Principles to write by

By | December 14, 2015

A few years ago, when I was teaching an intro class in technical writing to students at George Brown College in Toronto, I wanted to come up with a list of key writing principles that would be useful, relevant and short enough to fit on a single PowerPoint slide.

With a little help from George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984, et al) and William Zinsser (On Writing Well), I settled on three:

  1. Be simple
  2. Be brief
  3. Be clear

These principles work for tech writing, which often involves translating technical info into “normal” English for non-technical readers, but they work pretty well in the business world too, where we often fall prey to pretentious, wordy, bloated writing.

And they work very well in the time-starved digital world, where restless eyeballs move over a monitor or smartphone screen grabbing bits of text here and there, skimming headings and subheadings, and even gliding nonchalantly over entire paragraphs.

Rule #1: be simple.

I mean simple as in choosing the simpler word or expression rather than the longer or more convoluted expression. Do you need to say “employment opportunities” or will “jobs” do just as well? Does your new strategy address “enhanced customer engagement responses” or “increased sales”? Your word choices are important. One of the great things about English is its rich vocabulary, thanks to the many linguistic streams that have contributed to it. Shorter words tend be German or Norse; longer words tend to be French, Latin or Greek.

Rule #2: be brief

Your first draft will almost always be bloated. Plan to cut the word count by 10-20%. Shorter is almost always better than longer, especially in an email or onscreen document. Why write “is reflective of” when “reflects” means exactly the same thing? You’ve just cut two words. Toss out or rewrite archaic expressions like “with regard to”, “with respect to”, and “please respond if you have questions or concerns”. Current business writing style is more conversational than it used to be. Relax a little, and celebrate brevity.

Rule #3: be clear

There are two aspects to clarity. One is mechanical: grammar, spelling and punctuation errors can cloud your meaning and confuse your reader. The other is political: your moral duty as a writer is to tell the truth, but circumstances may require you to soften and smooth your words – when delivering bad news, for example. We abandon clarity completely, though, if we use language to distort or hide something. Orwell’s essay about the abuse of language, “Politics and the English Language”, is well worth reading; it’s as relevant today as it was when he wrote it 70 years ago.

So – three short rules. They’re easy enough to explain, of course, but often a challenge to put into practice. We can’t hit them perfectly every time. But in the trying we are making an effort to be better writers for our readers. And I think that’s what business – or any – communication is all about.

Political and the English Language, by George Orwell, is online at http://blogs.ubc.ca/rmst221/files/2010/01/orwell-pol-en.pdf

Or check out any collection of Orwell’s essays, including “Essays of George Orwell”, from Penguin.

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