Writing Format and Style


About Writing Format and Style

Research into reading habits and practices have determined the best ways for structuring writing so that it will have the most impact. We know that, depending on their purpose, people read differently. You don't approach a dictionary the same way you approach a novel. And the same holds true for writing. Certain styles and formats work best when you're trying to sell a product or service. Unfortunately, the education system focuses on scientific purposes and not on marketing. But you can learn some of the practices of journalists and professional writers which will make your proposals more readable, more effective, and more often a winner.

Techniques like writing "from the top down," avoiding professional and pompous jargon, and incorporating trade studies and ghost stories into your text will significantly increase the readability of your proposals and the likelihood of their success.

Make Your Writing More Readable
For the most part, engineers and scientists write the same way. They follow the scientific style which is promoted in college and university classes as the standard for the academic world. Indeed, if an engineer or scientist wishes to be published in a respected academic journal, they MUST write this way. But this is not the kind of writing that wins in the competitive business world.

The people who are going to read your proposal have a limited amount of time and energy. Yours isn't the only one they're going to read and they don't want to have to wade through it. So here's a few things you can do to make your writing less of a chore for the reader.

Write From the Top Down
The newspaper style of writing has a very specific purpose. Most readers donít read an entire article; they start at the top and most donít read a1l the way to the bottom. So the writer puts the most important information first. Believe it or not, the same thing holds true for proposal readers. Unfortunately, most of us were taught to write using the scientific technique, presenting the facts first and the conclusion last. In a proposal, this is fatal. The message MUST come first. Otherwise, if the reader gets tired or impatient and reads only halfway through any section of the proposal, he or she quits and never gets your point.

Start With the Benefits
There are four good reasons for writing this way.

  • The reader doesn't have to read the entire section to get the message;
  • If the message is interesting, the reader will keep reading;
  • The reader can quit reading any section at any time and still come away with the me sage; and
  • If you get stuck for space, you can "cut from the bottom' the way newspaper editors do.

If you start with a benefit statement, which ought to be your conclusion, you are more likely to grab your reader and keep him or her interested. And if that opening statement grabs the evaluator, the chances are greater that the remainder of what you say will be read. And that means that your chances of getting your message through are greater.

Use Short Words and Sentences
Most local newspaper are written at a sixth grade level so that the vast majority of readers can understand it, and yet they rarely sound condescending. The reading level (and so the readability) is achieved by the use of short words and sentences and, when longer terms must be used, theyíre always explained.

The same approach should be taken when preparing proposals. You can't always be sure who the reader is and should never assume it will be read by anyone who would appreciate the style of an academic journal. The words you use should be part of the standard English language, and if you must use a non-standard word, you should define it. Never assume that the reader is familiar with all of the technical terms in your field. Similarly, a sentence should contain one idea. Long words will rarely impress anyone. If what you have to say is good, you should be able to explain it to most people.

Use Short Paragraphs
Think of what you write as a meal. You certainly don't expect the reader to swallow it whole. A paragraph is the equivalent of what you can fit on a fork. It's the most you can expect your reader to swallow at once. Readers are accustomed to taking in all of a paragraph at once, so you must be careful not to choke them. If you can't decide where to start a new paragraph, but you can see.that the paragraph is too long, start it at the beginning of any new sentence. Thatís always better than gagging your reader.

Avoid Pompous Jargon
Engineering and science have a practice of using a certain amount of pompous jargon--words and phrases that do nothing to enhance the writing, but (in the writer's mind, at least) enhance the image of the writer as clever and erudite. For example, word forms like finalize and finalization are simply wrong. A lot of formal writing has carried this kind of thing to extremes. It's the sort of stuffiness that obfuscates the meaning. (How's that for pomposity?)

Hereís a few more examples of those kind of words and phrases:

    DON'T SAY THIS WHEN YOU MEAN THIS
    detrimental           harmful
    in close proximity           near
    at the present time           now
    the manner in which           how
    maximurn quantity           most
    termination           end
    parameters           factors, boundaries, guidelines,
              variables, species, edge,
              limits, criteria

Avoid Acronyms and "Insider" Language
Unless you're going to use it repeatedly, spell out an acronym. When we see an acronym in print, even if it's one we know, we always unconsciously go through a translation process, which slows our understanding. Here's an extreme example of a writer using acronyms to the point of distraction. Shorter sentences, fewer acronyms, and/or spelling, out some of the acronyms would go a long way to making this paragraph more readable.

    The land we've identified for the proposed Wildlife Preserve comes under the NCP, CERCLA and SARA, and RCRA rules, which means that an FIT, a written FSP, or an SAP, is required as well as performance of an RL. A successful NP:PRP will help us to stay ahead of the RI/FS process, as long as we submit a non-controversial RAP, and negotiate ROD to avoid an NOD. This will satisfy any EPA, DHS, DOG, DFG, NOAA, DWR, RWQCB, BCDC, SAQMD, APCD, and local agency requirements.

Every field has its own language. This isn't just the technical terms (chemical names, for example), but the "lingo" which the insiders use to communicate. Such usage overlaps with the error of pompous jargon. It's a way for the writer to show off, to illustrate his or her intimate knowledge of the field. Unfortunately, it also leaves out the readers who, mom often than not, feel intimidated by their ignorance. Notice how the following piece brings the reader inside the writer's field without talking "down."

    How We Can Distinguish Road Dust from Demolition Dust
    Particulate matter (PM) generated by road dust is very different demolition dust. By preparing a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) we can be certain that appropriate species are analyzed to allow these sources to be distinguished. In the case of road and demolition dust, both source types contain soil elements, so the source profiles are going to be similar; however, we know that road dust will contain traces of Pb (from leaded gasoline) and C (from tire particles). That's why we will include analyses for these elements in the QAPP. And we'll know if our efforts to include these analyses are successful because we will use statistical measures of the source PM results to verify that those two source profiles are different enough to be assigned to different source types.

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