Guidelines for Better Writing

By Michael Bolton

Expressing your message clearly is easier if you follow a structure that helps to state your point of view and build your arguments. Although good writing shouldn't be restricted to a rigid format, here's a structure and some other tips that might help if you find writing to be tough.

Most people agree broadly on certain attributes of a well-written program. A program should be clear, well-structured, and readable. A well-organized program is divided into functions or procedures that take care of initialization at the beginning, the main body of the program in the middle, and cleanup at the end, which is logical and sensible. The language in question doesn't really matter either; good programs tend to use this structure whether they're written in C, or Java, or COBOL, or Assembler. However, when it comes to the first language that most of us learn—English—many programmers lose confidence. They consider themselves to be bad at basic writing things like specifications, correspondence, and documentation; there's something about writing that makes them uncomfortable. Yet writing well is a very useful skill. If you can express yourself clearly and precisely in a good piece of correspondence, such as a letter, memo, or email message, you can be more persuasive and get what you want more easily. In this paper, I'll focus on important points related to writing a piece of correspondence in an email message.

Writing is an art, rather than a science, but there are certain thinking tools that you can use to help to organize yourself to write more clearly, and those tools are very similar to the ones that you use in order to develop a program. Presume that you are writing a letter: the first step is to get a clear understanding of what you intend to say. Identify the main point—your purpose in writing the message—and several "areas of argument", which either support the main point or amplify upon it. Second, apply those items to a structure; although the length of your document might vary, the structure remains basically the same, consisting of a beginning, middle, and end. Although it is somewhat formulaic, you can use this structure to keep your ideas clear and organized for a document of any size. Third, try to take on a conversational tone; make sure that you choose your points and your language so that your intended reader will understand them clearly. Finally, rewrite! Don't trust yourself to get everything right on the first draft; be patient and methodical. Re- read your letter from your reader's point of view. These somewhat mechanical steps won't guarantee that you write a great letter, but they should help you to write a better letter.

Starting at the beginning, the first couple of paragraphs (or sentences, for a memo) should introduce the main point and the areas of argument that you will use to support that point. One of the reasons that business correspondence fails is that the writer himself hasn't got the point of the message clear in his own mind. If you're confused about your purpose, imagine the problem for the reader! To help resolve this problem, try to to start by writing down a charter, a sentence to two to capture the purpose of the message. For example, for this essay, I chose "I want to give useful, relatively painless tips that will help an inexperienced writer to write a clear memo. I want to concentrate on forethought, organization and structure, readability, and rewriting". It took me a few minutes of brainstorming and rewiting to get to that sentence. However, now that I have the main idea, the rest falls into place nicely; the first sentence forms a sort of statement of purpose, and the second gives an idea of the points I'm going to raise in fulfilling the purpose. From there, all we need to do is to build on that framework.

The next section will address each of your areas of argument in turn, and for each area of argument will provide a number of supporting facts or points. Use the next few paragraphs of your letter (sentences in your memo, sections in your essay, chapters in your book) to expand on your main point or to defend it. The approach you take will depend on the purpose of your message. Suppose that you are arguing for a budget increase in an IT department. You might want to want to point out the increasing demands for time for your staff, one on the need for more powerful servers, and another on the requests for presentation graphics hardware. Raise each of these points in a brief, general way in that first, introductory paragraph; then use each paragraph in the body of the message to prove each point, adding detail and facts to support the point. For example, in the "increasing demands" paragraph, you might argue for an extra body. You could point to a 25% growth in the staff in the company overall, with no staff increase in your department; that support calls per user have gone up by 10% this year; and that due to the company's successful training program (which has saved 20% on outside consultants), some members of your staff are away and you need a junior support person to cover for them. If your first paragraph explains THAT you want something, the later paragraphs explain in detail WHY you need it. Suppose instead that you are writing a letter to some vendor complaining about the lousy service that you're getting. Your first paragraph should note that you are getting lousy service, and that it's because of inadequate support on the phone lines, slow turnaround time, and impoliteness from the company's staff. The second paragraph would detail the amount of time that you've spent on hold and the vague or incorrect answers you get; the third would detail the repeated three-week waits you've had to endure after ordering parts, providing details on each occurence; and the fourth would explain that the staff was unsympathetic and rude to you on several occasions, and would list specific incidents as examples.

The final paragraph or two—the last few sentences in your memo—is the place to wrap up and summarize the purpose of the message, will typically conclude with some idea of the response that you expect from your message. It's often helpful to restate your main point, and to remind the reader that you have provided evidence to support it, based on your three or four areas of argument. In addition, you will typically want to provide the reader with a conclusive statement or an action item. In the closing paragraph of the budget letter above, you might suggest a 6% budget increase based on the arguments you've made in your letter, and request a meeting where the issues can be discussed. In the customer-service letter, you might summarize your dissatisfaction based on the experiences you've detailed, state that this is not the kind of service that is likely to result in satisfied customers, and note that if you don't receive assurance of some changes within two weeks, you intend to take your business elsewhere.

After you've gathered your thoughts into a beginning, middle, and end, there are several fairly simple ways to make your writing more readable. One of the easiest ways for you to improve readability is to say exactly what you mean using a conversational style. Read your letter aloud; if a sentence sounds awkward or stilted when you hear it, rewrite it so that it expresses your idea more clearly. Use punctuation to help show the reader the rhythm of the sentence as you'd say it aloud. Try it with this sentence: a comma is a quick pause; a semi-colon is a longer pause, but still part of the same idea; and a period is a full stop. Something in parentheses is a minor digression. (See what I mean?) Don't become too informal, but don't say something unnatural either. Be polite, at least be polite enough that your reader won't be inclined to take offense, tune out, or stop reading. You should try to use the active voice, rather than the passive voice. The passive voice leaves out the person or thing that is performing the action; thus that last sentence in passive voice would be "The active voice should be used, rather than the passive voice." That sounds weaker, doesn't it? Don't say "If your service does not improve, another vendor will have to be found"; say instead "If you do not improve your service, we will have to find another vendor." Don't use a long word where a shorter one will express your idea clearly; say "use" instead of "utilize", "foster" instead of "facilitate", "improve" instead of "offer enhancements". Use as little jargon as you can, even if your reader is familiar with it. If there's a chance that your reader might not understand a word you're using, try another word, or give a brief explanation of the word you need.

Just as there are books on better programming techniques, there are books on better writing. Strunk and White's book Elements of Style is the classic work on clear, grammatically correct writing. In addition, I'd recommend George Orwell's essay on bad writing called "Politics and the English Language" (it's in his collection A Collection of Essays, and you can probably find it on the Web, too--I found a copy here ); the essay contains a good set of guidelines for clearer writing. The newsmagazine The Economist publishes a very good style guide on its Web site. Finally, George Carlin's book Brain Droppings has dozens of examples of pretentious and silly-- but common--expressions that you see all the time in bad writing; after you've had laughed at them, you'll be less likely to use them in your own writing.

Note, by the way, that high schools, colleges, and universities seem to be unmatched sources of truly awful writing. There are plenty of reasons for this. Some schools seem to use volume—number of pages, or number of words—as one of the criteria on which a paper is accepted or marked, so students who run out of ideas tend to repeat the same things over and over. Many students and teachers seem to believe that the larger your words, the more weighty your point of view, while in reality big words are things behind which you can hide nonsense easily. Experts on, say, electrical engineering, are not always experts on good writing, so people sometimes tolerate bad writing if the technical quality of a paper is high. Jargon is a necessary part of some academic disciplines, and people therefore assume that using jargon automatically makes you sound better educated; instead, inappropriate use of jargon makes you sound incomprehensible. The point is that if your writing doesn't read just like a college paper, you might not have anything to worry about.

Writers—especially the professionals—always go through plenty of revision and editing. I doubt that there is a sentence in this message that I have left alone after I've typed it; writing is mostly rewriting. The computer is your friend here, because it makes things so easy to move around, check, and correct. As you edit your message, the most important task is to try to identify and address any problems that the reader might have with understanding your point of view or your backing arguments. The structure mentioned above should help you to organize your thoughts and to build them logically, but it's not foolproof.

Don't take your reader for granted. In particular, assume that your reader doesn't know everything that you know (that's why you're writing to her). Re-read your message from your reader's perspective. Look out for jargon words, or words that are needlessly long or obscure, and either cut them out or define them clearly. Add explanations of things that the reader might find unclear, and provide plenty of references or examples. On the other hand, if your reader is quite familiar with the issues, consider shortening the message in order to get to—and stick to—the point. Keep trying to make sure that your thoughts fit your structure; sentences might have to shift from paragraph to paragraph in order to keep things clear and organized. Once you believe that you're finished, reread the whole message for errors, poor structure, or unclear writing; then rewrite to fix the problems. Some people are terrible spellers. If you're one of them, don't worry too much: spelling in English is tough. By all means, try to improve your spelling, but in the meantime, use a spelling checker too!

None of these guidelines is a hard and fast rule. For example, it might be appropriate to begin a letter by referring to the last contact you had with your reader ("Thank you for our conversation last week...") before applying the formal structure. You may also introduce a new point in a paragraph that was not specifically introduced in your first paragraph (just as this paragraph was not introduced in my first paragraph above), but try to keep things within the structure. You should be able to find plenty of cases above where I've stepped off the path in this essay, but I think (hope!) you'll find that I've stuck to the format enough to help to express my thoughts clearly. Incidentally, more formal documents, such as specifications or end-user documentation, are constructed in almost exactly the same way. Each one (and each part of each one) should have a beginning, middle, and end, introducing ideas at the beginning, expanding on those ideas in the middle, and tying them together at the end.

The keys to writing well are organization and clarity. When you write a message, you are trying to make a point. If you begin with a clear summary of that point, it will help to guide the construction of the rest of the message. As you construct your argument, you must provide evidence for your point, and the body of the work--neither the beginning nor the end--is usually the best place for that. A strong conclusion ties everything up. All the way through, you should be expressing yourself clearly and concisely, and you should be rewriting constantly to refine your ideas and your way of expressing them. No matter the length of your memo, letter, essay, or book, these points will help you to organize and present your thoughts so that your reader will get the message.

Acknowledgement: Many years ago, in Ottawa, Ontario, a high- school history teacher by the name of Harris Popplewell taught me the structure that I use and promote in this essay (I hope he'd mark the essay kindly!). The skills that he taught have served me very well indeed over the years. This essay is dedicated to him.

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Last revised: January 3, 2006. File name: GuidelinesForBetterWriting.html