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Five suggestions to improve your writing

By Sean Mitchell

What are your views on the technical writing that you develop? What about that which you see by others? Are you satisfied and feel enriched upon finishing your own report or reading someone else’s work? You should: the act of writing should be satisfying and enriching, as should be reading others documents for they contain material that we are intrinsically interested in. Of course, we are confined – sometimes in a strait-jacket – by conventions of style and dogma handed down from three generations ago, and satisfaction and enrichment can be elusive when we are told prescriptively what to do. However, we can still exercise some creative licence – and maybe even have some fun – working within the suffocating limits of standard technical writing. And when we do this, our reader benefits as our prose becomes much better. The following five suggestions are ways to be creative without angering your reviewer while simultaneously making your reader happier.

Understand the properties of paragraphs… and take advantage of them: A paragraph is much more than a collection of sentences… it is the architecture by which we create our report. It is the appearance of the page; these blocks of text make the page either attractive and inviting or intimidating and repelling. Each paragraph bounds our thoughts, it keeps us on track. And the linkages between paragraphs create the flow we all want in our work. Strategic use of paragraphs subtly, but clearly, emphasizes points, reinforces ideas, make bold the take home messages of the document. Think carefully about how you design — for design you should — your paragraphs.

Use all three types of sentences – simple, compound, and complex: If a professional writer from outside our discipline were to read our reports, she would conclude that for some reason anyone going into environmental sciences avoided the lectures on sentence types in their university days. The compound and complex sentences are as rare as a red-listed species in most of the writing I see. Their absence leaves only the simple sentence which, while a noble beast, gets tedious. Each sentence type has different attributes that the strategic writer can use to advantage to persuade a reader, to engage them, to entertain them. Use them wisely and strategically.

Select interesting words for use: Words are specific and powerful. But we are surrounded by them every day of our lives and so we take them for granted. We fall into the habit of using the most common words only, those that come to mind without labour. Pity the poor reader though. This means she is seeing the same words she sees in every other document, they are simply in a different order here. The clever writer looks to use interesting words simply to catch the reader’s attention. For example, problems are often called difficult, hard, challenging… but how about intractable, intransigent, or even recalcitrant? These latter words are little used yet most professional reader’s will be familiar with. Their uniqueness catches our attention. Caveat: Be sure the more interesting word means precisely what you want; there is a risk here of selecting a word to keep your reader interested but in so doing subtly, or overtly, changing the meaning of your sentence.

Avoid (like the plague) acronyms: Easily my primary rule to improve writing. Most people think we are stuck with acronyms; that they must be used. Nope, they don’t. Use a synonym instead. Instead of using the acronym CER (Canada’s Energy Regulator) you could call that organization ‘the regulator’, the agency’, ‘the government’, ‘the department’, or even (yes, this is old school), once or twice actually call it Canada’s Energy Regulator. These capitalized shorthands are, in my opinion, one of the the greatest hindrance to effective writing. For reasons which I get into in my courses, they distract us from the text, interfere with our reading, and break the flow of the text – three major roadblock you never want to put in front of your reader. Acronyms are a trinity of fundamental problems. We do not need to use them…replace with synonyms.

Use a variety of punctuation: There are a large array of punctuation marks that allow us to craft sentences in unusual or unique ways. We do not need to be manacled only to the comma, period, and parentheses; we can use dashes, semi-colons, and colons. Expand your use of punctuation. As an example, four formats of the same sentence(s):

  1. The results indicate that cadmium was elevated over both baseline conditions and environmental quality objectives. This conclusion applies within the sampled area.” (two simple sentences)
  2. The results indicate that cadmium was elevated over both baseline conditions and environmental quality objectives; this conclusion applies within the sampled area.” (compound sentence; connecting clauses with semi-colon)
  3. The results indicate that cadmium, within the sampled areas, was elevated over both baseline conditions and environmental quality objectives.” (complex sentence using commas)
  4. The results indicate that cadmium – within the sampled areas – was elevated over both baseline conditions and environmental quality objectives.” (complex sentence using dashes)

I hope that you get a different “feel” from each sentence, even though they all say the exact same thing. Choice of punctuation makes a big difference in how a sentence reads. 

The satisfaction I alluded to at the beginning of this writing comes from correct word selection; for some reason, when you hit on the perfect word a shiver runs through and a smile appears on your face. It is satisfying. Or upon construction of a paragraph that states just what you want, and no more, and also plays to the strengths of paragraph structure, one leans back with a feeling of contentment. Creative use of punctuation to generate unusual or intriguing sentences is enriching – you are mastering the use of punctuation. Altering two simple sentences into one complex one enriches the sentence; information is conveyed more economically and eloquently. These are the joys the writer gets out of writing strategically and creatively. Are you getting joy from your writing?

NRTG offers technical writing courses for a range of writing interests. Our base course is Technical Writing for Professionals from which the others depart and refine specific topics. Other topic-specific courses include Technical Writing for Professionals: Proposals; Technical Writing for Professionals: Report Writing; and Technical Writing for Professionals: Resumes and Cover Letters.