Studies have proven that there are three major techniques of clear writing: (1) Selection of words; (2) Construction of clear sentences; (3) Writing for Effect. My plan is to implement each of the techniques discussed below and give written assignments to practice using each of the techniques. (Activities to build the following skills are located in Appendix A.)
SELECTION OF WORDS. By selection of words I mean fitting the message to the specific reader. Obviously, not ill readers have the same ability to understand a message.
Not all have the same vocabulary, the same knowledge of the subject, or the same mentality. Thus, the reader should be considered in selecting appropriate words and the message should be written for the best understanding in the reader’s mind.
In structuring the message for the best possible understanding, begin by visualizing the reader. That is, form a mental picture of what the reader is like. Get in mind the answers to such questions as what the reader knows about the subject, what his/her educational level is, and how he/she thinks. With this information in mind, the message can be formed.
Selecting the right words depends on the writer’s ability to use language, the writer’s knowledge of the readers, and the writer’s good judgment.
Foremost among the suggestions for word selection is to use the familiar words. These are the everyday words—the words with sharp and clear meanings. Words that are familiar to some people may be unfamiliar to others; consequently, it is important to use good judgment in determining what is likely to be familiar to the reader.
For example, instead of using the more unfamiliar word “endeavor” use “try” or use “end” instead of “terminate”.
Short words in writing generally tend to communicate better than long words. Short words tend to be the familiar word. A heavy proportion of long words leaves an impression of difficulty, thereby hindering communication. This does not mean that all short words are easy and all long words are hard. There are many exceptions. It will be wise to concentrate on the short words and use the long words with caution. An example of long words versus short words is given below:
LONG WORDS—Definitive action was effected subsequent to the last reporting date. SHORT WORDS—Last year the company lost money.
Use technical words with caution. These words are useful only when communicating with people in the same field. The writer must learn these words and make them a part of his/her everyday working vocabulary. A problem comes about when these words are used to write people outside the technical field. The result could be miscommunication. Avoid such miscommunication by using technical words with extreme caution. For example, when a physician uses “cardiac arrest” to other physicians, they understand. Most laymen would get little meaning from the words, but they would understand “heart attack”.
Choose words with the right strength and vigor. This means using words that do the best job of carrying the intended meanings. It’s important to know the differences in words and consider them carefully when writing communications. For example, the word “tycoon” is stronger than “eminently successful businessperson”.
Good business communication is marked by words which form sharp and clear meanings in the mind. These are the concrete words and should be used in writing. Concrete words stand for things the reader can see, feel, taste, or smell. In contrast, abstract words cover broad meanings such as concepts or ideas and sometimes may appear fuzzy and vague to the reader.
Students may enjoy the technique of clustering in practicing the use of concrete words effectively. For example, given the words “paper towel”, students will list concrete words to describe the paper towel. Words like colorful, rough, nice design, etc. This can be especially useful in writing sales letters.
CONSTRUCTING CLEAR SENTENCES AND PARAGRAPHS. If words are the individual components of a communication, then the sentence is the motor. A business message has power only when its sentences are clear, correct, of appropriate length, and properly structured for maximum impact. (Activities to build the following skills are located in Appendix B).
The opening sentence or paragraph of a letter should go straight to the point; the object is to gain the reader’s attention at once.
The closing paragraph or sentence should add something to the letter; it should not be a meaningless formality. A more forceful and sincere way of closing the business letter is by the use of a complete statement or a declarative sentence. It is important, however, to suggest only one action in this closing sentence. Concentrate on one specific action that you wish the reader to take and make no mention of others. If the reader is given a choice of several things to do, he/she most likely will do nothing.
Long, rambling sentences very often hinder readability of most writings. There are rules about sentence length, although I suggest that most sentences should be under 20 words—17 is the average. However, this does not mean that every sentence should be 17 words long. Look for ways such as using punctuation or a list to breakup long sentences.
Very short sentences can be highly effective; however, when too many are used, the message becomes choppy and disconnected. Again, use good judgment.
Paragraphing is important to clear communication. Paragraphs show the reader where topics begin and end, thus helping to organize the information in the mind. Also paragraphing can help ideas stand out.
To design paragraphs involves the ability to organize and relate information. It involves logic and imagination. The general points I feel are necessary for constructing paragraphs are discussed below.
Paragraphs must have unity. In terms of paragraphs, unity means building a paragraph around a single topic or idea. Thus, a finished paragraph will have one purpose and each sentence in the paragraph should contribute to accomplish that purpose.
In writing paragraphs include only information needed and leave out unnecessary information. The chances are you have more information than the reader needs. It is a matter of using good judgment. One way is to ask yourself questions such as these: How will the information be used? What will be used? What will not be used? Then make the decision as to what is necessary.
WRITING FOR EFFECT. When writing business letters, be concerned about communicating more than information. The information in the letter will be important; in fact, it will be the most important part of the communication. But certain effects will also be communicated. (Activities to build the following skills are located in Appendix C.)
One effect that needs to be communicated is goodwill. Building goodwill through letters is good business practice and the success of most businesses is affected by what people think about the business.
Getting such effects in letters is largely a matter of understanding how people respond to words. It involves keeping certain attitudes in mind when writing letters. The following attitudes and techniques can be applied to help get the effect needed.
One technique I find useful in building the goodwill effect in letters is to write in conversational language. By conversational language I mean language that is warm and natural. Such language leaves an impression that people like and understand best. For example, the sentence “Enclosed herewith is the brochure about which you make inquiry.” is stiff and dull; whereas, the sentence “Enclosed is the brochure you asked about.” is written in a conversational style.
Writing from the you-viewpoint is another technique for building goodwill in letters. It emphasizes the reader’s interest and concerns; therefore, it views the situation from the reader’s point of view rather than the writer. It places the reader in the center of things. It sometimes involves skillfully handling people with carefully chosen words in order to make a desired impression on them. The example below illustrates the difference between the we-viewpoint and the you-viewpoint: WE-VIEWPOINT—“We have received your report of May 1.” vs the YOU-VIEWPOINT—“Thank you for your report of May 1.”
Whether a letter achieves its goal often will depend on the words used to carry the message. One can say anything many ways, and each way could possibly convey a meaning different from all others. Much of the difference lies in the meanings of words.
Words which stir up positive meaning in the reader’s mind usually are best for achieving letter goals. This is not to say that negative words have no place in business writing. If you are seeking some action, for example, positive words are the words most likely to persuade. They tend to put the reader in the right frame of mind and they place emphasis on the more pleasant aspects of the goals. Positive words create the goodwill atmosphere we seek in most letters.
A major contribution to goodwill in business letters is courtesy. By courtesy I mean treating the reader with respect and friendly human concern. When used in letters, it leads to friendly relations between people. This results in a better human climate for solving problems and for doing business.
Developing courtesy in a letter involves the three previously discussed techniques: Writing in conversational language, using the you-viewpoint and choosing words for positive effect.