Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 1

How Much Does Foggy Writing Really Cost?

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In this Lesson:

If you're eager to get to the meat -- where you actually learn some specific tools for improving your writing -- you can skip ahead to Lesson 5 right now. However, I urge you to be patient and go through the first four lessons. They will prepare you for the tasks ahead by showing you what usually goes wrong with scientific and technical writing, what poor writing can cost you and your organization, and what rewards the clear, incisive writer can expect.

Especially important are the strategies given in Lesson 3 for overcoming the writing handicaps we acquired in school and picked up on the job. Then Lesson 4 shows you how to use the systematic methods taught in this course.


THE HIDDEN COST OF FOGGY WRITING

No one knows how much sloppy and imprecise writing costs American business, industry and taxpayers each year. Chances are, it's more than all the deliberate theft, embezzlement and pilfering put together. The trouble is, it doesn't show up in red on the corporate balance sheet at the end of each year, so no one pays much attention. You can't pin down the waste caused by incomprehensible regulations or long-winded memos as easily as you can identify the losses in a fire or flood.

But the losses are just as real -- in reduced productivity, efficiency and lost business. In more personal terms, the losses are measured in wasted time, work, money, and ultimately, professional recognition.

If you think that inept writing can't do much harm, ask yourself how much money, time and work were were wasted in each of these instances of miscommunication:


CASE 1: FOGGY PROPOSAL UNREAD -- JOB LOST

The Figtree Electric Company worked day and night to develop a new current regulator designed to cut by one-third the electric power consumption in aluminum plants. They knew that, although the competition was fierce, their regulator could be produced more cheaply, was more reliable and worked more efficiently than the competitors' products.

Alvin Figtree, eager to capture the market, personally but somewhat hastily put together a proposal to the three major aluminum manufacturers, recommending that their regulators be installed at all company plants.

Unfortunately, Alvin devoted the first 87 pages of the proposal to the mathematical theory and engineering design behind his new regulator, and the next 32 to descriptions of the new assembly line had planned to set up to produce regulators quickly. Buried in an appendix were the test results that compared his regulator's performance with present models, and a poorly drawn graph showed how much the dollar savings would be.

Needless to say, Figtree Electric didn't get the job. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy.


CASE 2: THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL THAT SCARED CUSTOMERS AWAY

As one of the first to enter the field of office automation, Megatex Software, Inc. had built a reputation for designing high-quality data-base and accounting programs for business and industry. When they decided to enter the word-processing market, their engineers designed a versatile and powerful program that Megatex felt sure would outperform any competitor.

To be sure that their new word-processing program was accurately documented, Megatex asked the senior program designer to supervise writing the instruction manual. The result was a thorough, accurate and precise description of every detail of the program's operation.

But when Megatex began marketing its new word processor, cries for help flooded in from typists who were so confused by the massive manual that they couldn't even find out how to get started. Then several business journals judged the program "too complicated" and "difficult to learn." After an impressive start, sales of the new word processor went through the floor.

Megatex eventually put out a new, clearly written training guide that led new users step by step through introductory exercises and told them how to find commands quickly. But the rewrite cost Megatex $350,000, a year's lead in the market, and its reputation for producing easy-to-use business software.


CASE 3: ONE GARBLED MEMO -- 17 BAFFLED PHONE CALLS

Joann supervised 25 professionals in 6 city libraries. To cut the costs of unnecessary overtime, she issued this one-sentence memo to her staff:

When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee's regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee's tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee's absence from his previously scheduled assignment.

After the 25 copies were sent out, Joann's office received 17 phone calls asking what the memo meant. What the 8 who didn't call did about the memo is uncertain. It took a week to straighten out the mess.


CASE 4: THE BRIGHT YOUNG CHEMIST WHO BURIED HIS RESULTS

Bruce, a research chemist for a major oil company, wrote a thick report about some new compounds he had synthesized in the laboratory from oil-refining by-products. The bulk of the report consisted of tables listing their chemical and physical properties, diagrams of their molecular structure, chemical formulas and computer printouts of toxicity tests. Buried at the end of the report was a casual speculation that one of the compounds might be a particularly effective insecticide.

Seven years later, the same oil company launched a major research program to find more effective but environmentally safe insecticides. After six months of research, someone uncovered Bruce's report and his toxicity tests. A few hours of further testing confirmed that one of Bruce's compounds was the safe, economical insecticide they had been looking for.

Bruce had since left the company, because he felt that the importance of his research was not being appreciated.


CASE 5: BIG SCIENCE -- LITTLE EDUCATION

The following is from Carl Sagan's last and greatest work, The Demon-Haunted World -- Science as a Candle in the Dark, itself both a plea for and an example of clear scientific communication:

The Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) would have been the preeminent instrument on the planet for probing the fine structure of matter and the nature of the early Universe. Its price tag was $10 to $15 billion. It was canceled by Congress in 1993 after about $2 billion had been spent -- a worst of both worlds outcome. But this debate was not, I think, mainly about declining interest in the support of science. Few in Congress understood what modern high-energy accelerators are for. They are not for weapons. They have no practical applications. They are for something that is, worrisomely from the point of view of many, called "the theory of everything." Explanations that involve entities called quarks, charm, flavor, color, etc., sound as if physicists are being cute. The whole thing has an aura, in the view of at least some Congresspeople I've talked to, of "nerds gone wild" -- which I suppose is an uncharitable way of describing curiosity-based science. No one asked to pay for this had the foggiest idea of what a Higgs boson is. I've read some of the material intended to justify the SSC. At the very end, some of it wasn't too bad, but there was nothing that really addressed what the project was about on a level accessible to bright but skeptical non-physicists. If physicists are asking for 10 or 15 billion dollars to build a machine that has no practical value, at the very least they should make an extremely serious effort, with dazzling graphics, metaphors, and capable use of the English language, to justify their proposal. More than financial mismanagement, budgetary constraints, and political incompetence, I think this is the key to the failure of the SSC.


CASE 6: FRUSTRATED CB-ERS

During the CB-radio craze of the 1970s, the FCC was flooded with phone calls from people trying to understand and comply with the voluminous and incomprehensible set of CB regulations. Five FCC employees worked full-time answering phones and explaining to citizens how to get their licences and install their radios to conform to the rules.

Then someone decided that it might cost the government less money in the long run if the rules were rewritten so ordinary people could understand them. An attractive, well-organized booklet was prepared that spelled out in plain language all the rules and licensing procedures, and left out all the legalese that no one reads or understands anyway.

After the new booklet was distributed, the phone calls dropped dramatically, and the five employees who spent all their time answering the phone now have more productive jobs.


WHAT WENT WRONG?

In each of these stories, both individuals and their organizations have suffered tangible -- in some cases, huge -- losses because someone has failed to write clearly, concisely and efficiently. Notice that in each case, it wasn't the product or idea that was at fault -- just the way information was handled. The trouble may lie in pompous, bureaucratic language, poor organization, ignorance of the reader's needs, or lack of efficient procedures for handling writing tasks. Whatever the cause, the consequences could have been avoided if the writer in each case had applied just a few simple principles of informative writing.

The best clues you have about what's wrong with today's business and technical writing come from your own personal experiences. So answer these questions as specifically and in as much detail as you can:

WHAT MOST IRRITATES YOU ABOUT THE WRITING YOU HAVE TO READ ON THE JOB?

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU CAN'T FIND THE INFORMATION YOU'RE LOOKING FOR IN A PAPER, MEMO OR REPORT?


WHAT DOES POOR WRITING COST YOU?

Is writing the bottleneck that holds you back and keeps you from having the impact and getting the results you want? Your answers to these questions should give you a clue:

  • Are you having trouble finishing that progress report the boss wanted yesterday? Do you just go blank every time you sit down to work on it?
  • Are the technical papers and reports you submit for publication consistently rejected, even though you know their subject matter deserves attention?
  • Do your internal reports always come back for rewrites, often several times?
  • Do your written instructions often get ignored because your employees can't figure out what you wanted them to do?
  • Are you swamped with paperwork because you need a whole hour to compose a simple one-page letter?
  • Have you lately overheard a colleague say of your carefully thought-out memo: "I just can't figure out what he's trying to say! Why doesn't he get to the point?"
  • Does management consistently respond coolly to your written proposals for new projects and withhold support for your ideas, even though you know your ideas are sound?

Can you think of any recent examples in your own organization where poor writing was responsible for lost work, time or money? Write one such example from your own experience below:


WHAT DOES IT COST YOU TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT?

Many colleagues and students who come to me for help with their writing seem to want me to wave my wand over their manuscripts and make their writing instantly clear and readable, without any effort on their part. When I tell them that they have to take the time to work on changing their writing habits, they always tell me how urgent the pressures of their jobs are, and how they wish they had the time.

Yet these same people have no trouble spending much more time salvaging rejected manuscripts and straightenting out the messes caused by their fuzzy writing. False economy indeed!

Here's a proposition for you. How much time did you spend revising your last paper or report after the reviewers got through with it?

Would you be willing to invest that much time to avoid most of that grief on your next paper? Fine. If you spend that much time doing the exercises in this course, I guarantee that you will save at least that much time on your next writing assignment.


LESSON SUMMARY AND WHAT'S NEXT

Inept writing costs you and your organization time, energy and money. Isn't it time you made the small investment needed to recover those losses and to get the professional recognition you deserve?

Next, let's look more specifically at the rewards that await the clear, incisive writer.


"This passage has been made nonconducive to utilization for an indefinite period." - sign in Pentagon corridor


-- End of Lesson 1 --

Beginning of Lesson 1 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 2