A friend of mine recently graduated and took a high-paying job as a technical writer. To give you some background on technical writing, it is essentially writing copy for businesses typically in the form of manuals or directions. While having coffee I asked her “What’s been the most difficult transition in your job?” I expected her to respond saying something along the lines of “Judy in accounting really annoys me” or “Getting up early and having a set 9-5 schedule is really hard”. To my surprise she said, “Writing clearly”. This was absolutely shocking to me because she, like me, had been an English major. After allowing my jaw to settle back into its proper alignment, she then went on to explain that grammatically correct sentences, and clear sentences, are not always the same thing.
While writing grammatically correct sentences is undeniably important, it is not a fool proof road map to success. Often in college students are allowed to assume their audience (typically a professor) has some background in the subject in which they are writing on. However my friend’s audience is no longer English majors or English professors; she has to assume her audience hasn’t the slightest idea what she is talking about. Her writing must be clear to absolutely everyone who picks up the manual.
You may be wondering at this point in the article “what does this have to do with me?” While you may not be a technical writer, you can probably appreciate the feeling of reading something and not having the slightest idea what it meant. Here’s a few tips on how to get your point across as efficiently as possible:
- Get to the point. In business most people will want you to get right to the point. No one wants to re-read your work in order to understand- and you shouldn’t make them! A source that I, like many students, find particularly helpful is Purdue Owl. In the article linked here the author suggests getting right to the point by putting the “bottom line upfront” and by writing “subject to verb to object”. Meaning, put the bottom line up front and explain the details after. If your house was on fire you wouldn’t not call an emergency operator and say “I left my curling iron on, and then it over-heated, and caused a small fire, which then turned into a big fire, and now my house is on fire” you would say “My house is on fire!” then you would go into the rest of the details as to how this event occurred. You wouldn’t add extra details when your house is on fire because it would waste time; this is the principle you need to apply to your writing.
- Get rid of the fluff. In the words of my high school AP Lit teacher “cut the glib” and try to only include pertinent details. I often need a reminder for words to cut out of my writing, this article lists several commonly overused words that can almost always be cut out of writing. Before proof reading I suggest you look over these words and see if you can potentially “cut the glib”. Consider your writing to be the Sparknotes version of a longer piece of writing. Short, concise writing is usually the most impactful. For example this article in TIME magazine is less than 300 words and describes how to write clearly. Length does not equate to quality.
- Read your writing out loud. This has helped me many times as an English major. Just like how small errors in papers can lead to losing points you can lose points with your readers for the same errors. I recently had a professor tell our class “Give your paper your paper to a slightly inebriated friend (given that they are of age)” if they can understand your argument, then it is probably relatively easy to follow. While my professor’s method is a bit unorthodox, the point is clear; keep it simple. Essentially, make sure that it makes sense outside of your own head. If all of your friends are busy, or possibly just not inebriated, take a look at these tips on how to proofread your own work.
In short, remember your writing is always a work in progress. The greatest authors, journalists, and even employers all have editors for a reason; writing well is challenging. Writing is a skill that is honed over time, not mastered in a day, or even four years of undergrad. Your writing will always need fine tuning and will usually need to be edited. Writing well is a worthy endeavor, and while it may be frustrating to develop your skills, it pays off.