Category Archives: Writing at Work

An Example of Clear and Concise Writing

Photo of AbrahamLinclon. His Gettysburg Address is an example of clear concise writing

No document is ever perfect.  Writer always wants to re-write their work and a burning urge to edit every other writer’s work. Realizing this is a fact of life, here is an almost perfect example of clear and concise writing.

The author was Abraham Lincoln and the occasion was the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, PA in 1863. The keynote speaker was Edward Everett, Secretary of State who spoke for two hours, delivering a speech containing 13,607 words. President Lincoln was invited to speak as an “afterthought” – similar to inviting a local celebrity to do a ribbon-cutting at a grand opening – and was given only 17 days notice while Mr. Everett was given more than 2 months notice. The President spoke for approximately 2 1/2 minutes, using only 271 words in 10 sentences. Which speech (Everett’s or Lincoln’s) is the most frequently quoted speech in American history?

The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

But ever President Lincoln was not a perfect writer – the last sentence of the speech contains 82 words, which is very long.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
~ Leonardo da Vinci

Effective Workplace Writing is…

Fancy ice cream desert illustrates how ornamentation can be a distraction from the ice creamComplete the following sentence:

Effective workplace writing is

  ____________________ and ____________________.

 If you answered clear and concise you are correct.  Give yourself an A.

 Effective workplace writing is clear

 The reader gets your message because it is easy to understand. Clarity is achieved through:

  • Word choice: Use language that is concise and appropriate to the audience. Do not use words that you do not normally use when speaking.
  • Sentence structure: Short sentences are easier to follow. You can simplify a long, complex sentence by breaking it in two.
  • Paragraph structure: A good paragraph makes a good composition. Try using the following 3-part structure:

1.  Topic sentence
2.  Development
3.  Resolution

You do not need to follow the 3-part rule for every paragraph; but, when you are having trouble writing, go back to the basics.

  • Overall organization: When you present information in logical order it is easier for the reader to understand. Make an outline of the topic sentences from your paragraphs to check your organization. If your document is well organized, these sentences should form a logical outline.

 Quick Tip Try the following the next time you write a document:

  • The purpose of the (memo, report, proposal, letter, etc.) is __________________
  • Organize your document using a 3-step approach:

1.  “I am writing because …”
2.  “The main points are…”
3.  “I propose that you…”

Effective workplace writing is concise

Concise writing:

  • Is not redundant;
  • Contains no unnecessary words; and,
  • Is not ambiguous.

Don’t Repeat Yourself

This is not The Department of Redundancy Department

After the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, disenfranchised Angle-Saxons got in the habit of borrowing words from the Norman language because the words sounded more educated than the familiar native words. So, early writers doubled up. Now, more than 900 years later, we are still doubling up.

A good writer avoids:

Redundant modifiers: the modifier implies the meaning of the word modified. Common examples include:

  • past memories
  • personal beliefs
  • important essentials
  • consensus of opinion

Redundant Categories: the category is implied by the word. For Example

  •  large in size
  • extreme in degree
  • honest in character

 Redundant Pairs: the second word repeats the meaning of the first.

  • first and foremost
  • hopes and wishes
  • full and complete
  • so on and so forth
  • each and every

Redundant writing slows both the writer and reader. When deciding which word to cut, choose the one that’s fancier or less precise. A good writer:

  • Organizes her/his thoughts to avoid repetition.
  • Does not pad her/his work with redundant words or phrases to make it.
  • Organizes her/his thoughts to avoid repetition.
  • Does not pad her/his work with redundant words or phrases to make it.

Readers appreciate writing that is brief and to the point.

We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions,
pompous frills and meaningless jargon.…
Strip every sentence to its leanest components.” 

~ William Zinsser, On Writing Well (2006)

Coming Soon

More on clear and concise writing:

  • The Epitome of Clear, Concise Writing  (February 10, 2015)
  • Keep it Simple (February 24, 2015)
  • Less is More (March 3, 2015)
  • Abstain from Peacock Terms and Weasel Words (March 10, 2015)

Answer These Four Questions Before You Begin Writing

Image of two forms of technology used in communication and electronic table and visualpreentation

Before you begin writing any form of communication, even an e-mail, answer these four questions:

1. What is the context of the communication (your purpose and audience)?

  • Clarify the purpose of your document.
  • Identify the audience.

2. What will the content be (your message)?

  • Collect and analyze information.
  • Create an outline.

3. How will you structure your communications (your document organization)

  • Choose a suitable design and stick to it.
  • Write sentences of 15 – 20 words.
  • Write paragraphs of 5 – 8 lines of text.
  • Use graphics, as appropriate (e.g. tables, charts, etc.).

4. What will be the style of the communication (grammar and words you use)?

  • Formal or informal voice.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Put statements in positive form.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Use parallel construction for related ideas.
  • Keep related words together.
  • Place important words at the end of a sentence.
  • Avoid jargon, clichés and fancy words.

I’ll cover each of these in the coming weeks.


Rules of Writing

Two sea lions close up repreent arguing over grammar

Arguing image courtesy of Liz Noffsinger,

Arguments over grammar and style are often as fierce as those over IBM versus Mac, and as fruitless as Coke versus Pepsi and boxers versus briefs. ~ Jack Lynch

Writing is hard work. There are innumerable rules and exceptions to almost every one or so it seems. Throughout your school years you constantly heard “i before e except after c.” The definitive writer’s guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, is 859 pages of very small type.

How can you be expected to remember all the rules of writing? You can’t.

Writing consultant Stephen Wilbers offers some suggestions in RULES, Rules, and rules: How to tell them apart. (Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 19, 1992)

In short, Wilbers suggests the following:

  • Some rules must always be obeyed (avoid double negatives);
  • Some rules require a judgment call depending on the situation (it is okay to start a sentence with and or because); and,
  • Some rules should be ignored (you can end a sentence with a preposition).

I would add a fourth suggestion:

  • Common sense is the ultimate rule of good writing.

I never made a mistake in grammar but one
in my life  and as soon as I don it I see it.
~ Carl Sandberg


Coping with Writing Anxiety

Image of the complete Oxford English Dictionary all 20 volumes

Whenever we put a pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, we immediately start to worry and our minds go blank. “What if it’s not good enough, what if I make a fool of myself?” Even the best writers face these problems at times. They have trouble getting started, they can’t find exactly the right way to express an idea and they always worry about what their readers will think of their work. Consider yourself in good company. Mark Twain, Stephen King, J. K Rawling and you share the same feelings of inadequacy when it comes to writing.

So, here are some suggestions on ways to deal with writing anxiety:

  • Complete the sentence “I can only write when …” This will tell you what works best for you.
  • Motivate yourself with non-writing activities. For example, take a walk or read an example of what you want to write.
  • Listen to your sensory signals. For example, you get a tingling” feeling when you get a sentence just right or you see a sentence in your mind.
  • Pretend you’re writing a letter to your mother or a close friend. Write about the topic in question. Chances are you will have a first draft when you finish the letter.
  • Change your normal routine. If you usually use the computer, try writing longhand. Or, try starting at the end and working backwards.
  • Discuss your topic with someone. Discussion can generate new ideas.
  • Try the unusual. Thomas Jefferson wrote standing up, try it. The German poet Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk. According to his friend Goethe, the smell was beneficial to Schiller and he could not work without it
  • Just start. Write anything. Stream of consciousness writing often leads to something useful.
  • Relax. Your writing isn’t carved in stone. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.

What suggestions do you have for overcoming writing anxiety. I take a bike ride or play with my dog.  Share our suggestions in the Comments field below.

On Writer’s Block…
“There may be times when you will be sitting in front of your computer, eyes glazed, fingers frozen, ears ringing, the tip of your nose numb, unable to write. Do not lose confidence or construe this as a reflection on your essential intelligence or creativity. You are probably having a stroke.”  Scott Rice, Bride of Dark and Stormy

Writing is hard work. It takes so many words.
 ~ Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
(Cassandra Peterson)

The Nature of Writing at Work


work burie under a pile of crumpled papers

The goal of writing in the workplace is to get the job done, not to write a great American novel. So, why a writing blog? After all, didn’t we all learn to write in school? Didn’t we spend endless hours learning about nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc., and diagramming sentences? Yes, we did. But that is not what this blog is about. It is not so much about the mechanics of our writing as it is about the message — writing in a clear, concise, organized way that keeps the reader’s interest.

Let’s face it. If the people we work with weren’t paid to read our memos, reports, or project proposals, they wouldn’t. When was the last time you spent a quiet evening curled up with a really good memo just for fun? That being the case, it is our responsibility, as writers, to present information and ideas in a simple, well-organized way that makes the most of the reader’s time and attention. When we write for work, we write to persuade, communicate, influence, etc. And, if we are to be successful in our work, we must be effective communicators, including writers.

Today, writing is more complicated than it was a few years ago. Our language is a dynamic, constantly changing thing. Ten years ago what was considered correct writing may now seem stuffy and outdated. A recent issue of Business Communications declared, “Don’t use the word shall. It makes you sound pompous.”  Today, the way we write and the media we use to write are changing constantly thanks to tools like Twitter, e-mails, blogs, and text messaging. And, because English changes, our writing must change as well.

Easy reading is damn hard writing.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne


Click on the following links for more musing on the nature of writing at work.

Observations on Workplace Writing

Persist with Patience

Rules of Writing

Coping with Writing Anxiety 

Image courtesy of B2B Insights.

Observations on Writing at Work

COmputer keyboar, notebook and hand holding pen representing writing at work

Writing at work is unique. You probably didn’t learn how to write for work in either high school or college. Neither you nor any of your teachers could predict the writing challenges you would face when you went to work. Writing at work differs from academic writing in that:

  • You write much more than you, and especially your English teachers, ever imagined. You:
  • Frequently discuss your writing projects with others.
  • Must write quickly and in the midst of noise and chaos.
  • Must have editing and revising skills.
  • Often write collaboratively.
  • Must be responsive to you readers’ needs.

It is also different from oral presentation because speakers:

  • Use the rule “tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you told them.” In writing the rule is “say it once and say it well.”
  • Ingratiate themselves with their audience by telling jokes and setting the stage slowly.  Writers ingratiate themselves by getting to the point quickly and succinctly.
  • Use gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice to emphasize a point. Writers have only words to make a point. Using a lot of explanation points will not enhance a message. If the message “packs a punch” an explanation point is not necessary.
  • Use the first person I or we. Writers involve readers by using the second person you.

Writing is easy. All you do is stare
at a blank sheet of paper until drops
of blood form on your forehead.
~ Gene Fowler