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    Job One: Be Clear

    Wednesday, March 02, 2011

    Artificial diamondMany postings in this blog have advised you that, above all else, your business writing must be clear. And we certainly are not the only ones making this siren call. Just about anyone who writes about writing addresses the importance of clarity. Here are what two famous stylists have to say about the topic.

    • In his book Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art , James J. Kilpatrick says, "…the first rule of prose composition—the rule that must be mastered before it can effectively be broken—is, Be clear! Be clear! And yet again, be clear!"
    • In his book Writing to Learn , William Zinsser states, "We are a society paralyzed by the inability to convey routine information—the inability of the executive to explain company policy in a memo to the staff, of the employee to explain his new idea in a proposal to the boss, of the bank to explain its 'simplified' new bank statement to the customer.…"

    Well, the government has recently added to the dialogue with the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This act requires federal government workers to write documents that are "clear, concise, and well-organized." Pardon the obvious understatement, but clarity has never been a strength in government prose, so this act is a long, long time in coming.

    What follows are the main guidelines in the Plain Writing Act. All writers—in the public and private sectors—would be well advised to keep these points in mind when developing informational reports and messages.

    Writing Guidelines in the Plain Writing Act


    • Verbs
      • Use active verbs. (The doctor explains…rather than The procedure explained by the doctor…)
      • Use the present tense.
      • Use the simplest form of verbs.
      • Avoid hidden verbs. (The committee discusses…rather than The discussion by the committee…)
      • Use "must" to indicate requirements.
      • Use contractions when appropriate.
    • Nouns and pronouns
      • Don't turn verbs into nouns. (Avoid words such as discussion, explanation, etc.)
      • Use pronouns (you) to speak directly to readers.
      • Minimize abbreviations.
    • Other word issues
      • Use short, simple words.
      • Omit unnecessary words.
      • Omit excessive modifiers.
      • Avoid jargon.
      • Don't use slashes. (and/or)

    Sentences and Paragraph

    • Write short sentences.
    • Keep subjects and verbs and objects close together.
    • Avoid double negatives.
    • Include a topic sentence in paragraphs.
    • Write short paragraphs.

    Aids to Clarity

    • Use examples.
    • Use lists, tables, and illustrations.
    • Design for easy reading.

    Final Thought: Will this act have the intended effect? We can't be sure until federal employees have received "plain writing" training. Let's just hope that in the not-so-distant future, we may have federal documents that clearly tell us what we need to know.

    —Dave Kemper

    Photo by jurvetson.