Carl L., Stephany R. and James R.
WRITING STYLE AND CLARITY
Style and clarity are two of the most important things to consider while writing, yet at the same time these facets remain among the most overlooked. This section considers both the importance of having a clear manner of writing and writing style and how one may go about doing so. However, before diving into such material, what writing style actually is must be made known. Lannon and Gurak claim that writing style is a blend of the way in which you construct each sentence, the length of your sentences, the words and phrases you choose, and the tone you convey, all of which is done with the reader in mind. Clarity is described by Jones as writing that is “free from obscurity, ambiguity, or undue complexity.” From the above it is apparent that it is imperative that writers—especially for those in the technical communication field—keep audience’s needs foremost. In addition to being mindful of readers, writers need to be aware of how format documents. A portion of this chapter focuses—on how one can avoid some of the most common mistakes that even some of the most experienced of writers commit. Yet the most important part of writing is directly tied to one’s audience.
When taking a journey, people most likely try to take the most efficient route possible to their targeted destination. Thus, even before one leaves, they must take into account the distance, what means of travel will be chosen, and any expenses that will be accrued. Likewise, before writing, you need to consider your audience, or target. Who are you writing to? Are you addressing teenagers or senior citizens? Have your readers studied at prestigious schools or do they have very little literacy ability? Are you targeting those who are extremely religious or atheists or somewhere in between? As much as it can be done, you need to do prior research on whom you are going to be writing for or else you risk losing the attention of your readers or even outright offending them. For example, what good is a reference to Wi-fi going to do for those living in third-world contries? Or what if you refer to a situation one would have encountered in college when your audience consists of those who only received a high school diploma? In either case you may unknowingly offend each party, something a rhetorician never wants to do. So what practical steps can one take to find out more about the audience that will be focused on? There are a few paths one can take.
Now that you have figured out what your audience is, it is time to decide on how to put it together. The formats most commonly seen are as follows:
• Electronic Mail
Deciding which to use depends on why you are writing the piece, as well as your needs and those of your audience.
Memos are used most commonly for interoffice communication. The tone is less formal than any other format listed, aside from email, but should still be phrased in a respectful manner. Keep memos short, and to the point. The individual layout of memos tends to be slightly different with each company, but some aspects remain constant.
Moving on to the main body of the memo, it is important to start out strong. Unless you have bad news, get to the point from the first line. Do not indent in memos. If there are multiple subjects in a memo, use headings for easy organization for the recipients. If paperwork is to be distributed with the memo, let the reader know at the end with a simple “Enclosure.”
Letters are fairly similar to memos. Where memos are used for interoffice communication, letters are used primarily for external communications. A formal tone is best, especially if you do not know the recipient. Tone is primarily determined by your purpose in writing though. An example layout of a letter can be found in the section on Rhetoric
Correct salutations are important for letters. The salutation can be slightly complicated, especially if the particular title of the recipient is unknown. Beginning with “Dear” and ending with a colon is standard. Use Mr. for men and Ms. for women, though Doctor or Professor supersedes either. When addressing multiple recipients with one letter, use a title that is not easily assigned to one gender, race, or culture. If the name of the recipient is unknown, use their title or direct the letter to the intended department. This can be risky though, so work towards having a concrete name for the letter.
Ending the letter with, “Sincerely” or, “Respectfully” would be ideal. If you are writing on behalf of a company, its’ name comes next. Leave roughly 4 spaces beneath the valediction or company name. When printed out, sign your name here. Beneath your signature, write your name and title. Next, list any enclosures that may come with the letter, or simply state that there should be an enclosure.
Electronic mail, or email, is very similar to both memos and letters. They have the sender, recipient, and date information displayed with minimal work on your part. It is fast, costs next to nothing to operate, and a copy is left with both parties for quite a while afterwards, for easy fact checking if needed. Email is best kept short, and usually kept to one subject to accommodate the needs of the audience.
As with memos and letters, you must carefully consider what you wish to say. Email stays around much longer than paper will, and it is not uncommon to accidentally find yourself sending an email to everyone in your office with the option to reply to all function. In such a case, it is imperative that you maintain a respectable standard in your interpersonal and interoffice communications.
Reports are a central part of any writing position, and are used primarily to present the status and results of an operation. Formal analytical reports are long documents giving every bit of information concerning a project, usually being written up at the end of the project. They require many months of planning, and often have a recommendation for the reader concerning a course of action. Effective reports will identify the problem clearly, it will provide enough accurate data to satisfy the audience without overburdening them, and will show what about this data is important and what is not. Visuals are a good way to provide this.
Informal reports are significantly shorter in length, and cover more specific needs. For instance, progress reports are delivered during projects to allow higher ups to monitor how a project is proceeding, and to ensure it is on schedule. These should be rather bare bones, only giving the reader the information they need without fluff. Usually, only specific accomplishments are listed in progress reports, or progress reports are written up for specific accomplishments. Periodic activity reports are for the actions taken during a period of time.
Feasibility reports are designed to determine whether a proposed idea is the best course of action or not. It answers the following questions:
• Is this solving the entire problem?
• What risks are involved?
• What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?
• Are there alternatives to this plan?
• Is the plan necessary at all?
You will have to identify and research all of these questions, and then convince your audience that your suggestion is correct.
Similar to feasibility reports, proposals are designed to convince the reader on a specific course of action. However, they are slanted more towards convincing the audience that your services are preferable to anyone else, acting as a sales pitch to your audience. Proposals almost always follow a set pattern, as the readers mostly have the same concerns on their minds.
• What is the problem?
• What is the solution to this problem?
• How much will it cost to solve this problem?
• Why should I use your service/product instead of anyone else?
There is a well-documented layout for proposals due to this.
Your introduction gives a brief history of the issue, to bring it to the forefront in the minds of your superiors. It also gives a brief summary of the proposal, touching on each of the topics, without going into excessive detail.
Following that, a thorough explanation of the problem to establish why your services are necessary. Explain the central problem and what is causing it. Ensure that the audience can appreciate why this needs to be fixed, and point out benefits to it no longer being an issue. Listing a series of objectives may help here, to give the readers a checklist to go by.
The solution section describes the process you or your company will follow to solve the problem. Ensure that the solution you are providing will solve the problem and each of the causes of the problem if possible. Use this section to address possible objections to your solution as well.
An in depth exploration of the steps you plan to take to solve the problem. If a set of objectives was listed in the problem portion above, they should be addressed here.
Use this section to let your audience know that you have the equipment and facilities to complete what you propose to do.
A basic timeline of how you expect the project to proceed. A Gantt chart is usually a good way of displaying this.
Explain why you are the best choice to solve this problem. Include the resumes of anyone who will be working on the proposed project.
List the amount of time, money, and resources you need in this section. Clarity is imperative here, as promising too much or too little will come back to haunt you if you overextend yourself. If you ask for too much, they may not accept your proposal; too little, and you run the risk of covering the costs out of pocket, or a damaged reputation.
Keep the conclusion short, but hit the main points listed in the proposal. Maintain a positive tone to help convince the readers that you are confident in your ability to perform the task.
Now that you have decided on a format to use, it is now time to figure out how to go about writing it. The first decision to make is what tone to take in technical communication. Tone is defined as your attitude toward your subject and audience, and yourself. Mastering all three of these areas is imperative in having a successful document. Knowing who your audience is the most important aspect in determining the best writing approach. Some questions to ask are: Are you close to them, such as a co-worker or friend? Then a more casual tone would most likely fit your needs better. Are you writing a piece to be delivered to your superiors? Then you may wish to consider a more serious tone to your piece. Use a more technical or professional tone if you are writing for a scholarly audience, or are writing a document to inform readers. Another aspect to consider would be the education and technical level of those that will be reading your work. Ensuring that you write for those that fall at the lower end of the technical scale may be in your best interest; however, you cannot make the professionals on the other end of the spectrum feel insulted either. It can be difficult to figure out the balance that needs to be struck between the two, and relies heavily on how well you know your audience.
However, even should you know the audience quite well, it would still be prudent to maintain a professional tone while writing, as there are always more people who will read a piece than you initially expect. If a piece is going to be read by another company, or published in a journal, an editor and your higher ups will review it before it goes out. It should also be noted that what you say can, and invariably will, come back to find you many years later. It would be wise to never place anything in a document you would not say in front of everyone you work with.
Identifying your audience is imperative in your writing style since ensuring the appropriate tone comes hand in hand with your audience. Be aware of who will be reading your document, this will unveil what style of writing you should adopt since it is essential to figure out the appropriate tone to use in your writing style.
Active voice: The A-Team collected surveys regularly for over a month.
Passive voice: Surveys were collected regularly for over a month.
The examples stated above are both correct however the tone that is relied on more heavily is the active voice. Continuous overuse of the passive voice can affect the overall readability of your audience, in what way you might ask? Grouping multiple passive voice sentences on top of each other can create a vagueness or ambiguity which will take away from the message being delivered. Another issue with passive voice is that the language takes away the adequate emphasis on the doer subject.
Here is an example in the passive voice:
Surveys were collected regularly for over a month, and statistics were stored and analyzed. All statistics were subjected to an analysis for
Now let’s revise into the active voice:
The A-Team collected surveys regularly for over a month and stored and analyzed the statistics recovered. The A-Team subjected all
statistics to an analysis for authentication.
The issue with passive voice begins with the reader being unable to capture who in the sentence is doing what. There is also another issue when adopting passive voice and that is overuse of passive verbs and abstract words. Abstract words when used continuously in a document can restrict readability since abstract words are hard to visualize, lead to wordiness, and lack of clarity in your writing.
There are a few methods that can help you correct a sentence in the passive voice.
• Find the significant action in the sentence. This action may not
be found in the verb, it may be implicit.
• Ask yourself who is doing the action.
• Then make the doer of the action the subject of the verb.
• The Passive voice serves important functions, the same as the
correct use of the active voice.
One style should never be completely ignored. The only factor that should make the choice on which style to adopt is directly influenced by the subject matter and your audience’s needs. If your audience is reading a report on the components of a particular oxygen sensor, than passive voice is appropriate since whom the doer is, in this case the manufacturer, is of no concern or interest to your readers.
The words it and there in conjunction with is verbs, often times act as, “meaningless subjects,” formulating sentences that have no doer or actor as subjects. The concentration on these words can create an unclear message and the readability of the material will decrease.
Example: It is known that leaving the break disks in the sun will cause rust.
Example: There are many factors that contribute to a court’s decision.
Although the examples mentioned above are not terrible to understand, when used in large amounts they can take away from the message. The use of it is and there do have their functions and should never be eliminated altogether, the only caution is to use them sparingly.
As social human beings many of our daily expressions are conveyed through gestures, facial expressions, language and in written communication—punctuation. To be a successful technical communicator, you will have to know how to apply the various forms of punctuation correctly.
Periods can be used at the end of sentences that do not ask questions or express strong emotions. After some abbreviations:
Example: I.E, M.D, U.S.A
They also can be used with decimal fractions.
The comma is the most often used punctuation mark, and the most commonly misused. Below are the following uses for the comma.
• To separate introductory verbal phrases.
Example: In order to be a great technical writer, you should have a great writing as well as communicative abilities.
• To separate items in a series composed of three or more
Example: The duties of a baggage handler at an airport are to ensure that baggage is loaded and unloaded, maintenance of the
aircraft, and that the towbar is connected to the aircraft.
• To separate clauses joined by coordinating conjunction (and,
but, or, for, nor).
• To separate introductory words, phrases, and clauses from the
main clause of the sentence.
Example: However, we will have to reevaluate the surveys.
• To separate the main clause from a dependent clause.
Example: Most technical writers have no problem writing or reading a lengthy assignment, whereas few IT specialists do.
• To separate nonrestrictive modifiers (parenthetical clarifications) from the rest of the sentence.
Example: John, the head CEO of an Independent company, called the meeting to order.
The semicolon is mainly used to separate independent clauses or sentences that are not joined by a direct conjunction (or, for, and, but) proceeded by a comma.
Example: Sent the memorandum to Betty around noon; she found his input on new policies forthcoming.
Whether used in sentences or paragraphs, a colon is used to create a recess before a list or quotation and after an independent sentence.
Example: All students should bring the following to the workshop: A notebook or pad, pencil, highlighter, pen and flashlight.
Hyphens are used in the following instances.
• To join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun.
Example: a one-way street
• To avoid confusion
Example: re-sign a long term contract (as opposed to resign a long term contract)
• To form fractions and compound numbers.
Example: One-half, eighty-seven
When used in writing, words that appear in parenthesis ( ) signify supplementary information or afterthoughts. Most of the time, what exist between each parenthesis could be omitted without destroying or altering the meaning of the sentence. Inside each set, there should be no spaces between the characters and the parenthesis they neighbor.
Example: Do the same function that you performed earlier (in Step 4).
There are two different kinds of dashes in terms of technical documents. The most common is that of the en dash (-).The en dash is commonly used to indicate a closed range of values, such as those between dates, times, or numbers. For example “4-6” would be read as “four through six.”
On the other hand, the em dash (—) can be used in a similar manner to parentheses, the only difference being that it is a much stronger break in thought. Like parentheses, no space should lie between em dashes and the closest characters inside the set.
Example: For Steps 6-8, use the same adhesive—you should now have about half of the tube remaining—that you applied in Steps 2-4.
Quotation marks can be used in various ways. The following will provide its basic uses.
• To identify a direct quotation
Example: Dr. Smith stated in the article, “technical communication will help you understand better what others say and write.”
• Single quotation marks are used for a quotation within a quotation.
Example: The technician said, “Test the results in the test tube and Jake said to, ‘not forget to freeze them.’”
• Quotation marks can also be used to identify titles of short articles, and reports.
Example: The report was called, “Label Hazards.”
There are dozens of different people that make up your audience. You can group these audiences into at least three categories: Professional, Hobbyist, Layperson.
A professional audience can be defined as a discourse community where all individuals share a common profession and/or trade. Examples are: Doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, programmers, educators, mechanics etc. They each may have specific rhetoric and style.
Hobbyist range from experts to people who just experiment. Some examples are bird watchers, card players, sport enthusiasts, etc. These hobbyist dedicate years to learning, reading, discussing to know a hobby well.
A layperson is part of a discourse community where the individuals do not share a profession or a trade and are not knowledgeable of certain technical subjects.
The term jargon pertains to the specialized vocabulary commonly found in a trade, field, profession, hobby, or science. Jargon is technical terminology used inappropriately for an audience. Although individuals outside of that community may know some of the technical terminology, the usage and knowledge of the term can be limited and at times can be misconstrued. As stated in Dan Jone’s Technical Writing Style, “whenever you use technical terms unfamiliar to all or some of your audience, you are using jargon.” Keep in mind that whenever you use unnecessary complex words to impress someone or your audience than you are also using jargon.
Jargon can also be known as: tech speak, computerese, bureaucratese, academese, techno speak, double talk, and legalese among many more unusual names. All of these refer to jargon.