Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Writing and Editing Tips*
This section of the guide is a collection of quick tips for improved writing and editing. The tips are meant to provide practical advice that you can easily implement in your everyday writing and editing tasks.
Several of the tips discuss ways to improve the writing and editing process. Overall, these process-oriented tips emphasize adequate planning before writing begins. Up-front planning before writing may seem unnecessary and time consuming, but in the long run, such planning will save you time and effort. The following are summaries of each of the writing and editing tips included in this section.
Start with an Outline: Although often overlooked, outlining is a key part of writing. Even when the writing deadline is looming and the budget is tight, developing an outline should be the first order of business. When used to its fullest potential, an outline can serve not only as a way to organize information for presentation, but also as a consensus-building, cost-estimating, and scheduling tool.
Tailor Headings to Readers' Needs: Most professional writing includes headings. Headings make reading easier and provide readers who don't have much time with a way to find the most important and relevant information in a document. Effectively written headings are closely tied to readers' needs.
Strive for Clear, Concise Communication: A key aspect of effective technical writing is clear, concise communication. Clear writing is logical, orderly, precise, and easy to read. The first step toward clear writing is to compose an outline. Then, after writing an initial draft, remove any wordy phrases and redundancy, and look for ways to make reading easier.
Avoid Common Word Usage Problems: Words and phrases commonly misused in environmental writing include affect/effect, assure/ensure/insure, discreet/discrete, principal/principle, rational/rationale, very, and whether or not. Double check these words and phrases to be sure you've used them properly.
Complement Text with Tables and Graphics: Frequently, the best way to communicate technical information is with tables and graphics. Tables allow readers to quickly compare large amounts of numerical data. Graphics can express ideas that cannot easily be presented in text. Be on the look out for information that would lend itself to presentation as a table or graphic.
Ensure Publication Quality: Quality control is an integral part of publishing credible environmental publications. Three steps can help you ensure the quality your publications: (1) determine what comprises a high-quality publication; (2) develop a quality control checklist; and (3) find qualified, responsible reviewers.
When many people think
of outlining, the first thing that comes to mind is the excruciatingly detailed
outlines that they had to create while attending school. And now, it may seem as
though outlining is just a roadblock to getting started on the real job at hand:
writing. But outlines don't have to be so formal, and even if you know your
topic well, outlining is still an important writing step. Whether the task is
writing a letter, report, journal article, proposal, or any other document,
outlining deserves another look as a writing tool.
After gathering all of your raw data, you'll want to organize it in the best way for reader comprehension. Outlining is the perfect tool for structuring your presentation of the information. It affords you the opportunity to break large chunks into manageable parts and to ensure that you cover every relevant issue. Creating an outline also allows you to make sure you present your material in a logical and parallel manner, from start to finish.
One excellent method of outlining is to prepare a table of contents, including a list of any tables and graphics, before you start writing the text. That way you can use the topic headings that you create while outlining in the body of the document. But the real advantage to composing a table of contents before writing is that you can move sections around much easier than if the paragraphs and sections were already written. As discussed below, this flexibility is important when you're writing for others.
How many times, after you've already written a document, has your boss or client said "move the conclusions from the back of the document to the front" or "add a new section discussing results x and y"? Invariably, it seems like a section always needs to be added, moved, or deleted. Outlining is a great way to avoid most of these scenarios. No matter who the stakeholders are (e.g., bosses, clients, or regulators), they can review an outline as a means of coming to a consensus on what to include in a document and how, before it's written.
In the long run, stakeholder review and agreement on an outline will save time and money. You can avoid costly rewrites due to last-minute document reorganization, and everyone (e.g., you, your boss, your client) will be much happier.
Estimating the cost of writing, reviewing, and publishing an entire document is often difficult. Two variables, (1) how long it will take to write and edit the document and (2) what other resources (e.g., graphic artists, printers) will be necessary, must be defined before an estimate is made. Outlining can bridge these unknowns and allow for accurate cost estimates
After your outline is approved by all stakeholders (as previously explained), the next step is to estimate the number of pages that will be written for each part listed in the outline. This should result in a relatively accurate page count for the entire document. With this information in hand, you can answer the critical questions that affect the budget:
1. How long will it take to write the document? Simply multiply the total page count by how long it will take to write a single page. If you're not the only author, ask each author how long it will take them to write a single page, and calculate their sections separately.
2. What other resources will be necessary? Based on the outline (including the list of tables and graphics), determine who else will need to be involved (e.g., word processors, graphic artists, outside vendors, peer reviewers). Then, get their input on how long it will take them to complete the work specified in the outline and their rates, if applicable.
Now, assuming you have access to per-unit costs for all of the personnel and resources that are involved, you should be able to come up with the total cost for writing, reviewing, and publishing the document. This quick, outline-based cost estimate for completing the document will be far more accurate than any developed based on best guesses.
Initial schedules for writing, reviewing, and publishing documents are often too optimistic. It's hard to quantify all the hours necessary to write original material, coordinate multiple rounds of editorial corrections, and produce the final product. Scheduling is especially troublesome when the page count for a document is just a guess. That's where an outline can help.
If you use your outline for cost-estimating, you already have all the information you need to set a realistic schedule. Based on per-page time estimates for creating and reviewing the document, you can determine:
* Time to complete
each piece of the document and
With this information, you can set up an incremental schedule with deadlines corresponding to each part of the outline. If others are involved with writing, reviewing, or producing the document, and if you sought their input when estimating costs, they'll probably buy into your schedule. After all, they provided you with time estimates for their portions of the job.
Again, an outline-based schedule is going to be much more realistic than a schedule based solely on guesses.
As a final point, don't forget that an outline is ultimately just a guide; you may make any necessary changes at any point in the writing process.
One of the easiest ways to improve your writing, and arguably one of the most helpful for readers, is to include headings in the text of your documents. Headings help readers (1) understand the organization of a document, (2) identify changes in topic, (3) determine the content of each section, and (4) skim or selectively read a text. Effective headings are written based on readers' needs.
To select effective
headings for your text, try to answer questions such as the following: Who will
be reading the document and why? Are they likely to read the entire manuscript?
How much time will they spend reading it? With answers to these questions in
mind, you can select the type of heading ―declarative, interrogative, or
imperative― that will best suit the needs of your audience.
Declarative headings announce topics or make statements. Examples of declarative headings include "Asbestos Abatement Qualifications," "Phase II Investigation Results," and "High Plains Site Geology.
Although most headings are declarative, many are not very informative. For example, the headings "Site Background" and "Investigation Methods" are declarative headings, but they don't say much about the content of the text to follow. Whenever possible, declarative headings should be specific (but not so specific as to be cryptic). More specific and informative substitutes for the previous two example headings would be "History of the Mercury Meter Station" and "Ground-Water Sample Collection and Analysis Methods."
An excellent way to stimulate readers' interest is to use interrogative headings or headings that ask a question. Examples include "How Does EPA Calculate Average Emissions?" and "When Do Waste Generators Have to Comply?" Interrogative headings can be very effective if you don't overuse them. A note of caution though: make sure that the questions you use are not condescending. For example, the heading "Don't Regulators Know Their Own Requirements?" would surely offend regulatory officials and put them on the defensive.
Imperative headings express commands or give requests. The headings in this article are all imperative headings. This type of heading is appropriate for documents such as procedures or memos containing step-by-step directions. Imperative headings such as "Seal Sample Containers with Air-Tight Screw Caps" and "Remove Personal Protective Equipment Before Exiting the Site Perimeter" are much more direct than comparable declarative headings such as "Sample Container Closure" and "Personnel Decontamination."
Following these six easy-to-remember guidelines is a good way to ensure that your headings are on target.
1. Signal Topic Changes with Headings. Signaling the reader of topic changes is one of the primary purposes of headings. Whenever your text conveys two or more major topics, consider whether inserting a heading would help readers. When you can't find places for headings in your writing or come up with wording for the headings, a red flag should immediately go up. If you can't identify junctures or key concepts in your writing, readers probably won't be able to either. In these cases, you may want to go back and reorganize the text.
2. Don't Include Too Many Headings. Including too many headings or too many levels of headings can be even worse than including no headings at all. Generally, three levels of headings is all that readers can comfortably remember. However, if more levels are necessary, consider numbering the headings (e.g., "1.0" for a first-level head, "1.1" for a second-level head, "1.1.1" for a third-level head).
3. Select Heading Types Based on Readers' Needs. Consider which type of heading ―declarative, interrogative, or imperative― best suits your audience and the purpose of your document.
4. Keep Related Headings Parallel. All headings types at any one level of subordination in a document should be parallel. For example, don't use a declarative, second-level heading followed immediately by an imperative, second-level heading under the same first-level head. The structure of related headings should also be parallel. If the first subheading in a chapter is "Identifying Solid Wastes," the next subheading (at the same level of subordination) should be "Determining Whether a Waste Is Hazardous" not "Hazardous Waste Determinations." Note that the prior two example headings are parallel because they're both participle phrases (i.e., "Identifying . . ." and "Determining . . .") whereas the latter example is not.
5. Use Concise, Specific Headings. Specific headings are usually more helpful to readers than general headings.
6. Visually Differentiate Heading Levels. At a glance, readers should be able to easily see the difference among heading levels within a document. To differentiate various levels, change the placement (e.g., centered or left justified), size, and appearance (e.g., bold, italics, underline) of the headings. There is no one correct format for headings, but it's important to stick with the same heading scheme throughout a document.
Few people in the environmental field have time to read a publication more than once. That's why it's important for writers to strive for clear, concise communication ―readers may not give a publication a second chance, much less a publication that's disorganized, incoherent, or wordy. To ensure that you capture and maintain your readers' attention, start the writing process by organizing your thoughts into a meaningful structure with an outline. Then, after writing the initial draft, review your work to eliminate wordy phrases and redundancy. Given your time and budget constraints, revise your writing so that it's as easy to read as possible.
Many writers think that bigger words add formality to writing and that more text is always better when it comes to explaining technical concepts. However, big words and excess verbiage may inhibit communication. Technical writing is hard enough for readers to understand; adding big or unneeded words only complicates matters. Try to replace long or abstract words with shorter or more concise words. And strive for proper usage ―your readers will appreciate it. Consider the following example:
Wordy: Oil-water separation processes are economical, effective, and safe methodologies whereby petroleum products can be removed directly from a water medium. It is known that petroleum products are less dense than water, and as a result of this difference, oil can be separated from oil-water mixtures. Oil-water separation systems actually have a design based on this principle. The design of oil-water separation mechanisms is specifically appropriate for utilization in removal of free and mechanically emulsified oil and grease from wastewater or groundwater media to concentrations in the range of 10 to 15-ppm levels.
Precise: Oil-water separators economically, effectively, and safely remove petroleum products from water. Oil can be separated from oil-water mixtures because petroleum products are less dense than water. Based on this principle, oil-water separators are designed to remove free and mechanically emulsified oil and grease from wastewater or groundwater to concentrations of 10 to 15 ppm.
Which version would you prefer to read? Clearly, the second; it says the same thing in 40 fewer words. Note that pompous-sounding words like methodologies and utilization and unnecessary words such as media and levels have been edited from the precise version.
At times, it's helpful to remind readers of ideas that you've already discussed or that you'll cover in upcoming sections. But for the most part, redundant words and phrases distract readers and should be removed. You should revise common redundant phrases such as the following:
* adequate enough
(adequate) * filled to capacity (filled)
Here are four ways to
improve the readability of your writing:
2. Limit Paragraph Length. Paragraph breaks help with reader comprehension. Readers use paragraphs as a "break" to process the information they have just read (albeit, if only for a split second). Without regular paragraph breaks, writing looks intimidating and can be exhaustive reading. Limit paragraph content to one general idea when writing, and insert paragraph breaks as needed during revision.
3. Add Bullet and Numbered Lists. Bullet and numbered lists can help readers absorb a series of items, phrases, or sequential events that might otherwise be difficult to follow, especially if the series is lengthy. Look for opportunities to reformat any series in text to a bullet or numbered list. These lists can help make a page that would otherwise be filled with only blocks of text look less intimidating to readers.
4. Use Transitions. Transitions connect thoughts and help writing flow from one idea to the next. Without transitions, writing may seem disjointed and difficult to follow.
Although there is often more than one correct choice when it comes to word selection, poor word usage is a sign of careless writing. The following is an alphabetical listing of (1) some word usage problems that are common in the environmental field, (2) guidance for avoiding each problem, and (3) examples of proper usage.
Either of these words can be used as a verb or as a noun. Affect is generally used as a verb meaning "to influence or to act on."
Temperature variations will affect the test
The noun affect is a term used in psychology and psychiatry and is not usually applied in the environmental field.
As a verb, effect means "to accomplish or to bring about." The verb effect does not merely mean "to influence," but rather conveys a sense of purpose or even impact.
The slug was
lowered into the monitoring well to effect an
As a noun, the word effect means "consequence or result."
measured the effect of increased pumping on
These words are often incorrectly interchanged. All three mean "to make certain or to guarantee." Assure refers only to persons and includes the connotation of setting a person's mind at ease.
assure you that our work will be
Ensure is the appropriate word to use in most cases.
agency will audit the results to assure that
agency will audit the results to ensure that
Insure refers to financial guarantees of life or property.
contract requires that the company be
Discreet means "prudent; having good judgement."
Sampling will be
conducted at the client's property
Discrete means "distinct; individual."
Twelve discrete samples will be collected.
Principal can be used as
an adjective or a noun. As an adjective, principal
He was the
project manager and a principal contributor for
As a noun, principal means "chief or head."
the principal in charge of the
Principle can be used only as a noun to mean "a rule of action or conduct" or "a fundamental doctrine or tenet."
of hydrogeology explain the flow of the
Rational is usually used as an adjective and means "reasonable; sensible."
rational explanation appears to be equipment
Rationale is a noun that means "the fundamental reason or reasons."
for characterizing the wastes as hazardous
Use of the adverb very should generally be avoided. This word is usually too subjective for technical writing.
chemical products are produced in very
chemical products are produced in small
In the previous examples, even the adjective small is ambiguous. Adjectives in technical writing should be informative and quantitative.
chemical products are produced in small
chemical products are produced in
When whether or not is
used to mean "if," or not is almost always redundant
wastes should be analyzed to evaluate whether
wastes should be analyzed to evaluate whether
Today's software makes it easier than ever to include tables and graphics in your writing. You should take advantage of these capabilities because tables and graphics help maintain reader interest and can express data and ideas that might otherwise be difficult with text.
Plan your tables and
graphics early in the writing process when you're organizing all of your raw
data. That way you'll have an idea of the effort required to create the nontext
elements of your publication and be able to write the appropriate framework for
these elements into the text. Such planning requires an understanding of the
types of information that can best be presented in tables and graphics.
Sample Analytical Data Table
Don't miss the opportunity to present such data in a table format unless a graphic would be better. The data in the above table are not suited for presentation in a graphic. However, if for instance, several samples were collected and analyzed from the same well over a period of time, a graphic might be the best way to show the trend of the results.
Tables are also an excellent way to present lists of information that, if written directly into the text, could unnecessarily clutter a page. The simplest tables are lists such as steps in a process, chronologies, or parallel concepts. You can include lists in text as bullet or numbered items, or you can break out the information and format it as a stand-alone table.
Effective graphics communicate more emphatically than text. The key to effective use of graphics is to find the most appropriate type of graphic for your information. The following matrix can help you select the best type of graphic to use and may also give you some ideas for new graphics that you may not have considered.
Types and Purposes of Graphics
Types and Purposes of Graphics --Continued
These three tips can help you avoid some common pitfalls associated with use of tables and graphics.
1. Check for Technical Inconsistencies Among Text, Tables, and Graphics. Information you've written in text should not contradict what you present in tables and graphics. For instance, if you mention in text that dioxin emissions from Stack X are less than 13 ng/dscm, a corresponding table of emission monitoring results should not list any concentrations from Stack X equal to or greater than 13 ng/dscm. You can catch such inconsistencies through a quality review.
2. Use Captions and Labels in Tables and Graphics that Parallel Text. For example, don't label a well as a "monitoring well" in a schematic that you refer to as an "extraction well" in text; this might confuse readers. Much the same as text, strive for clear, concise verbiage and appropriate use of abbreviations and acronyms in tables and graphics.
3. Keep Tables and Graphics Simple. Fancy graphics often do little to help communicate technical information and can distract readers from the point you're trying to make. In his outstanding book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte advocates removing any "nondata ink" that would otherwise distract readers from the main purpose of a table or graphic.
The importance of ensuring the quality of environmental publications cannot be overstated. In some publications, even a minor typo or technical error can damage the credibility of the author or publisher beyond repair. For instance, a critical misspelling on the front page of a proposal can cause a consultant to lose a contract, a technical error in a facility's environmental compliance report can have serious implications from a liability perspective, and lax publication style in a journal can result in a drop in subscriptions. This section focuses on three steps that can help ensure the quality of environmental publications: (1) determine what comprises a high-quality publication; (2) develop a quality control checklist; and (3) find qualified, responsible reviewers.
One of the first steps to ensuring quality is to identify the characteristics of a high-quality publication. From your reader's perspective, what constitutes a high-quality publication? The specifics vary depending on the type of publication. Some publishers and consultants solicit feedback from customers and clients on their publications and how publication quality can be improved. At a minimum, high-quality environmental publications have the following general characteristics:
* Correct spelling,
punctuation, grammar, and language usage;
Each of these general characteristics of a high-quality publication includes many elements. For example, reader friendly organization and layout includes elements such as logical and coherent presentation of information, adequate use of white space, appropriate font selection and size, and orderly text alignment. Conducting a quality control review is a matter of checking all of the numerous elements that contribute to the quality of a publication.
Keeping track of all the elements that contribute to the quality of a publication, much less checking them, can be an overwhelming task. An excellent way to keep track of the elements that need to be checked is to develop a quality control checklist such as the one in the following table.
The list then serves as a tool for reviewers to use when checking a publication.
* Layout is
pleasing to the eye (e.g., page breaks aren't awkward, there
isn't excessive blank
You can easily update quality control checklists as necessary to account for changes in publication style or to add items that you may have previously overlooked.
Identifying the characteristics of a high-quality publication is only half the quality control battle; you must also find qualified reviewers who will responsibly check your important publications. Reviewers might include authors, editors, production personnel, technical experts, or managers.
Persons responsible for a review should have the appropriate qualifications for the particular quality control task. For example, an expert in the subject field should check the elements related to the technical approach and accuracy of a publication. Usually, a reviewer should not be the same person who wrote the publication.
Another factor contributing to the quality of a publication is whether adequate time is allotted for review--be sure to include time in the publication schedule for quality checks.
* Brooks, Brian S. and
James L. Pinson. Working with Words. New York:
Please send mail to
email@example.com with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability
(MFS) is not
affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity.
Copyright © 2002 Minnesotans For Sustainability