2. PROFESSIONAL STYLE
2.2 Communicating with Precision
So far we have discussed the importance of writing with the reader in mind; of striking the right tone for your audience, message, and purpose; of writing constructively; and of writing persuasively. Now we move onto the actual writing itself. Two key characteristics of professional technical communication are that it is precise and concise. This precision and concision must be evident at all levels, from the overall document, to paragraphing, to sentence structure to word choice, and even to punctuation. Every word or phrase should have a distinct and useful purpose. If it doesn’t, cut it or revise.
The 7 Cs of Professional Writing
The 7 C’s are simply seven words that begin with C that characterize strong professional style. Applying the 7 C’s of professional communication will result in writing that is
CLEAR writing involves knowing what you want to say before you say it because often a lack of clarity comes from unclear thinking or poor planning; this, unfortunately, leads to confused or annoyed readers. Clear writing conveys the purpose of the document immediately to the reader; it matches vocabulary to the audience, avoiding jargon and unnecessary technical or obscure language while at the same time being precise. In clarifying your ideas, ensure that each sentence conveys one idea, and that each paragraph thoroughly develops one unified concept.
COHERENT writing ensures that the reader can easily follow your ideas and your train of thought. One idea should lead logically into the next through the use of transitional words and phrases, structural markers, planned repetition, sentences with clear subjects, headings that are clear, and effective and parallel lists. Writing that lacks coherence often sounds “choppy” and ideas seem disconnected or incomplete. Coherently connecting ideas is like building bridges between islands of thought so the reader can easily move from one idea to the next.
CONCISE writing uses the least words possible to convey the most meaning while still maintaining clarity. Avoid unnecessary padding, awkward phrasing, overuse of “to be” forms (is, are, was, were, am, be, being), long preposition strings, vagueness, unnecessary repetition and redundancy. Use active verbs whenever possible, and take the time to choose a single word rather than a long phrase or cliched expression. Think of your word count like a budget; be cost effective by making sure every word you choose does effective work for you. Cut a word, save a buck! As William Zinsser asserts, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
CONCRETE writing involves using specific, precise language to paint a picture for your readers so that they can more easily understand your ideas. If you have to explain an abstract concept or idea, try to use examples, analogies, and precise language to illustrate it. Use measurable descriptors whenever possible; avoid vague terms like “big” or “good.” Try to get your readers to “see” your ideas by using specific terms and descriptions.
CORRECT writing uses standard English punctuation, sentence structure, usage, and grammar. Being correct also means providing accurate information, as well as using the right document type and form for the task.
COMPLETE writing includes all requested information and answers all relevant questions. The more concrete and specific you are, the more likely your document will be complete as well. Review your checklist of specifications before submitting your document to its intended reader.
COURTEOUS writing entails designing a reader-friendly, easy-to-read document; using tactful language and appropriate modes of addressing the audience; and avoiding potentially offensive terminology, usage, and tone. As we have discussed in an early section, without courtesy you cannot be constructive.
In some cases, some of these might come into conflict: what if being too concise results in a tone that sounds terse, or an idea that seems incomplete? Figure 2.2.1 illustrates one method of putting all the 7Cs together.
Be mindful of the tradeoffs, and always give priority to being clear: writing that lacks clarity cannot be understood and therefore cannot achieve its purpose. Writing that adheres to the 7 C’s helps to establish your credibility as a technical professional.
Remember the librarian’s “garbled memo” from the Case Studies in Chapter 1.4? Try revising it so that it adheres to the 7 Cs; make it clear, coherent, concrete and concise, while also being complete, courteous and correct.
When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.
Sentence Variety and Length
While variety makes for interesting writing, too much of it can also reduce clarity and precision. Technical writing tends to use simple sentence structures more often than the other types. That said, simple does not necessarily mean “simplistic,” short, or lacking in density. Remember that in grammatical terms, simple just means that it has one main clause (one subject and one predicate). You can still convey quite a bit of concrete information in a simple sentence.
The other consideration for precise writing is length. Your sentences should vary in length just as they can vary in type. However, you want to avoid having too many long sentences because they take longer to read and are often more complex. That is appropriate in academic writing but less so in technical writing. The goal is to aim for an average of around 20 to 30 words per sentence. Reserve the short sentences for main points and use longer sentences for supporting points that clarify or explain cause and effect relationships. If you feel the sentence is too long, break it into two sentences. You do not want your reader to have to read a sentence twice to understand it. If you make compound or complex sentences, ensure that you use appropriate coordinating or subordinating strategies to make the relationship between clauses perfectly clear. See Appendix E to review specific information on simple, compound, and complex sentence structures.
Technical writing is precise writing. Vague, overly general, hyperbolic or subjective/ambiguous terms are simply not appropriate in this genre. You do not want to choose words and phrasing that could be interpreted in more than one way. For example, if you asked someone to define what makes a “good dog,” you might get responses like “obedient, effective hunter/retriever, well-behaved, affectionate, loyal, therapeutic, goofy” and “all dogs are good!” Choose words that most precisely, concisely, and accurately convey the idea you want to convey. Below are some guidelines and examples to follow for using precise wording.
1. Replace abstract nouns with verbs.
Verbs, more than nouns, help convey ideas concisely, so where possible, avoid using nouns derived from verbs. Often these abstract nouns end in –tion and –ment. See examples in the following chart.
2. Prefer short words to long words and phrases.
The goal is to communicate directly and plainly so use short, direct words whenever possible. In other words, don’t use long words or phrases when short ones will do. Write to express, not impress.
|cognizant; be cognizant of||aware, know|
|commence; commencement||begin, beginning|
|utilize; utilization||use (v), use (n)|
|inquire; make an inquiry||ask|
|finalize; finalization||complete, end|
|afford an opportunity to||permit, allow|
|at this point in time||now, currently|
|due to the fact that||because, due to|
|has the ability to||can|
3. Avoid clichés.
Clichés are expressions that you have probably heard and used hundreds of times. They are over-used expressions that have largely lost their meaning and impact.
|as plain as day||plainly, obvious, clear|
|ballpark figure||about, approximately|
|few and far between||rare, infrequent|
|needless to say||of course, obviously|
|last but not least||finally, lastly|
|as far as ___ is concerned||?|
4. Avoid cluttered constructions.
This category includes redundancies, repetitions, and “there is/are” and “it is” constructions.
5. Use accurate wording.
Sometimes this requires more words instead of fewer, so do not sacrifice clarity for concision. Make sure your words convey the meaning you intend. Avoid using words that have several possible meanings; do not leave room for ambiguity or alternate interpretations of your ideas. Keep in mind that readers of technical writing tend to choose literal meanings, so avoid figurative language that might be confusing (for example, using the word “decent” to describe something you like or think is good). Separate facts from opinions by using phrases like “we recommend,” “we believe,” or “in our opinion.” Use consistent terminology rather than looking for synonyms that may be less precise.
Qualify statements that need qualifying, especially if there is possibility for misinterpretation. Do not overstate through the use of absolutes and intensifiers. Avoid overusing intensifiers like “extremely,” and avoid absolutes like “never, always, all, none” as these are almost never accurate. Remember Obiwan Kenobi’s warning:
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
We tend to overuse qualifiers and intensifiers, so below are some that you should be aware of and consider whether you are using them effectively.
|in effect||in general||kind of||overall||perhaps||quite|
6. Prefer the active voice.
The active voice emphasizes the person/thing doing the action in a sentence. For example, The outfielder throws the ball. The subject, “outfielder” actively performs the action of the verb “throw.” The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action. In other words, something is being done to something by somebody: The ball was thrown (by the outfielder). Passive constructions are generally wordier and often leave out the person/thing doing the action.
|S →V →O||S ←V ←O|
|Subject → actively does the action of the verb → to the object of the sentence||Subject ← passively receives the action of the verb ← from the object|
|Subject → acts → on object||Subject ← is acted upon ← by the object|
While the passive voice has a place—particularly if you want to emphasize the receiver of an action as the subject of the sentence, or the action itself, or you want to avoid using first person—its overuse results in writing that is wordy, vague, and stuffy. When possible, use the active voice to convey who or what performs the action of the verb.
Precise writing encapsulates many of the 7 C’s; it is clear, concise, concrete, and correct. But it is also accurate and active. To write precisely and apply the 7 C’s, it is important to look critically at your sentences, perhaps in a way you may not have done before. You need to consider the design of those sentences, from the words to the phrases to the clauses, to ensure that you are communicating your message effectively.
A priority list of the 7 Cs.
- Clear: Plan ahead! Know your purpose and convey your ideas in a unified manner.
- Coherent: Organize your thoughts in a logical, structured progression.
- Concise: Budget your words wisely; ensure your writing contains only what’s necessary.
- Concrete: Use specific and precise language, use measurable descriptors and avoid vague language.
- Correct: Adhere to proper grammar, punctuation, and document structure.
- Complete: Give all the important information and answer all relevant questions.
- Courteous: Format so that the document is easy to read. Use appropriate and tactful language.
- W. Zinsser, “Simplicity,” [Online]. Available: http://www.geo.umass.edu/faculty/wclement/Writing/zinsser.html ↵
- Figure 2.2.1 created by Alyssa Zicari and Jenna Hildemann; used with permission ↵
- Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005). [Film]. Directed by G. Lucas ↵
- K. G. Blank, “Wordiness list,” Department of English, University of Victoria [Online]. Available: http://web.uvic.ca/~gkblank/wordiness.html ↵