matters of usage, you are automatically wrong at least part of the time.
For example, many writers are inconsistent in the use of hyphens. The rule is: two words that form an adjective are hyphenated. Thus, write: first-order reaction, fluidized-bed combustion, high-sulfur coal, space-time continuum.
5. USE JARGON SPARINGLY
Many disciplines and specialties have a special language all their own. Technical
terms are a helpful shorthand when you’re communicating within the profession, but they may confuse readers who do not have your special background. Take the word, “yield,” for example. To a chemical engineer, yield is a measure of how much product a reaction produces. But to car drivers, yield means slowing down (and stopping, if necessary) at an intersection.
Other words that have special meaning to chemical engineers but have a different definition in everyday use include: vacuum, pressure, batch, bypass, recycle, concentration, mole, purge, saturation, catalyst. A good working definition of jargon is, “Language more complex than the ideas it serves to communicate.” Use legitimate technical terms when they communicate your ideas precisely, but avoid using jargon just because the words sound impressive. In other words, do not write that material is “gravimetrically conveyed” when it is simply dumped. If you are a dentist, do not tell patients you have a procedure to help “stabilize mobile dentition” when what it really does is keeps loose teeth in place.