Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.
Why Bother to Write Clearly?
In this Lesson:
- Coping with the information explosion
- The most important skill you possess
- Advance and be recognized -- professionally
- Enlist others' cooperation
- Calling attention to your new results
- Plain-language laws require it
- Orders that can't be misunderstood
- Clear writing aids clear thinking
Look around at the professionals you work with. Whose work has the largest impact on your organization's productivity? Who have the most influence with management? Who appear to be the most successful on their way up the organizational ladder? Who have achieved a reputation for getting things done?
Nine times out of ten, the ones who stand out are those who communicate their ideas clearly and forcefully, both orally and in writing.
Notice, too, how often success eludes those who can't express their ideas, or who do so only in pretentious, bureaucratic prose. It's not enough to be a good scientist, engineer, businessman, or whatever you do. You have to be able to make other people understand what you're doing -- and why it's important. No matter how competent you may seem in private, your hard work will usually go unrecognized, because others will step in and communicate it more skillfully.
COPING WITH THE INFORMATION EXPLOSION
The fastest growing segment of the nation's economy is the information industry, that is, the production and dissemination of information. Rapidly overtaking the production of goods and services, it now represents at least half of the U. S. Gross National Product.
Corporations and government agencies have grown so large and unwieldy that you can seldom transmit information by personal contact. Today, more than ever before, your business and technical writing has to be clear, concise and to-the-point. A couple of decades ago, you could get away with writing rambling memos, verbose and disorganized reports, because everything moved more slowly and people had more time. The volume of paperwork people had to go through every day wasn't so overwhelming. Today, you compete with thousands of other writers for people's attention. You can send multiple electronic documents and e-mail to many people at the speed of light, but no one will read them if it takes them more than a minute to find out what you're getting at.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PROFESSIONAL SKILL YOU POSSESS
When corporate executives are asked how business and engineering schools could better equip their students for the challenges of the real business world, the responses are remarkably consistent: Teach them to write better.
While teaching writing courses, I often hear businessmen, managers, scientists and engineers complain that their formal educations filled their heads with specialized knowledge that they have few occasions to use, yet did little or nothing to prepare them for what they have to do every day -- write.
Fair or not, communication skills are among the most highly rewarded in business, industry, and the scientific community today. If you're the one in ten who can get messages down on paper clearly and condense masses of data to one sheet of clear analysis, your future in your organization is bright indeed.
You can see why when you realize that the machinery of any institution (and especially governments) runs on paper (and increasingly, electronic documents). The difference between a smoothly running machine and one that's grinding to a halt often depends on how much corporate energy is being wasted cranking out useless memos, junk e-mail, bloated, pointless reports and incomprehensible regulations. Millions of corporate and government dollars spent on research and technical achievements are wasted every year by memos and letters that get no action and by reports and papers that are ignored because they fail to inform concisely.
You may not be able to single-handedly unsnarl the information jams that paralyze your organization, but you can do something about the part of it you create. And that will get you noticed!
ADVANCE AND BE RECOGNIZED -- PROFESSIONALLY
The person who can slice through all this waste will immediately attract attention. Someone who never heard of you before will come across your incisive memos and ask, "Say, who wrote this? He's really on top of the chemical inventory problem. Let's get him in here and see if he can help us straighten out that mess in production."
By the same token, sloppy writing can hold you back, too. How often have you looked at a rambling, incoherent report and said, "What a jerk!" -- even though you never met the author. How do you feel about that person the next time you come across his name?
Because your writing reaches far more people than you can personally contact, you are often judged solely on how clearly and effectively you communicate in writing. If your main point of contact with your professional world is through your writing, your professional image may well lie largely in your reports, memos and articles. To that world, your writing is you. Sooner or later, some client or manager will make a decision affecting your future based solely on something you've written.
ENLIST OTHERS' COOPERATION
Almost everyone needs to ask for help in the course of his or her job. How do you feel when someone asks for your help? Annoyed? Put upon? Eager to cooperate? What does it take to make you want to take the time from your busy schedule to solve someone else's problems?
Getting people's interest and attention is the first step. To do that, you have to understand something about what motivates each person you deal with. You can bet that the values and rewards that motivate others are very different from the ones that motivate you. Some see money as the prime value. For others, it's power, professional standing, stimulating problems, job security, praise, or any of a dozen other rewards in endless combinations. To make someone else feel like cooperating with you, you have to deal in that person's currency, whatever it is.
Suppose, for example, that you want your division manager to approve your research project's budget and assign three engineers to help you. You might guess that an effective approach would be to paint a picture of a successful project, whose results would make the division (and its manager) look good on up the administrative ladder. Such a guess assumes that your manager is strongly motivated by praise and support from his superiors. A reasonable assumption, but other values may enter the picture as well. Suppose she has an inordinate fear of budget overruns. Your approach would have to take that into account. And so forth.
If you write to secure others' cooperation, you have to develop a keen sensitivity for what is important to them. Your writing has to reflect that sensitivity, which means that your own perspectives often have to take a back seat.
If you write to administrators and managers, you have to realize that time is a valuable commodity. Generally, the more responsible an executive's position, the less time he has to read and digest your message. You might get a junior executive to take the time to read your detailed market analysis, but the president won't get past the first few pages before he gets distracted.
Today, you can usefully assume that important people are buried in paperwork. If you want to get -- and hold -- their attention, you have to convince them that you're telling them something that will make their job easier. Give them information that helps them make decisions. Help them deal with your item as quickly and painlessly as possible, whether it's approving your plan, endorsing your product or just sending money for your charity. The clearer your message, the easier you've made their lives. They'll remember you for that.
Decisions about really important issues are usually based on written documentation, simply because the spoken word is so imprecise and transient. Even if you're a forceful and convincing speaker, you still have to write your ideas down when decision time comes around.
CALLING ATTENTION TO YOUR NEW RESULTS
No scientific investigation or engineering project is complete until you report your results. No matter how significant your findings, they remain useless unless you communicate them in a way that others can understand and digest.
Have you ever worked long, hard hours to develop some new idea or product, and when you finally succeeded you decided that this might be something a lot of other people in your organization might find useful? You excitedly write it up and distribute your memo announcing you new result to your colleagues. You wait for the response. Then... nothing.
What happened? Didn't they read it? Why hasn't the boss stopped in to congratulate and encourage you? No one appreciates you. And so on.
It might never even occur to you that the way you wrote that memo was the problem. To understand how this can happen, put yourself in the receiver's shoes for a minute. Suppose you work in a research laboratory and you receive this memo:
This memo describes a method for time-domain convolution with certain classes of functions. Both analog and digital realizations of the method are presented. The digital realization is economical of computation time, whereas the analog method preserves certain mathematical properties....
You're not likely to read beyond the first sentence, unless this is exactly the problem you've been working on. You file it, perhaps in the circular file, or maybe under "Mathematical tools I might look at someday if I have time."
To see what went wrong, let's go back to the author and ask him a pointed question or two:
"Why should anyone be interested in your new result?"
"Well," he answers immediately, "It's a great time saver. You can now put calculations on a computer that used to be done by hand. In a half-hour you can get answers that used to take a week. We can save thousands on data-reduction costs every week."
"So who cares?" we continue to probe.
"What do you mean? Lots of people care about saving money and work! Data processing is the bottleneck that keeps us from analyzing all those exploration logs. If we could find promising drilling sites more quickly, we'd have a competitive edge over everyone else....."
Can you see how these words, rather than the ones he actually sent, would have commanded the attention he wanted? All he had to do was ask himself the right questions before writing his memo.
Your new result may seem important and fascinating to you for many reasons that have to do with your background and the amount of research you invested in them. But you can be sure that if they're important to anyone else, it's for very different reasons. Your job, in communicating those new results, is to understand those many other points of view from which people see your result. How will a manager see them? A company customer? A computer programmer? The stockholders? Each lives in his own world, in which your result has unique implications.
By linking your message with your readers' experiences and needs, you tune your message to your intended audience. Then the message gets through.
PLAIN-LANGUAGE LAWS REQUIRE IT
The national concern for clear, concise and easy-to-understand public documents places a new burden on business and technical writers. Your company or agency may actually be held accountable for damages that result from sloppy and foggy writing.
In 1978, President Carter issued an Executive Order called "Improving Government Regulations." This order directed government agencies to make sure that their regulations were worded in plain English, as simply and clearly as possible. This order placed responsibility squarely on each agency head to "determine that regulations are written in plain English and are understandable by those who must comply with them."
Unfortunately, this Executive Order was revoked by President Reagan, but the Federal Communications Commission had taken it seriously and began revising the part of its regulations that apply to amateur radio. Here is a section of the old rules that defines the purpose of the amateur service:
The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
(c) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts.
(d) Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international good will.
Now, here's the proposed rewrite:
The Amateur Radio Service is for persons interested in the technical side of radio communications. They use the service only for their own personal satisfaction and get no financial benefit from its use. They learn about radio, communicate with other radio operators around the world, and find better ways to communicate by radio.
We can only hope that all government regulations will someday be so simplified.
Following suit, twenty-two states have passed laws that require consumer documents to be written in plain language. The Employee Income Retirement Security Act now demands that the pension plans it covers be written in easily understandable language.
Several years ago, a Pittsburgh man filed a lawsuit that claimed he couldn't understand the credit agreement his local bank sent him. The case eventually got to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, which decided that the language was indeed incomprehensible. The bank had to pay the damages.
In another case, a large railroad was charged with discrimination for writing training manuals that most of its employees couldn't understand.
If your job requires you to write regulations for the government or a large corporation, it's not just a nice idea that they be understandable by those who have to comply with them -- it's the law!
ORDERS THAT CAN'T BE MISUNDERSTOOD
How many times have you given an order or just asked a favor of someone, and what got done had nothing to do with what you wanted? Such experiences are so common that large organizations have very formalized procedures for writing orders down and most have strict policies against giving and accepting verbal orders.
But even written orders get misunderstood -- occasionally at great expense. The surest way to avoid misunderstanding is to tell your audience exactly what you expect them to do, in your first paragraph. Also be sure you tell them when you want it done, and what feedback you want, to confirm that the instructions were understood, and that the job has been done.
Here's a memo from the government's General Services Administration that ignored all these principles of clear orders:
To: All drivers of Interagency Motor Pool System (IMPS) Vehicles
The General Services Administration (GSA) has a growing nationwide problem related to the number of reported lost or stolen U.S. Government National Credit Cards, Standard Form 149, which are furnished with motor vehicles assigned or dispatched from our Interagency Motor Pool System (IMPS).
The most recent report from the credit card contractor shows that over 70 percent of the lost/stolen cards are those assigned to IMPS vehicles. In some instances, cards issued for the same vehicle have been reported lost/stolen two or three times. This clearly demonstrates the failure of some drivers to realize the importance of safeguarding the credit card. This card, like any commercial credit card, provides easy access to goods and services, and we, the Federal agencies, are fully responsible for all charges when the lost/stolen card is fraudulently used.
In addition to the possibility of fraudulent use, the added administrative costs in obtaining a replacement IMPS credit card are growing and are currently calculated to be at least $35 for each card. If the overall situation does not improve, GSA-IMPS will be forced to take administrative action by instituting a $35 charge against the user agency for every IMPS credit card that is reported lost or stolen.
We are hopeful that with your assistance this problem can be significantly reduced or eliminated.
If you have any questions on proper use or control of the credit card, please call.......
First of all, this memo is much to long for what it has to say. Many readers will simply store it in the round file, because they don't know what specific action to take. Although the problem is clearly (if somewhat laboriously) stated, the memo never really specifies a solution.
The message here is worth no more than two clear sentences, for example:
To: Drivers of Government Vehicles
Subject: Care of Credit Cards
So many government credit cards have been lost or stolen lately that it's costing us a bundle to replace them. Please care for these credit cards as you would your own, so that we don't have to start charging your agency the $35 replacement cost.
This memo is much more likely to get the desired result.
Here's an old example of foggy government orders. During World War II, a Washington bureaucrat drafted these air-raid instructions:
Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by blackout contruction or by termination of the illumintaion.
President Roosevelt saw the draft and ordered a rewrite:
Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something over the windows; and in buildings where they can let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights.
So the point here is that your orders and instructions are much more likely to be understood and carried out if you write them simply and plainly, just as you would say them orally.
CLEAR WRITING AIDS CLEAR THINKING
How often have you sat down to write a report, and half-way through it you realize that you don't understand the subject as well as you thought? You find that you really have nothing to say, or worse, you find yourself making up information to cover up your ignorance. Writing has a way of pinning your knowledge down, uncovering gaps in your understanding. If you tell yourself that you're no good at writing, you're probably really saying that your thinking processes are fuzzy.
Or how often have you written a really good report that required a lot of research, and afterwards felt that you understood the subject much more clearly than ever before? When the boss questions you about it, you have all the facts and insights at your command, and people start coming to you as the recognized authority of the subject.
These two examples are designed to remind you of the close connection between clear writing and clear thinking. Everyone has experienced the clarifying effects of getting something down on paper. The reason is simple. When you view something through several senses, you gain new perspectives from each one. Writing uses vision, touch and, if you read it to yourself, sound. Each sense enriches the experiences surrounding a concept that may have formerly been only vaguely specified somewhere inside your head.
If you're finding that your thinking about some idea is fuzzy and ill-defined, try jotting your ideas down, in whatever form and order comes to mind. Look them over. Read them out loud. Write them out in different ways. Talk them over with friends and coworkers. You'll soon find that your thinking more clearly about them, too.
LESSON SUMMARY AND WHAT'S NEXT
The rewards to the clear, incisive writer are many and substantial. You get the attention of your peers, your subordinates, and your supervisors. That adds up to professional recognition and greater job satisfaction.
Next, we'll examine some reasons why you may not be writing this way automatically.
"In science, the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs." - Sir William Osler
-- End of Lesson 2 --
Beginning of Lesson 2 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 3