10 suggestions for better writing

I may or may not have any particular professional skills, but one I have is writing. The audit/consulting profession that I’m in requires a lot of very dry technical writing that has almost evolved into its own little niche language. Sentences like “ensure that the failed control has been tested and proven to be operationally effective (e.g. substantive control tests passed) for at least the consecutive number of required time periods” are quite common. The writing is often tortured and the underlying material is dry and brittle.

George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, had some very useful and succinct writing tips in his essay “On Politics and the English Language.” A few of them are:

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules are not often applied to technical writing. Perhaps they shouldn’t be applied, since part of the audience, at least, is technical and doesn’t want simplified language. However, the horrible level of writing I see in my daily work has led me to come up with 10 suggestions for solid professional writing. None of these are terribly difficult to implement, and if most people would take them to heart the quality of their work would certainly improve. I am not perfect in my writing style – I tend to the verbose – but I think these tips could work for anyone.

  1.  It’s the spellcheck, stupid. When did Microsoft Word start performing spellcheck? 1992? Word 2.0? I cringe to this day to get a document containing mistakes that could have been easily detected with spellcheck. I mistype the word “material” almost every time I type it; my fingers get crossed every time. But spellcheck catches my mistake and fixes it automatically. My favorite word processor, OpenOffice Writer, has a spellcheck function, and it’s completely free, so even if you can’t afford Word there’s no excuse.
  2. It should be noted that extraneous phrases like “it should be noted” or “it was noted” absolutely destroy a sentence. Don’t use them – ever. We note it, already.
  3. After about 2 or 3 lines stick a period in your sentence. Very few professional documents suffer from a lack of wording. Any time I see more than two or three lines in a sentence, or more than 4 or 5 commas, I go back and try to cut it into multiple smaller sentences. It makes it easier to read and to comprehend.
  4. Don’t use passive voice. You hear this advice often, but it’s trickier than it sounds. Usually in professional writing you are attempting to dodge assigning blame or responsibility. For example, you might say “The documents in question are prepared on a weekly basis for review by management” rather than “John Smith, accounting clerk, prepares the documents in question on a weekly basis for review by management.” However, writing that continually pounds away in passive voice is boring because it’s not the way we naturally speak: “This Guidance is intended to establish the minimum requirements” is not nearly as strong as “This guidance establishes the minimum requirements.”
  5. Don’t use slang language, or “slanguage”. You have to assume that your average professional reader knows many common terms and abbreviations. I assume in my audit world that everyone is familiar with COSO and the SEC and the AICPA and the meaning of the words materiality, attestationremediation. However, if the document is intended for anyone who might not know the technical usage of those words, I should take care to explain them. Nothing will cause someone to put down a document more quickly than failing to comprehend two or three sentences in a row because they didn’t understand a term. If I told you to remediate the LOB PP in accordance w/ the PY w/p’s, you won’t read much further if you don’t know what that means. and
  6. Read it out loud. I think a lot of people, myself included, never read their own writing out loud (or possibly at all). When you read some sentences out loud, they sound wrong. There is nothing grammatically or stylistically wrong with them, but they don’t sound ‘healthy’. Try reading a line or two out loud and see if it sounds natural. If not, tweak it until it does.
  7. Cut out the fat. I read a lot of technical writing with phrases such as “Thoroughly document the underlying controls explicitly.” While the writer may be making a good faith attempt to hammer home the need to be thorough, this sentence says the same thing: “Document the underlying controls.” Adverbs are unnecessary 99% of the time in professional settings (as are most adjectives).
  8. Don’t be afraid to talk like a human. Unless you work with near-sentient apes or dolphins or computers, I imagine all of your target audience will be human. Humans tend to talk in a fairly direct way: “I want you to finish that project,” not “Management should be made aware when the project has been finalized.” A lot of this style choice depends on the target audience, but whenever I’m writing I try to write like a human first – then if my client wants something tech’d and geek’d up I’ll give them the robot wording.
  9. Read. Try reading a lot. There are a number of good writers out there, both prose and technical. Read a few newspaper articles or blogs and figure out which ones work for you. I imagine if you examine them you’ll realize that often what you prefer to read is categorized by the writing style, not by the content. There are a number of writers I like more for their style than for their content – particularly in finance writing, where the subject matter is often horrendously boring but is made readable and even enjoyable by a light-hearted approach to the writing (Ben Stein and Penelope Trunk, for example).
  10. Learn to type. Another weird suggestion, since it’s a mechanical one, but trust me – if you can type at a high rate of speed your writing will improve. I guess there are great pen-and-paper writers still out there. But for technical writing, it’s almost impossible to write things out by hand. My ability to slam out a few sentences, look at them in Word or Writer and see if they look and sound right, then zip back and retype is critical for my writing.

As a final note, one of the interesting things you get out of blogging is a release from dry technical writing. In any given day I may crank out 20 pages of audit babble at work – emails, memos, longer position papers, reports or project plans. All of them filter through multiple layers of review and revision, so the work is seldom mine and mine alone. My writing style is buried in avalanche of personal preferences and flat-out bad writing by my superiors. This blog, however, is straight out of my head, and I hope that it will slowly allow me to find a personal writing style separate from my work writing style. Now go home and write a two page essay on a topic of your choice and then read it back to yourself in two weeks.

3 Replies to “10 suggestions for better writing”

  1. Even worse than “it should be noted” is “as you know.” First of all, people usually say it to me when referring to something that I actually didn’t know. Second, if I knew it, I wouldn’t need them to tell me I knew it. But you know what’s even worse than that? “As you may or may not know.” Can you think of another way to use so many words to say so little?

  2. I recommend reading Elements of Style by Strunk if you haven’t already. It’s pretty dry and boring, but it covers many of these – and I think all of the tips from the Orwell essay.

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