On writing well: Four tips to better writing and communications

It is no secret that for a campaign to be successful, you must spend time developing outstanding strategies and you must carefully execute tactically. But if you do not spend time on good writing, it will be for nothing.

The smartest, best planned campaign can result in failure if the proper amount of effort is not given to ensuring that your writing is solid, that your key messages are clear and easy to pick out. For transportation communication professionals, this is perhaps an even greater concern.

The information we get from our engineering and planning colleagues can be full of details that are informative, but ultimately not very helpful. Take for instance, the following example:

The (state DOT)’s $17 million project realigned seven miles of the highway by adding shoulders and adding drainage structures in preparation of a future project to increase the highway to four lanes. The project also removed two substandard curves, replaced two loan posted bridges, and increased the length of passing lanes. The state highway was constructed on a parallel alignment so traffic could remain on the previous state highway until the new lanes were built.

Still with me? The above paragraph is very informational and grammatically correct. But it is dense with jargon like “drainage structures” and “substandard curves.” It correctly lists the cost right up front, but neglects to describe any of the benefits. The writing just does not compel anyone outside the department of transportation to really care. Now, see if this feels any different:

The state department of transportation’s quick response to the identification of unexpectedly unstable soil helped the DOT finish a $17 million project more than a week ahead of schedule. The project straightened seven miles of the highway and added shoulders to improve safety. And the project included new drainage systems that are part of a future project that will widen the highway to four lanes.

In the rewrite you actually see that the state DOT acted quickly to save a project and provide for its quick delivery. You also see that the project improved safety and added a key piece of a future widening project.

There is no magic to good writing. Each of us must wrestle with the words and punctuation. Here are some things to remember as you work through the process of writing.

Remember your key message: I cannot stress this enough. If your key message involves safety, you must find ways to bend the copy to talk about safety. If the key message is about delivery, stress innovative management that allowed for the project to be delivered on time or on budget.

Avoid jargon: Watch out for words like “channelization” or “signalization.” Try to translate the meaning behind the technical terms. We do not want to dumb-down the information, but we want to make it simpler and easier to understand.

Collaborate: Everyone gets edited. Work with your colleagues and make them ask the hard questions. Does it make sense. Does it convey the most important points? You need a sounding board. Everyone does.

Brevity is key: Keep your writing succinct. “Chunk” your copy into shorter paragraphs. It will help when the copy is posted online. It will make it easier for the reader to follow your key points

This will not be easy for the transportation communicator. Your engineering colleagues might balk at edits and changes to their “language.” Ultimately, it will be worth your time and effort. Good writing can never be wrong.

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Author: Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.

3 thoughts on “On writing well: Four tips to better writing and communications”

  1. Great post, Lloyd. It reminds of the time I recommended renaming a grant application from “State Route xx Improvements, Milepost 10 to 20” TO “State Route xx Congestion Relief and Pedestrian Safety Improvements”. I had to argue like heck for the change. I prevailed, and it made for an easier, more serious conversation with congressional staff.

  2. With today’s emphasis on fast communication through technology, it seems more people ask why they need to take writing courses or learn writing skills when they can just text coworkers, the media and public. Children are wondering why they need to learn to write in complete sentences. As an employer of communications professionals, I’ve also witnessed a decline in the writing skills of college graduates. They struggle to prepare a well-written resume and supply a quality writing sample.

    My tip of the day: Be professional, whether you are writing an e-mail, post or brochure. The written message reflects on the image and degree of professionalism of your organization.

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