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8 Tips to Improve Your (And Your Agency’s) Writing

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Image via Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Are you frustrated that your staff’s writing isn’t consistent or clear?  Are you not sure about the difference between grammar rules and writing styles?   Need some writing tips that can make your work more accessible? 

Remember your 8th grade teacher saying you have to write introductions to your content, paragraphs must have at least three sentences (or some number much bigger than one), and all content related to the topic sentence must be together in one paragraph?  She probably said you couldn’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition.  Fancy vocabulary words probably got you a better grade.

Balderdash, I say!  Following old-fashioned rules like these in the information-overload age leads to cumbersome, difficult-to-understand content. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently developed a Writing Style Guide to help our authors produce correct, consistent, understandable content. 

Here are eight tips for better writing:

  1. Know your audience:  Consider your audience’s level of expertise and interest in the subject, and the tasks they will be doing with the information you provide.  Respect their time.  Put your main message/point/call to action first.  Be assured they will be skimming. Don’t stuff the beginning of your writing with background, assumptions, formalities.  Most of this information is read as blah, blah, blah—readers want to know the main point. You can include supporting information later.
  2. Use simple words:  SAT vocabulary doesn’t make your content more official; it just makes it more difficult for readers to understand and skim. Why use additionally when also works fine?  Utilize should be use, and endeavor should be try.  Authors who say “They can look it up” are inconsiderate:  readers should not have to translate your text to understand it.  The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was passed for a reason.
  3. Use short sentences:  Short sentences are easier to read.  Consider breaking a long sentence into two or eliminating unnecessary words. When you find yourself wondering where a sentence will end (and not thinking about the content), you know the sentence is too long.
  4. Use short paragraphs:  Back to your English teacher.  Avoid big blocks of text.  Long paragraphs are daunting and difficult to scan. One-sentence paragraphs are easy to read, and they help highlight important information, especially on the web.  Don’t be afraid to use three short paragraphs rather than one giant block of text.  
  5. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and technical terms:  Choose non-technical terms (put technical terms in parentheses if you need to include them). Spell out all acronyms and abbreviations (don’t worry about the difference in these two things —just spell out all alphabet soup references the first time they are used, and several times in long documents).  Beware of the writer who states, “Everyone knows what RCMP means.”  (Hint:  I heard this in Canada.)
  6. Know the difference between grammar and style:  Grammar refers to specific rules that should not be broken (which and that; subject-verb agreement).  Writing style refers to agency preferences about voice, formality, some punctuation, 3 or three. Writers and editors differ on style.  Famous style guides differ.  Areas of the world differ.  Save time by learning the writing rules where you work.  If style guidelines aren’t evident or don’t exist, expect inconsistent content from your authors.  Consider creating a writing style guide or adopting one of the standard guides.
  7. Improve your copyediting skills:  Here are some proofreading tips:  Read your work out loud—this method increases the odds you will find a typo or mistake.  It really works!  Force yourself to look at every word rather than reading phrases for content.  Proof a printed version.  Many people find it easier to proofread on paper than on a computer screen. Ask a colleague for help.  Four eyes are better than two. In the end, sometimes it takes a professional editor to correct all the commas, hyphens, and style points.
  8. Know where to get help:  Find out if your agency has a style guide or uses a professional writing style guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the Government Printing Office Style Manual.  Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains pesky things like composed of and comprised.   A Google search on a writing question often returns the right answer. 

Pop Quiz:  Which ending would you pick for this post?

A.   It is felt that, in order to utilize proper writing style, agency employees at this point in time should endeavor to utilize a great number of these suggestions which are above for the purpose of improving their writing capabilities.

B.   Use these guidelines to improve your writing. 

Image via Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Colleen is a senior editor at the U.S. Energy Information Administration and wrote the Writing Style Guide she uses every day to edit agency content. She has worked nearly her entire career at EIA where at different times she has been an analyst, planner, website usability tester, customer feedback collector, product reviewer, and now editor. EIA’s Writing Style Guide recently won the Center for Plain Language’s ClearMark award for best original public document. EIA’s Today in Energy, short articles published daily about energy issues and trends, won awards from the National Association of Government Communicators for Best Electronic Publication and Best Web article.

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