English: Writing Clearly

by Heather Hudson

Heather Hudson is a freelance writer and editor who has delivered numerous plain language writing workshops in the government, non-profit and private sectors.

Understanding English is hard. Speaking it can be even harder. But writing it well is something even many Canadian-born people never master completely.

Most of us write some form of communication every single day in our jobs and personal lives. Writing could be as simple as a note to a spouse or e-mail to a friend. Cover letters, resumes and correspondence with employers, immigration and government officials are all part of life for most of us. Indeed, writing is almost unavoidable.

To communicate effectively, it's important to be accurate, organized and precise. The following tips will help you develop good writing habits and build your professional writing skills.

Practice really does make perfect

Q: What do a concert pianist, a professional basketball player and an author have in common?

A: Their skill is directly related to the time they spend practicing.

It takes time, effort and determination to form the muscles and build up the skills to become great at anything, from sports to music to driving a car. And so it is with writing. Writers become good writers by writing.

To sharpen your skills, try keeping a journal every day. Write down your thoughts, an account of what happened that day, descriptions of the weather or plans for the future. Write with the idea that someone else will need to read and understand it, even if you don't want to share it with others. At first, it may be difficult to find the words to express yourself but, as time goes on, it will get easier to put words together in a way that speaks to others.

Know your audience

There are few things more frustrating than having to read something two or three times to understand it. Readers may blame it on their reading skills but often the problem is with the writer, not the reader. If a writer doesn't take the time to present information in a way that is meaningful to his/her readers, the document will not be effective.

The next time you write something, first ask yourself:

  • Who are my readers?
  • What do they want to know?
  • What do I want to tell them?

Picturing your reader will help set the tone and style of your communication. If it's an official document to an employer or a government official, it may be wise to write more formally. If you need to give information, it's helpful to know how much your reader already knows so you know exactly how much detail to use. Readers are much more open to a document that speaks directly to them.

Have a plan

Have you ever noticed that when you visit the market or the mall without a clear idea (or list) of what you need to buy, you end up overspending or not buying anything at all?

The same thing happens when you begin writing without first making a plan but instead of money, you're overspending words. And, often, the reader pays the price by having to read more than is necessary to get the message.

The next time you communicate in writing, take a few moments to write down all the points you need to make and put them in order of importance. This outline will help you stay focused and make sure the most important information (what the reader needs to know) comes first. The guide will keep you on track to ensure everything you need to say is included.

Write clearly and concisely

Big words, long, poorly worded sentences and thick paragraphs are hard to read. In school, students often learn that they need to use impressive words to show off their vocabulary and stretch the word count of the 1,000-word essay. In "real life", those principles simply don't apply. People are busy and distracted and want to know what you have to say as quickly - and clearly - as possible.

Government, legal and insurance organizations, as well as financial institutions, are making their communications easier to read to avoid confusion among their clients. They are identifying the needs of their audience and recognizing that it pays to write plainly and precisely. For example:

Bad: Further to our telephone conversation of February 9, it has been determined that the account in your name has been arranged in current order.

Good: As we discussed February 9, I have updated your account information.

Reading as your guide

When you're learning to speak English, it's helpful to listen to others speak in person, on the radio and television and in movies. The same idea applies to writing. Good writers read good writing. Newspaper and magazine articles are excellent examples of how writers identify their readers, use a proper tone and add the right amount of information in the right order, using clear, concise words.

Find authors whose writing styles you enjoy and try to read everything they write. You are building your own writing skills when you read good writing.

Writing is one of those lifelong learning skills, whether English is your first, second or third language. Most of us will never write as smoothly as Shakespeare but a solid understanding of what makes a readable document will make communicating a lot easier in all aspects of life.

CNM