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The ten commandments of writing.

The oxymoronic field of "management communication" may not be the most obvious place to find good writing, but the following guidelines did appear in the Harvard Management Communication Letter. They seem appropriate for consideration by editors, marketing copywriters, and everyone in newsletters.

Thou shalt champion the verb holding no other parts of speech before it. The verb is indeed your god. Verbs make sentences sing. Without them, sentences lie inert on the page like black-eyed Susans after a sudden shower.

Thou shalt keep thy verbs both active and short. If you let them, verbs can smack, pound, writhe, and bludgeon their way into your reader's consciousness. Don't elongate your sentences with long, pompous words of any kind. Moreover, avoid passive verb constructions whenever possible.

Thou shalt always prefer organizational clarity over cheap effect. You write to communicate with others. Avoid fancy rhetorical devices. Leave the under-linings, the italics, and the exclamation points to Tom Wolfe. Always start with the phrase, "I am writing for one main reason. It is because..." Then, delete that phrase and begin with your text.

Thou shalt make the hierarchy of thy thought clear. By using words that connect, list, rank and highlight, you can help the reader through your text. If you wish to enumerate a number of points, use "first," "second," "third" and the like to help your reader know where he is in the steps of your argument. A phrase like "on the one hand" leads the reader to expect "on the other hand." Words like "moreover," in addition," and "if... then" similarly help the reader understand the logical relationship of the sentences and paragraphs in your argument.

Thou shalt speak in thine own voice. Try to forget all those half-remembered rules learned in high school or those notions about style picked up in a college composition course. Begin by writing the way you would speak. Writing that is direct and conversational is more likely to sound real and human than any attempt to write according to partially recalled dicta from teachers of yore.

Thou shalt read the masters in order to learn to write better. In order to write well, we must read. And more than just trash fiction. Reading Michael Crichton will not stimulate good writing. We need to read Orwell, Shaw, Donne--and the Old Testament. Not to mention Joseph Conrad, Lawrence Durrell, Toni Morrison, and Jeanette Winterson. If you wish to write well, you must join the ranks of the literate.

Thou shalt write when it counts--and when a face-to-face meeting won't do. When large numbers of people need to be included, it is simply not efficient to speak to everyone involved.

Thou shalt never be bureaucratic when thou canst be human. A good test of business writing is to take it home and read it to your 12-year-old. If you don't have one, hire one from the neighborhood. If fact, 12 may be too old. If you have to explain too much about why you wrote the piece, it probably isn't either well thought out or well written.

Thou shalt avoid the noun phrase. Writers pile noun upon noun, using them as adjectives to modify some original hapless noun long since lost in the shuffle. As a general rule, anything that is quickly turned into an acronym (as in CRM for "customer relationship management") is probably a noun phrase and almost certainly an abomination that you should make your personal cause to stamp out.

Thou shalt not forget to write passionately and to have fun. Good writing creates joy in the heart of the reader. Bad writing creates headaches. And confusion. Lively metaphors bring sparkle to prose like diamonds on the pope's headdress. Humor, when natural and appropriate, is the greatest gift of all, because it embodies the temporary triumph of humanity over perennial short-comings: death, taxes, and the Boston Red Sox.

Fred's (sort of) 11th Commandant. If I had one favorite rule for writing, it would be one I learned from Dr. Patrick Williams, an English lit. Ph.D. and formerly editorial director at Ragan Communications in Chicago. "No one will read anything they don't find interesting."
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Author:Goss, Fred
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Dec 15, 2000
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