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Executive writing. (Workshop Report).

Dr. Richard W. Lemp presented this workshop with humor and interest. He is a Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy and has been involved with the Executive Writing Team since 1989. Over the years, he has presented the Executive Writing Course to more than 13,000 people across the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

Dr. Lemp focused his presentation on the needs of people who read official correspondence. The three areas he highlighted were organized writing, spoken writing, and concise writing. All examples provided were in the form of actual letters and memorandums.

Organized Writing

Do you have time to read excessive words? Of course not! Pretend, when you write, that you are sending a telegram to your own expense. The majority of the time, fewer words are better.

This section of the workshop offered suggestions about putting the main point up front--separating the "must-know" from the "nice-to-know"--and giving hints about making content easier to grasp by grouping ideas and by using parallel lists.

Dr. Lemp shared an example of a letter from an individual who had received damage to furniture during a move. The writer stated the problem and simply asked, "Can you help me?" The reply to the writer was lengthy and descriptive and had excessive nice-to-know information in addition to useless didn't-need-to-know information.

Another example was a letter about a heating and ventilation system. We had fun with this one! The letter's first paragraph contained information about costs, the second paragraph was about equipment, the third paragraph about costs again, and the last paragraph about equipment--again. The lesson learned here was don't "ping-pong" paragraphs.

Avoid using paragraphs that go on and on. Dr. Lemp called this "no breathing room." Use parallel lists instead, with subparagraphs (a, b, c) that begin with verbs: mark, wrap, stuff, and enclose.

If you are a baby boomer, chances are you remember Captain Kangaroo and his magic world please and thank you. Use them. People are receptive to these words; it gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling.

The following are a couple hints to identify the style of writing that Dr. Lemp recommends.

Although it's best to put the main point up front, when telling bad news, make it gentle. The example given was a family that had gone on vacation. During their absence, the family cat died. Upon returning home, they asked, "How's the cat?" The response from the relative raking care of the house and the cat was delivered in "main point up front," but was brutally direct and without sympathy. Avoid using all capital letters. Dr. Lemp called this "shouting" at your reader.

Spoken Writing

Why do we not write as we speak? Spoken writing is not a contradiction, but rather away of emphasizing that official correspondence should read as the writer would speak. Use personal pronouns, contractions, simpler words and phrases, and concrete language, while pruning wordy expressions, asking questions, and writing in an active voice.

Why do writers shy away from doing this? in part, it's because we use bad models (correspondence models inherited and used without challenge), or we try to impress rather than express. Dr. Lemp suggested the "telephone test." If you wouldn't say it over the phone, don't write it in a letter. If you're not a lawyer, don't write like one. (And if you are a lawyer, don't write like one!)

A few hints to implement this style of writing:

Avoid "doubling." Examples of what not to write include these:

* Logically and sequentially

* Quick and fast

* Deep and profound

In writing letters of recommendation, don't include how great you (the writer) are.

Remember the hint mentioned earlier: the fewer words, the better. Instead of writing "it has the capability," use "it can." Instead of writing "in accordance with," use "under" or "by."

Writers often like to use passive voice, hiding the blame. Again, Dr. Lemp humored us with his example: The toad was eaten by Igor. Remember the days when we had to diagram sentences in school? We had to identify the subject, verb, and direct object. Sometimes passive voice (which has no direct object) is very effective; however, Dr. Lemp recommends writing actively: Igor ate the toad. Put the "doer" before the verb.

Try not to be a "slasher," that is, rent! lease. Instead, use the word or.

Use personal pronouns. Instead of writing "in an attempt to process your account," use "we're processing your account."

Ask questions of your reader: "Would you let us know?"

Type quotes in upper and lower case, in quotation marks--no caps. (Remember, don't shout at your reader.)

Use the magic words please and thank you, and write memos in ordinary English.

Concise Writing

The final area, concise writing, focused on sending the necessary (rather than the nice-to-know) words that will convey the message with the greatest clarity. Audience analysis is key here: Who needs to read the message, and how can we best say it? Concise doesn't mean compact--compactness can cause problems. Excessive (and unexplained) abbreviating can lead to obscurity; so does the use of acronyms if the reader isn't familiar with them.

Concise writing is the art of separating the need-to-know from the good-to-know and the nice-to-know.

Dr. Lemp shared a good example--an experience from a previous commander at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Upon reviewing a memorandum, the general advised his staff to reduce the memo from a page to a paragraph. After reading the paragraph, he advised them to reduce the paragraph to a sentence. Once he read the sentence, he advised them to reduce the sentence to a few words.

A few hints to implement this style of writing:

* Use less paper, nor more.

* Instead of "widest possible dissemination," use "please pass this guidance to."

* Avoid long subjects.

* Avoid doubling.

In Summary

What can you do?

Tell others about organized, spoken, and concise writing. Circulate before-and-after examples to illustrate the merits of such writing. Take the time to help weak writers and give them tips. Praise superior writing in notes, staff meetings, and performance appraisals.

And above all, make sure that everything you sign is organized, written as if spoken, and concise.

Reporter's note: Although the information included in this article was presented by the United States Air Force Academy, there are numerous references for effective executive writing. Chances are, each Department of Defense Component publishes a correspondence manual. In my office, we use Army Regulation 25-50, "Preparing and Managing Correspondence." We also refer to the booklet English Simplified, which includes sections on grammar, punctuation, mechanics, spelling, usage, and beyond the sentence. Several major commands publish writing guidelines in local pamphlets that include samples of memorandums, information papers, and action summary sheets.

Reported by Debbie Jones

Debbie Jones began her civil service career at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. She also worked for the Defense Supply Agency, Defense Contract Administration Services Office (DCASO), San Antonio, before her employment with the Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Her last assignment was as a management analyst in the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Resource Management, U.S. Army Medical Command, where she worked with policy and the writing of various regulations and congressional and general correspondence. She has been an active member of the Alamo City Chapter for 19 years and serves as the chapter competition chairperson. She retired in June 2002 after 36 years of civil service.
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Title Annotation:professor Richard W. Lemp's Executive Writing Course to Department of Defense personnel
Author:Jones, Debbie
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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