Achieving a Readable Style

The objectives of this chapter are to • • • • Explain how to achieve a readable style. Illustrate various methods that one may use to write effective paragraphs. Explain how knowledge of one’s audience is central to achieving a readable style. Provide guidelines for writing readable sentences.

This chapter departs significantly from the style chapter in previous editions of Reporting Technical Information because it places heavy emphasis on style as a response to audience needs and expectations. Students are shown that style guidelines are not just arbitrary rules created in a vacuum but are strategies born out of audience frustration with unreadable documents. A chapter like this one is also a wonderful way to get students on your side and headed in the same direction as you. You have a common enemy—wordy, pompous, bureaucratic writing. And the focus is not grammar and usage rules, which for some students is just so much hairsplitting. You can point out that most of the material in Chapter 4 has nothing to do with grammatical correctness at all. For these reasons, students usually get intrigued with a chapter like this one on writing style problems. Instead of merely being told to write more clearly and succinctly, this chapter shows students specific stylistic problems that hinder that goal. They learn how to spot these kinds of problems and how to fix them. A good time in the semester to use this chapter is that period in which your students are hard at work on a major writing project. You probably don’t want to saddle them with any additional out-of-class work, so have them read this chapter and conduct several in-class workshops on writing style.

As mentioned previously, this chapter is a good one for in-class workshops. It’s a good way to keep students active, focused, and learning while they are working on a large report project outside of class.


Traditional Classroom 1. Revise paragraphs with weak or absent central statements, paragraphs with weak transitions, and overly long paragraphs. It’s easy enough to create problem paragraphs by yanking out the central statement and most of the transitions from well-written paragraphs with interesting content. Have students work over these paragraphs on their own, in teams, or with the entire class. 2. Revise paragraphs to include lists and tables. Find excerpts with lists, and rewrite them as straight-text paragraphs. Find excerpts with simple informal tables, and rewrite them as straight-text paragraphs. Have your students reformat these paragraphs back into lists and tables. 3. Revise sentences with overly long openers, overly long interrupters, and sentences that are just too long. If you have a perverse streak, you can rewrite sentences that have these characteristics. Also, you can now visit the Web sites of many state and federal agencies to find plenty of text that meets all of these qualifications. Have your students work on these kinds of sentences on their own, in teams, or with the entire class. 4. Revise sentences with excessive noun strings, ineffective normalizations, and bad passive-voice constructions. Collect sentences with these characteristics and have your students revise them. (Once again, state and federal agency Web sites are good sources for this sort of material.) 5. Declare an opposite day. For fun, have students rewrite good, straightforward sentences with the sentence-style problems covered in this chapter. Have them rewrite active voice to passive voice; jam nouns together in long noun strings; knock the action right out of the sentences; begin with interminable openers; and interrupt the subject and verb with huge modifiers. 6. Hold a bureaucrat face-off or bureaucrat showdown. If it’s not in poor taste, consider having the bureaucratic prose equivalent of the pun-off. With a revolving panel of student judges and student contestants, act as master of ceremonies and read out perfectly good sentences and give contestants a couple of minutes to rewrite these sentences in bureaucratese. Computer Classroom 1. Practice revising online. Online revision—writers working on the same document but from different locations—presents a new array of benefits and challenges. Give students a paragraph to revise online. Either assign or let them choose the method(s) of communication: e-mail, chat room or IRC, FTP to and from the Web, etc. Let them struggle through the awkwardness of finding a way to ensure which document version is most recent, ensuring that the revisions are consistent and correct, etc. Discuss these experiences as a group afterwards.


2. Find online style guides. Have students (individually or in pairs) search the Web for online style guides. These guides may be as universally applicable as our textbook or much more field-specific. Discuss what they find, and compile a list of helpful Web sites to support their revision work. 3. Find online advice for writing for the Web. Have students search the Web for advice on writing for the Web. Have students compile a list of helpful Web sites they may use later when they create a Web site as an assignment in this course.

As mentioned earlier, this chapter is ideal for the change-of-pace, workshop-style unit that you can conduct when your students are hard at work on the formal report. Here is a small selection of ideas: Traditional Assignments 1. Write a memo on an example of bad writing. Have your students find a short excerpt containing stylistically bad writing, yet writing that illustrates the ideas discussed in this chapter. Have them write a memo in which they identify and discuss these problems, and then have them rewrite the excerpt. If some students don’t know where to start, suggest that they visit the Web sites of state and federal agencies, where they can find text meeting these qualifications. 2. Rewrite good text as bad. Use the idea in item 5 in the workshop activities above. Have your students take perfectly good, straightforward text and inject all manner of the stylistic problems covered in Chapter 4. 3. Revise a poorly written document to improve its style. Provide students with a document that is a stylistic disaster, and have the students rewrite the document. Distance Learning Assignments 1. Participate in an online peer review before a major assignment submission. Have students trade drafts of one of their larger assignments at least three days before the due date. Require peer reviewers to study their classmates’ drafts and suggest style revisions, using the Revision Checklist handout at the end of this section. Make sure to explain the difference between revising style and editing mechanics. Also, consider having a minimum number of remarks—any combination of constructive criticism and compliments—per review. Also consider offering examples of good, specific remarks (“This sentence is written in passive voice.”) versus vague, overly general remarks (“This sentence sounds weird.”). Make sure to set a peer review deadline that gives students time to get their peer remarks and apply necessary changes to their drafts before submitting their assignments. To reinforce the seriousness of this peer review assignment,


you can ask that copies of the review remarks be sent to you. For more on work shopping, see the front section of this manual. 2. Write and respond to a letter of complaint. Require students to compose a letter of complaint to the provider of a product/service of their choosing. They may pick the writing style and tone of the complaint. Collect these online (as e-mail messages, electronic files, or discussion thread postings), and then redistribute them each to a new student. Require them to first write a short paragraph putting themselves in the audience’s place (the one receiving the complaint) and describing their attitudes, motivations, etc. Next, have them respond to the letter of complaint with a solution, a reason for not complying with the complainer’s wish, etc. If you have time and are interested, you can then have the original letter writers post an e-mail or discussion message describing how they reacted to their complaint letter responses and reflecting on how writing style and tone help achieve purpose. 3. Analyze a Web site that uses a poor writing style. Have students locate a Web site that has stylistic problems, and then take on the role of a Web site design consultant who has been approached by the Web master (or site owner or sponsor) to help improve it. Using guidelines from the list of Web sites gathered in the third computer classroom assignment above, have the students analyze the style problems on the problem site. The students must then write an e-mail to the Web master (which they will, of course, actually send to you) in which they analyze the style problems on the site and make specific suggestions for improvements. If your students are comfortable with Web design, they may even redesign the site itself and include the HTML page as an attachment to the e-mail.

• • • • • • Strunk’s Elements of Style ( Sections and Paragraphs ( Dr. Ronald B. Standler’s Technical Writing ( Guide to a Scientific Writing Style ( Indispensable Writing Resources ( Analytical Writing for Science and Technology (

You may wish to reproduce the following worksheets for use in class or as homework.


Style Revision Worksheet
Sentence Revision 1 On a separate sheet of paper, identify the types of writing problems presented in Chapter 4 that you see in the following excerpt, and then rewrite it in clear, forceful prose: While determination of specific space needs and access cannot be accomplished until after a programmatic configuration is developed, it is apparent that physical space is excessive and that all appropriate means should be pursued to ensure that the entire physical plant is utilized as fully as feasible. Sentence Revision 2 On a separate sheet of paper, identify the style problems in this pompous paragraph and rewrite it: The purpose of this PPM [Policy and Procedure Memorandum] is to ensure, to the maximum extent practicable, that highway locations and designs reflect and are consistent with Federal, State, and local goals and objectives. The rules, policies, and procedures established by this PPM are intended to afford full opportunity for effective public participation in the consideration of highway location and design proposals by highway departments before submission to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. They provide a medium for free and open discussion and are designed to encourage early and amicable resolution of controversial issues that may arise. Paragraph Revision 1 On a separate sheet of paper, turn the following sentence into a paragraph of several sentences. Try reformatting part of the paragraph as lists. Make the central idea of the paragraph the first sentence: If, on the date of opening of bid or evaluation of proposals, the average market price of domestic wool of usable grades is not more than 10 percent above the average of the prices of representative types and grades of domestic wools in the wool category which includes the wool required by the specifications (see (f) below), which prices reflect the current incentive price as established by the Secretary of Agriculture, and if reasonable bids or proposals have been received for the advertised quantity offering 100 percent domestic wools, the contract will be awarded for domestically produced articles using 100 percent domestic wools, and the procedure set forth in (e) and (f) below will be disregarded.


Revision Checklist
Use this checklist to analyze your writing or that of others.

Paragraphs • • • • • Use strong central statements (topic sentences). Maintain coherence. Keep paragraphs to moderate length. Use transitions. Use lists when they will help convey meaning.


Sentences • Use variety of length, but seek moderate length (check sentences over 20 words). Keep subjects and verbs close together. Omit verbiage; use concrete verbs. Write squeaky-clean prose. Avoid ponderous language. Avoid excessive use of is/are verb forms. Use active voice for clarity. Define when necessary.

• • • • • • •


Revising a Poorly Written Memo
Memo Background: The Big Chief plant has just hired Mike Sims as a production manager. Although Sims has three years’ experience in the field, this is his first managerial position. He is collegeeducated and very excited about this new opportunity. On his first day at work, the company vice president asks Sims to write a memo introducing himself to the fifty production workers he will be supervising. Sims’s memo is on the next page. 1. Study the old memo, making specific notes on your copy, in terms of Sims’s primary audience and purpose, sentence structure (active versus passive), specific word choice, tone and point of view, and general professional writing goals. 2. Evaluate the original document’s style in terms of the strategies and recommendations in Chapter 4. Tell me where the original fails to use good (appropriate) writing, why the inappropriate wording will have a negative effect on the document’s success, and how the memo can be improved. 3. Thoroughly revise Sims’s poorly written memo. Be sure to correctly and thoroughly apply all of the good style from the reading. You may change wording, but be careful not to change the memo’s central message.

To: All Big Chief Floor Workers Date: 31 January 2001 From: Mr. Mike Sims, Production Manager Re: New Procedures This memo shall open by expressing the author’s exhilaration concerning the tremendous opportunity afforded to him as the new production manager for Big Chief. Employees will find the author’s management style emphasizes the implementation of optimum operationalization, which, of course, leads to ultimate productivity and fiscal liquidity! Promotion of an effective working environment, based on the latest principles of Total Quality Management, will help launch the Big Chief name to the top of our industrial milieu. As part of the new TQM strategy, a new, more open worker-manager communication strategy has been implemented, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY. Issues or suggestions may now be brought to the management’s attention via two avenues: a cork-product bulletin board in the break room and direct, interactive appointment. Suggestions may be anonymously posted in the break room as the board will be used as an interactive, divisionwide interchange, with employees and the manager being offered the chance to interface in a public forum. The procedures for using the appointed board are as follows: Obtain an anonymous suggestions form from the author’s secretary. Scribe the date and subject of the suggestion in the top lines provided on the form. Then legibly print the issue at hand within the parameters of the space thus provided. Commentary which is illegible will be disregarded. Employees who wish to discuss an issue with management directly may also do so via person-to-person appointment. Fifteen minute appointments will be available for assignment each Friday during the production worker lunch hour (12:00-1:00). These should be taken advantage of if any private dilemmas are of concern. Participants should COME PREPARED.

Revising a Poorly Written Letter
Background: Dr. Winston works for a major university that has a notorious problem with insufficient parking. Winston decides to write a letter of complaint to PTTS, the on-campus traffic and parking regulators. 1. Study the old letter, making specific notes on your copy, in terms of Winston’s primary audience and purpose, general professional writing goals, and how the letter’s style complements or fights against these. Winston’s letter is on the next page. 2. Evaluate the original document’s style in terms of the strategies and recommendations in Chapter 4. Tell me where the original fails to use good (appropriate) writing, why the inappropriate wording will have a negative effect on the document’s success, and how the letter can be improved. 3. Thoroughly revise Winston’s poorly written letter. Be sure to correctly and thoroughly apply all of the good style from the reading. You may change wording, but be careful not to change the letter’s central message.

1000 Pebble Creek Drive College Station, TX 77845 September 30, 2000 Parking Traffic and Transportation Texas A&M University College Station, TX 77843-5555 Gentlemen: Having trodden upon sore foot one too many times, this calloused parking participant would like to address copious vehicular positioning overflow at this prestigious university, so well known for both its scientific research and impassioned parking police. An amount of money has been invested by me for parking privileges that is disappropriately incongruent with the afforded car-storage opportunities. Although the appropriated funding was paid with the intent to secure a “24-Hour Reserve” spot in lot five, you have failed to provide the aforementioned author with the befitting service rendered. It is not an uncommon occurrence to arrive at the appointed parking space (#6524A) to find that a student, tardy, tenacious, and intrepid, has borrowed the author’s area in order that he or she might punctually enter the academic environment. This, however, is not necessarily the student’s fault; Texas A&M is notorious for overselling its commuter tags to the point of parking impossibility! Regardless of that fact, the epoch it takes this speaker to contact a parking attendant, secure a tower, and have the offending vehicle removed requires such a significant time investment that it is rendered impossible. And where do you suppose I might park my own vehicle whilst awaiting the previously aforementioned process to ensue? The committance of a FRAUDULENT ACT is performed each and every time you accept payment and compensation for services that you have no honest intention of providing. It is a slap in the face of the American system of judicious capitalism, for which a LAWSUIT should be suggested. However, in a display of greater reserve and patience, these alternative actions are hereby demanded: station a manned parking kiosk at the lot entrance to repulse any illegal parking attempts, arm attendants with instantaneous tow truck access which requires no phone calls and no wait, and commission new parking-overflow strategies for those paying customers who need an emergency alternative. How this university can afford to build a system of new athletic facilities while ignoring the basic requisite of parking in order to attend to academic priorities is beyond this author’s cognitive ability . Perhaps Texas A&M should be designated a health spa, and all academics should be foresaken! Sincerely, (ink signature) L. T. Winston, Ph.D., Assistant Professor

Revising a Poorly Written Application Letter
Background: KBQS (Knowledge Bound Quality Systems, Inc.) is a small, local technical writing firm. The Denver location employs about ten people, so it has no “personnel department.” One of the two company presidents will probably be the one taking the applications in addition to accomplishing her other daily tasks. The firm is very busy, so the pressure is high, especially considering that another technical writer is needed but not yet hired. KBQS put a technical writer ad in the newspaper last Sunday and received ten responses this week. 1. Study the old letter, making specific notes on your copy, in terms of Lance’s primary audience and purpose, general professional writing goals, and how the letter’s style complements or fights against these. Lance’s letter is on the next page. 2. Evaluate the original document’s style in terms of the strategies and recommendations in Chapter 4. Tell me where the original fails to use good (appropriate) writing, why the inappropriate wording will have a negative effect on the document’s success, and how the letter can be improved. 3. Thoroughly revise Lance’s poorly written letter. Be sure to correctly and thoroughly apply all of the good style from the reading. You may change wording, but be careful not to change the letter’s central message.

100 Pine Street Denver, CO 55555 September 1, 2000 KBSI Inc. 123 First Avenue Denver, CO 55556 Sirs: Technical writing is the sort of professional field into which not just anyone should venture. Certain requirements like attention to detail, knowledge of the subject matter at hand, and a calm, calculating approach are central to it. This means that you should interview me for the position advertised in Sunday’s paper. Prestigious pedagogy and a thoroughly contemporary curriculum have been combined to make the applicant before you a paramount choice for adoption. A review of my skills will reveal that I am not unskilled at composition for both knowledgeable and ignorant audiences. Techniques such as information mapping, audience profile matrixing, and state of the art, computer aided vocabulary proficiency ratings will all be put into practice as I take the helm in the writer's job. You will be impressed once you are appropriately cognizant of how my greatly enhanced skills can be put to work to produce monolithically successful documents unparalleled in excellence. It is not uncommon for my first-revision results to be indicative of terminal document design! A recently completed degree is a plus for me as a technical writing applicant. I have my course work fresh in my mind, and I am ready to face the world! School has taught me a plethora of prestidigitations, all of which I am ready to put to work for you. Beneficial results will dominate the future due to KBSI’s choice in pursuing this application. As many fine organizations are currently within my perusal, I urge you to contact me soon to discuss application details. Sincerely, (ink signature) Pat Lance

The figures on the following pages may be reproduced as overhead transparencies or simply shown on a computer. The following set of discussion questions associated with each of the figures may be used to elicit student reflections on the concepts. Discussion Questions for Figure 4-1 • • In what circumstances would following these principles be critical to document success? Can you imagine a context in which it would be less critical?

Discussion Questions for Figure 4-2 • • To what extent do the paragraphs in your writing follow these guidelines? Have readers ever struggled to understand your writing? To what extent might following these guidelines improve your communication?

Discussion Questions for Figure 4-3 • • • Which of these elements do you typically consider when you revise your sentences? Which ones represent weaknesses in your writing (the things instructors mark in the margins!)? In what ways have these weaknesses hindered your ability to convey your meaning?

Basic Principles of Effective Style
• Determine your reader’s knowledge of the subject • Determine if a particular style will be expected • Anticipate your reader’s comprehension level in a given context • Know your relationship to your reader and how you want to sound • Adjust the style to the reader, the purpose, and the context

Figure 4-1: Basic Principles of Effective Style

Revising Paragraphs
• Begin paragraphs with topic sentences (central statements) • Build paragraphs with a group of sentences that coherently develop the central statement • Use a moderate paragraph length • Use transitions between ideas • Use lists when they better emphasize and develop the topic ideas

Figure 4-2: Revising Paragraphs

Revising Sentences
• Select your level of language; adjust the density of information • Watch sentence length • Keep subjects and verbs close together • Omit verbiage; use concrete verbs • Write squeaky-clean prose • Avoid ponderous language • Avoid excessive use of is/are verb forms • Use active voice for clarity • Define when necessary • Avoid impersonal language

Figure 4-3: Revising Sentences