Part I The Basics of Strong Writing
In Part I you will learn about
• The difference between professional writing and academic writing,
• The seven Cs of good writing,
• The importance of correct grammar, and
• The importance of accurate copy-editing.
Chapter 1 Plain Language
In this chapter you will learn about
• The difference between academic and business writing and
• The importance of writing in plain language.
BUSINESS COMMUNICATION VERSUS ACADEMIC WRITING
The Preface briefly discussed the formats we will learn in this book—correspondence, report formats, and the like—but also the importance of good writing within each format. If the writing in a report, say, is inferior, that report will fail no matter how well it’s formatted. So in Chapters 1
we’ll discuss how to develop strong writing, and Chapter 3
will be all about grammar.
To be a good communicator in business and the professions, you may have to unlearn some of the techniques that might have made you a good academic writer. Here is what you are likely to find in good academic writing.
• The information is often highly complex.
• The language is often highly specialized.
• Sentences tend to be long and complex, in keeping with the complex subject matter.
• Paragraphs are long enough to explore each complex idea deeply.
• The style is formal—it avoids “I” and “you,” although “we” is sometimes acceptable, and it doesn’t use contractions (e.g., you will write “does not” instead of “doesn’t”).
• Academic citation and works-cited styles, like APA, MLA, or other academic formats, are highly detailed and strictly followed.
• Grammar rules are strictly followed (e.g., the “Oxford” comma is preferred, colons are used after full sentences and before lists, and so on. We’ll discuss these rules in Chapter 3
Most professional, non-academic writing, on the other hand, is very different.
• Ideas are expressed as simply and concisely as possible.
• Specialized words and jargon are avoided if possible (it’s not always possible, and specialized language may be necessary for some audiences).
• Sentences have one main idea, with perhaps one or at most two supporting ideas.
• Paragraphs are short—four to eight lines would be typical.
• The style is more informal than in academic writing; first (“I,” “me,” “we”), second (“you”), and third person (“he,” “her,” “they,” etc.) are all allowed, as are contractions (“don’t” rather than “do not” is acceptable).
• Grammar rules are (slightly!) relaxed (for example, sentence fragments are sometimes allowed for rhetorical effect, but in moderation, comma use is not rigid, and so on).
Academic and business writing styles are different because they have different audiences. The academic writer and reader is a specialist in a particular discipline, and specialized language is part of that discipline. The audience for a business or professional document is more often a generalist one, and this audience calls for a less specialized vocabulary and less complex set of concepts.
But, more importantly, the business or professional audience doesn’t want to spend a lot of time figuring out what the wording in a particular report or memo is trying to say—time is money! The meaning of professional writing should be immediately clear, unlike academic writing, which is sometimes obscure.
On the page, too, academic writing looks different from business and professional writing. An academic essay or published article may consist of page after page of print, in long, gray paragraphs, perhaps broken by the occasional picture, chart, or diagram. As a visual experience, an academic essay can be hard going; however, the hard going is, the academic writer hopes, rewarded by the essay’s stimulating intellectual content. That said, academic writing in some disciplines is moving toward a plainer style!
A business or professional document aims to be much more attractive, visually speaking. That means using white space, lists, pictures, charts and graphics, headings and subheadings, and many other techniques for easy readability that we will be discussing below in this chapter on plain language and in Chapter 5
on document design.
The British passport office found that 52 percent of passport applicants couldn’t complete the form properly. When the form was rewritten in plain English, 97 percent of applicants were able to fill it out correctly, for a saving of 370,000 hours of administration time per year. Similarly, the UK’s Royal Mail used mail-forwarding forms that had an 87 percent error rate among users and cost £10,000 a week for corrections. When the forms were rewritten the error rate fell and the Royal Mail saved £500,000 in only nine months.
The following websites offer useful information on plain language:
2. Center for Plain Language: https://centerforplainlanguage.org/learning-training/five-steps-plain-language/
3. George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” on the need for plain language: https://biblio.wiki/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language
Business, legal, government, and professional writing can, over time, sink into a morass of technical jargon and convoluted syntax that is almost unintelligible to the general public. In other words, this writing has become the communication of experts for other experts. This bureaucratese wouldn’t be a problem if these documents didn’t have to be read by non-experts, but that is often not the case.
For example, legal documents such as contracts, mortgages, and wills need to be both read and understood by people who aren’t lawyers. Government communications often contain important information about laws and regulations on everything from legal business practices to the size and type of pipe fittings in a new house. If the business owners and tradespeople who have to follow building regulations, for example, can’t understand the regulations—and they often can’t—then there’s a problem.
In short, hard-to-read texts cause more
• staff time lost to problem solving.1
Therefore, many businesses and governments around the world are moving to put their communications into what is called plain language or plain English.
Features of Plain Language
What is plain English? It has a number of features:
• It uses concrete and specific examples rather than abstractions to be as clear as possible.
• It avoids unfamiliar words and technical jargon.
For example, it prefers “know” to the jargonistic “fully cognizant.”
• It uses active rather than passive verbs for clarity, directness, and conciseness. Active verbs use fewer words: “The man ate the sandwich” (five words) versus “The sandwich was eaten by the man” (seven words).
• It avoids wordy expressions (“in order to do business” = “to do business”; “at the present time” = “now”).
• It avoids repetitiveness (“please return my stapler back to me” = “please return my stapler”).
• It avoids nominalizations
—verbs used as nouns. So, instead of “He gave an introduction to the next speaker,” you would write “He introduced the next speaker.” In the first example sentence, “introduction” is a nominalization. Chapter 2
has more on nominalizations.
Plain language also aims to make text as easy to read as possible by
• using white space to make documents more readable;
• making document-design elements easy to read;
• using headings and well-labeled graphics, if appropriate; and
• using easy-to-read lists, tables, and indexes whenever possible.
In the next section we’ll look at examples of how plain language can make communication clearer.
Examples of Plain Language
In recent years governments across North America have been rewriting cumbersomely worded and sometimes incomprehensible legislation into language the average person can understand. The result? The government saves time and money because civil servants don’t have to field so many calls and letters asking what the laws and regulations mean.
Here’s how one government has described this effort:
Why is it important to use plain language? … It is more efficient, more effective, and leads to better public relations. Less time is needed to find and understand the information, less time is needed to deal with people who did not understand the information, and fewer errors are made.
• Improves compliance, which reduces enforcement costs.
• Expresses thoughts clearly, which reduces the likelihood of a legal challenge.
• Responds to the needs of the audience—people don’t feel their time is unnecessarily wasted.
• Ultimately reduces costs for the public.2
The government’s website on plain language, www.plainlanguage.gov,
states the benefits of plain language as follows:
• fewer calls from customers (by about 80%),
• less time for users to solve a problem (about half the time),
• fewer errors by customers (from 40% to 20%), and