A group of engineers and environmental scientists are authoring a report
about water and I’ll be editing it. The authors asked me for writing tips so
they might avoid some common mistakes and help me out on the editing end.
Editors know that the sooner they become involved in a writing project, the
better. Together the authors and editor can agree on audience, purpose,
deadlines, production, writing and style questions, such as, “Do we
So here’s the tip sheet I gave to the authors of this project.
Identify your audience. For state workers that’s easy. Our primary audience
is the public. Who’s the public? I am, so write it for me. Ask yourself,
“Will that Durant guy understand this?” I’m not technical. Or, write it for
your neighbor the teacher, baker or candlestick maker. But for heaven’s
sake, don’t write for your boss.
Write in the active voice. Don’t let your readers start guessing about who
did something or who will do something. It’s bad English and it’s
discourteous. Also, it’s imprecise, a quality you don’t want–especially in a
Don’t simplify or dumb it down. We’re talking about clarity, not simplicity.
Lose your jargon–the language of your profession. Your jargon is very
efficient for you and your colleagues. You need jargon and if you’re good,
you can sling it around at the water cooler with the best of your
Don’t overuse (parentheses); instead use commas or dashes.
When using lists, use bullets. Use numbers when indicating a ranking.
Use digits in numbers more than nine: spell out one through nine. Use digits
in all mathematics, percents, money and measurements; 5*6, 3 percent, $4 and
2 feet. Spell out million in most cases; 4 million, not 4,000,000.
Write short sentences. Keep them fewer than 30 words. Vary their lengths.
Write short paragraphs. Put no more than five or six sentences in each.
Keep your subjects and verbs together or at least very close. Put your
subjects and verbs at the start or near the beginning of each sentence.
On first reference in each chapter spell out all abbreviations in this
format: The Department of Water Resources (DWR). Use only one space after a
sentence, not two.