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Clear Writing by the Numbers

Clear writing is a key skill for anyone aiming to accelerate their career. However, many foreign-born technical professionals do not write English clearly. Improve your writing now with the five practical tips provided here. Clear Writing by the Numbers is based on 30 plus years of teaching engineers and scientists how to convey their ideas powerfully…and clearly.

#1. Put Key Ideas in Paragraph #1

Most readers read the opening paragraph but not necessarily all that follows.

The power of the first paragraph is based on the traditional abstract in technical writing journals. The abstract is a stand-alone summary.

Readers do not need to read the entire article to learn its key findings.

Similarly, in emails, trip reports, proposals, and white papers, summarize your key points in your opening paragraph or two.

In emails, for example, tell your readers your purpose for writing. Doing this answers their immediate question: Why are you writing to me?

At the same time, motivate readers to read succeeding paragraphs. Tell them explicitly the relevance of your topic to them. Doing this answers their second immediate question: Why should I care?

#2. Use 1-Sentence Paragraphs to Highlight Important Ideas

In school, we were taught that a paragraph requires several sentences.

Business and technical writing requires different rules.

One-sentence paragraphs stand out in a sea of longer paragraphs.

State your conclusion in a one-sentence paragraph. Follow it up with

your supporting data in conventionally longer paragraphs.

#3. Limit sentences to 20 words

This 20-word strategy is an eye opener for most technical professionals.

Stop right now. Look at your most recent email or report. Count the number of words in your longest sentence. It probably exceeds 20 words.

Long sentences lose readers.

What to do instead? Divide a long sentence into at least two sentences. Or maybe delete it?

#4. List No More than 5 Items in a Vertical List

Vertical lists are a popular technique to write concisely. Vertical lists also stand out visually.

However, many technical professionals compromise the impact of vertical lists by making them too long. Research shows that readers remember five to seven points.

Limit your vertical lists to five items. Doing this helps readers both see and remember your key points.

#5. Avoid Words with More than 2 Syllables

Readers read faster and understand more when they don’t stumble over long, formal words.

For example, write “needed” instead of “mandatory.”

Your global readers will thank you.

Applying Writing by the Numbers

Climbing the career ladder is easier when you have a reputation for clear writing.

But make changes in your writing slowly, or your readers may think you have hired a ghost writer.

Review your past writing with the Writing by the Numbers strategy in mind. Look for patterns that obscure your ideas.

One engineer discovered in our writing workshop that nearly all his sentences consisted of two or more ideas connected by the word “and.” Further analysis alerted him to redundancy.

Now, when revising, he searches for the word “and” which leads him to cut out redundancies.

Writing by the Numbers will lead you, also, to clear writing – the hallmark of successful leaders.

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