Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Write right

Here's an article I submitted to the Carolina Communique earlier today:

When you scan job postings for technical communicators, you’ll find prospective employers seeking candidates who have an understanding of current technology, working knowledge of publishing tools, and time management skills. A bullet may ask for “excellent writing and editing skills,” but that bullet rarely appears at the top of the list.

Not for me. As a manager who hires technical communicators, excellent writing skills are what I seek first. By writing skills, I mean the ability to produce clear, concise, and compelling prose on deadline. Any candidate we interview must bring writing samples, which we evaluate during the interview session. If samples don’t evince sufficient skill, we won’t hire candidates, regardless of their other qualities.

Technology changes, publishing tools become obsolete, and there are only so many hours in the day. In contrast, good writing is a constant. Someone can learn about the latest technology in a matter of months. Someone can master current publishing tools in a matter of weeks. You can buy a PDA to point you to your next meeting. It takes a lifetime of practice to master the art and craft of writing.

There are varying degrees of writing skill. Consider a martial arts metaphor. A writing white belt can put together clean sentences. A yellow belt can combine clean sentences into lean paragraphs. A green belt can assemble paragraphs into a coherent and compelling narrative. A blue belt can extend the narrative over several chapters. A brown belt can disassemble and reassemble chapters without losing the thread of the book. A black belt can juggle material in a library of books so that a reader knows where to go and never gets lost. More important, a black belt can tutor others.

You get better at writing by writing, just as you get better at marital arts by performing them. It pays to have a good tutor. It also doesn’t hurt to read as much as you can to guide your practice. In my judgment, there are four books every writer needs on her bookshelf. They should be regularly consulted, like a favorite English teacher.
  • Strunk, William and White, E.B. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. ISBN: 0881030686 – I consult my dog-eared, yellowed Third Edition copy almost every day. Broken into well-polished rules of usage, principles of composition, and guidelines for form and style, this classic covers all the basics in less than 100 pages. As White explains in the introduction, the book was Strunk’s “attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.” White goes on to say, “today…(the book’s) vigor is unimpaired, and for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” If you have only one book in your writer’s library, make it this one.
  • Shertzer, Margaret. The Elements of Grammar. ISBN: 0028614496 – A companion to Strunk and White, this comprehensive guide covers everything you forgot from 6th grade English about parts of speech, capitalization, and punctuation. Don’t use it as a style guide – there’s the Chicago Manual of Style and your company’s style guide for that. Instead, refer to Shertzer to remind yourself, for example, just what “case” is, and why you should care about it. When, if ever, should you use the subjunctive mood? When should you use a semicolon instead of a colon? It matters.
  • Blake, Gary, and Bly, Robert W. The Elements of Business Writing: A Guide to writing clear, concise letters, memos, reports, proposals, and other business documents. ISBN: 0020080956 – One time I complained to the director of my children’s day care center about its badly written memos to parents. I offered to give a presentation on “professional communication” to the staff. I consulted this book as I prepared my slides. Blake and Bly explain their mission in the introduction: “Bad writing hangs on…because new employees tend to check through old files to see how others have written a memo or a letter before they write one. So it’s no surprise that antiquated expressions and stuffy, pompous nineteenth-century verbiage emerge from (contemporary) word processors. This book aims to update those filing cabinets by giving contemporary advice on the style, tone, and format of business writing.” For anyone who’s read or written a memo that included phrases such as “in reference to” (versus “about”) or “inasmuch as” (versus “since or because”), this is welcome help.
  • Brohaugh, William. Write Tight: How to keep your prose sharp, focused and concise. ISBN: 1882926889. Once I wrote an article for my company’s newsletter. I thought I’d done a pretty good job trimming the fat, so I was surprised when I saw that the published version was nearly half the size of my final draft. No substance had been lost, and the published version was much crisper and easier to read. I asked the managing editor how she did it. She pointed me to this book. I ordered it from Amazon.com that afternoon. Chapter 2, entitled “Sixteen types of wordiness and how to trim them,” is almost worth the price of the book by itself.

These aren’t the only books you need, but they are ones you shouldn’t be without. I also consult Judy Tarutz’s Technical Editing and heartily recommend William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Other favorites are The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein and A Handbook for Scholars by Mary-Claire Van Leunen. And no library is complete without H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

One thing all writing books worth reading and re-reading have in common is the directive to write simply. It is the simplest advice to give and the hardest to follow. As Zinsser puts it, “Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.” Weeding out the adulterants is hard, time consuming, but ultimately rewarding work. Developing judgment about what to prune and what to leave alone takes practice. I find joy in that practice.

We professionals are paid to write strong prose to help readers figure out who is doing what or if something needs to be done right now. This means putting excellent writing and editing skills at the top of our list. It means going for the next belt. Whatever other changes your encounter in your career, the constant quest for writing mastery should prove a worthy and rewarding endeavor.

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