Whether you’re writing in a formal or casual style, all good writing is characterized by the “6 Cs”:
Six-C writing is good for business because it fulfills the author’s purpose and meets the needs of the audience by making communication understandable and impactful. Such audience-oriented writing is clearly understood by busy readers on the first pass; it doesn’t confuse them with ambiguities and require them to come back with questions for clarification. It gets the point across in as few words as possible so that it doesn’t waste readers’ time with wordcount-extending filler. Good writing flows logically by being organized according to recognizable patterns with its sub-points connected by well-marked transitions. Six-C writing avoids confusing readers with grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors, as well as avoids embarrassing its author and the company they represent, because it is flawlessly correct. It leaves the reader with a good feeling because it is polite, positive, and focuses on the reader’s needs. Six-C writing is persuasive because, with all the above going for it, it exudes confidence. The following sections explain these characteristics in greater detail with an emphasis on how to achieve Six-C writing at the drafting stage.
Clarity in writing means that the words on the page are like a perfectly transparent window to the author’s meaning. Business or technical writing has no time for anything that requires the reader to interpret the author’s meaning or ask for clarification. To the busy reader scanning quickly, bad writing opens the door for wrong guesses that, acted upon, result in mistakes that must be corrected later; the later the miscommunication is discovered and the further the mistakes spread, the greater the damage control required. Vague writing draws out the communication exchange unnecessarily with back-and-forth requests for clarification and details that should have been clear the first time. Either way, a lack of clarity in writing costs businesses by hindering personal and organizational productivity. Every operation stands to gain if its personnel’s writing is clear in the first place.
Spotlight: “Avoiding Vague Expressions”
So much confusion from vague expressions can be avoided if you use hard facts, precise values, and concrete, visualizable images. For example:
- Instead of saying “a change in the budget,” “a 10% budget cut” makes clear to the reader that they’ll have to make do with nine of what they had ten of before.
- Instead of saying that a home’s annual average basement radon level is a cause for concern, be specific in saying that it is 220 Bq/m3 (for becquerels per cubic metre) so that the reader knows how far above Health Canada’s guideline level the home is and therefore the extent of remedial action required.
- Instead of saying that you’re rescheduling it to Thursday, be clear on what’s being rescheduled, what the old and new calendar dates and times are, and if the location is changing, too. If you say that it’s the 3pm Friday meeting on May 25th being moved to 9am Thursday, May 31st, in room B349, participants know exactly which meeting to move where in their email program’s calendar feature.
- Always spell out months so that you don’t confuse your reader with dates in the “dd/mm/yy” or “mm/dd/yy” style; for instance, “4/5/18,” could be read as either April 5th or May 4th, 2018, depending on whether the author personally prefers one date form over the other or follows a company style in lieu of any universally accepted date style.
- Instead of saying at the end of an email, “Let’s meet to discuss” and leaving the ball in your correspondent’s court to figure out a time and place, prevent the inevitable time-consuming back-and-forth by giving your available meeting time options (e.g., “9-10am Thursday, May 31st; 2-3pm Friday, June 1st; etc.) in a bulleted list and suggesting a familiar place so that all your correspondent needs to do is reply once with their preferred meeting time from among those menu options and confirmation on the location.
- Instead of saying “You’ve got a message,” being clear that Tia Sherman from the Canada Revenue Agency left a voicemail message at 12:48pm on Thursday, February 8th, gives the receiver the precise details needed to act on that information.
The same is true of vague pronouns/ pronominal adjectives such as its, this, that, these, they, their, there, etc. when it is unclear what they might be referring to (which person/ phenomenon/ object mentioned earlier in a sentence or paragraph). Such pronoun-antecedent ambiguity, as it is called (with antecedent meaning the noun that the pronoun/ pronominal adjective represents), can be avoided if you can spot the ambiguity that the reader would be confused by and use other words to connect them to their antecedents. If you say, for instance,
Whether the offer is coming from the union, the employer, or possibly (but unlikely) both is unclear because their could go either way. You can resolve the ambiguity by using words like the former, the latter, or a shortened version of one of the names:
When pronouns aren’t preceded by the noun to which they refer, the good writer must simply define them. Though these additions extend the wordcount a little, the gains in clarity justify the expense.
Because the goal of professional writing, especially when sharing expertise, is to make complex concepts sound simple but not simplistic, such writing should communicate ideas in as few words as possible without compromising clarity. The worst writing predictably does the opposite, making simple things sound complicated or confusing by adding unnecessary words to sentences that should be much shorter and straightforward.
In the previous section of this chapter, we examined several cliches that are both informal and wordy and should always be replaced with general-level/ formal single-word equivalents. Let us now examine some wordy expressions that should always be rephrased. As you can see, some are just unnecessarily long, while others are redundant (they repeat information because two or more of the words used express the same idea)
|a large number of||many [ideally, offer an estimate]|
|at that point in time||then [if clarity requires it, mention the date]|
Other elements of language that should be avoided in professional writing are empty intensifiers (such as really, very, incredibly, totally, etc.). Such words do not add anything to your argument, and using them consistently can make our writing sound less formal. If you need to express degrees for certain values, look for appropriate words you could use instead: “excellent” instead of “very good,” etc. (You are probably aware that former U.S. President Donald Trump used such phrasing consistently, both in writing and in interviews, and that he was consistently mocked by journalists for it — for instance, he would vaguely define someone accused of something as a “good man” and then add, “a very good man, a really good man.” Repeating an idea does not clarify it or make it more convincing. Providing precise — not vague and repetitive — information does.)
Also for the sake of concision, avoid empty lead-ins and false transitions that do not add anything to your the content of your message and just make your writing more wordy. Here are some examples:
|That being said, …||[You’ve just said it — so why would you tell people that? They know you’ve just said it.]|
|It has come to my attention …||[You are talking about it, so clearly it has come to your attention. Why state the obvious?|
|I would like to inform you …||[Again, you are clearly doing that, so why would you state the obvious?”|
|To tell you the truth …||[Shouldn’t we always tell the truth in professional exchanges? Are you lying in the sentences that do not start that way?]|
Some of these expressions do not just make your writing less concise; they also draw attention to yourselves as a speakers/ writers — which may suggest self-centredness and self-importance. Using such phrasing can be an even more uninspired move when you have to discuss negative topics (such as bad news) and you don’t want your audience to associate you with that negativity.
The use of passive voice verbs can also make your writing wordy. Passive voice verbs are useful in situations when you don’t know the doer of an action or you want to de-emphasize the doer and focus on the object/ situation instead — such as when you want to avoid assigning blame. However, the passive voice can be confusing and wordy when there is no reason to use it. Let us examine these examples (with the passive voice versions in the first column and the active voice versions in the second):
|Two of our company cars were stolen from the parking lot at…||[I don’t know who stole the cars. I could say “Car thieves stole two of our company cars…” but it makes more sense to use the passive voice.]|
|A mistake was made in the execution of this project, and now we’ll have to work together to find a solution.||X made a mistake in the execution of this project, and … [Publicly naming the people responsible may be both harsh and inappropriate. Using the passive voice allows us to avoid that.]|
|The project was completed on time.
The poster was completed by the graphic design team that was hired for this purpose.
|We completed the project on time. [In this case, both versions are fine. We would use the active voice version if we wanted to draw attention to our role.]
Graphic design team X completed the project … [Using the active voice allows for a more concise and more natural formulation.]
After the drafting stage, always take the time to “clean up” your writing in this way. Use active voice verbs whenever there is no specific reason to use the passive voice. Eliminate any wordy expressions (replace them with single-word equivalents if possible or just delete them if they don’t add anything to the content). Also eliminate any sentences that seem to be stating the obvious or to repeat points already made. At first, editing will seem time-consuming and perhaps also difficult. However, in time, you’ll find yourselves avoiding wordy phrasing even in the drafting stage. This is a natural effect of training — your brains will internalize the more concise and straightforward patterns you’ve been trying to use and you will no longer need to spend as much time editing your work.
3. Coherence and Completeness
Coherence means that your writing flows logically and makes sense because it says everything it needs to say to meet your audience’s needs. Pronouns and transitions help to connect the distinct points that make up your bare-bones outline structure as you flesh them out into meaningful sentences and paragraphs just as ligaments and tendons connect bones and tissues throughout your body.
Express each of your points fully before you move on to the next point. Write in full sentences and provide enough details. Also use effective transitions between your points — from basic transitions such as “therefore,” which indicates a cause-and-effect relation, to more elaborate transitions: “Another important aspect of … is… ” OR “Now that we’ve clarify X, let us move to Y.” Such transitions provide your readers/listeners with “signposts” that indicate the structure and direction of your argumentation.
In the next section of this chapter, we will also examine some ways to enhance the cohesiveness of our messages through specific formatting and graphic highlighting techniques (such as effective headings for the main sections of the message). Such elements help readers to see the logic of a message as soon as they have a first look at it – which would likely speed up the reader’s cognitive processing of the content.
Correct spelling, grammar, mechanics, etc. might not be a concern at the drafting stage of the writing process, but they certainly must be at the end of the editing stage. One technique that can help you avoid most errors is to always use a direct, straightforward sentence structure. Especially in routine, shorter messages — which should be written in shorter sentences and in a general-level style — try to start each sentence with the main clause and to keep the subject and main verb of the main clause as close as possible. Let us examine two examples:
|The reason they are so eager to see their property makeover finished by September 1st is because they want to hold their daughter’s engagement party at the house.||They are eager to see their property makeover finished by September 1st because they want to hold their daughter’s engagement party at the house.|
|With this wide variety of information, it allows us to make clear projections for next year’s expenses and profit margin. // With this software, it allows you to track your page visits per day and make monthly assessments and projections.||This information allows for clear projections concerning next year’s expenses and profit margin. // This software allows users to track page visits per day and make monthly assessments and projections.|
Note that the examples in the second column express the idea more straightforwardly and without using “mixed constructions” (a type of grammatical error that involves starting a sentence with one syntactic structure in mind and then switching to another halfway through).
Since this is an advanced communication course, we won’t dedicate any of our weekly classes to basic grammar — you are expected to have a good grasp of grammatical rules at this stage in your education and career. However, some of the exercises we complete together may have a grammatical component. In addition, an Appendix dedicated to grammar is provided at the end of this textbook.
You can also use the online resource below if you need a grammar refresher:
This is a Lynda.com resource provided by Judy Steiner-Williams. The video is called “Advanced Grammar,” but the explanations provided are mostly intermediate-level. The lesson is two hours long, but you can watch just the sections on types of errors you think you might have in your writing
No matter what kind of document you may be writing and what you can expect your audience’s reaction to it to be, writing courteously so that your reader feels respected is fundamental to reader-friendly messages. Whether you are simply sharing information, making a sales pitch, explaining a procedure, or doing damage control, using polite language helps ensure your intended effects—that your reader will be receptive to that information, will buy what you’re selling, will want to perform that procedure, or will be ready to help you to fix an error. The cornerstone of polite language is obviously saying “please” and “thank you,” but there is much more to politeness and respect than just that.
Much of courtesy in writing involves using inclusive language (and avoiding discriminatory language, sometimes referred to as “bias”) and choosing words that focus on the positive, on improvement, and on what can be done rather than using words that seem negative, critical, or pushy and seem to emphasize what can’t be done.
Use Inclusive Language
The Canadian Human Rights Act lists the following prohibited grounds of discrimination: race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered” (R.S.C., 1985, c. H-6, 3(1)). In order to be courteous and follow the law, our communication acts should be inclusive — that is, they should avoid discriminatory language of any kind.
Let us examine the following examples:
The first sentence is an obvious instance of gender bias. The sentence suggests that the writer considers male, heterosexual, married CEOs to be the norm and does not find it necessary to even acknowledge other possibilities. Sentence (2) expresses age bias — it is phrased in the manner of a compliment but in fact reveals that the speaker/ writer has a poor opinion of young employees (that he/she expects them to be incompetent, or at the very least to lack leadership skills). Sentence (3) also poses as a compliment — while making, in this case, a racist comment, suggesting that 1. immigrants are generally not hard-working (and the company somehow managed to find two who are) OR 2. Asians are generally hard-working but not as creative and independent-minded as, say, white West-Europeans or North-Americans. (Racists often use such so-called compliments to implicitly suggest that the group in question lacks other qualities. Consider the emphasis placed by some speakers/ writers on African Americans‘ athletic abilities.)
Organizations frequently accused of a lack of diversity sometimes eagerly attempt to publicize their attempts to engage in more inclusive hiring practices — but they don’t always get the desired results. In July 2013, the Harper Government hired four women to join the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister’s office announced this on Twitter as “Proud to be naming four new strong, capable women to the Ministry.” Responses on Twitter quickly emphasized the fact that the initial tweet seems to imply that women are usually not strong and capable: “With respect, Prime Minister, please use the ‘insert man for woman’ rule – if it doesn’t fit with a man, don’t use it for a woman” (Hamilton, 2013).
What can we learn from all these examples? As a rule, avoid using descriptors you would not use for heterosexual, non-disabled white men of average age. For example, avoid descriptors that might suggest that intelligent, capable women (or representatives of any other group routinely subjected to discrimination) are an exception. Also avoid physical descriptions for women (or members of any of those other groups) if you would not use them for men.
In terms of the third-person pronouns/ pronominal adjectives we use to refer to various people in our messages, try to use “he/she” for singular-number nouns — or, better yet, express your ideas in the plural whenever possible. The use of plural forms allows us to account for individuals who may not self-identify in a binary fashion. Here are some examples:
Using plural forms whenever possible is also less wordy. (Repeating “he/she” and “his/her” several times within a paragraph can look and sound awkward.)
Use Positive Phrasing
If you are processing a contract and the client forgot to sign and date it, for instance, the first thought that occurs to you when emailing to inform them of the error may go something like the following:
Now, if you were the client reading this slightly angry-sounding, accusatory order, you would likely feel a little embarrassed and maybe even a little upset by the edgy, pushy tone coming through in negative words like forgot, do that, a.s.a.p., and can’t. That feeling wouldn’t sit well with you, and you will begin to build an aversion to that person and the organization they represent. (If this isn’t the first time you forgot to sign a contract for them, however, the demanding tone would be more justified or at least more understandable.) Now imagine you read instead a message that says, with reference to the same situation, the following:
You would probably feel much better about coming through with the signed contract in short order. You may think that this is a small, almost insignificant shift in meaning, but the difference in psychological impact can be substantial, even if it operates subconsciously. This example clearly illustrates the following three characteristics of courteous writing.
a. Use the “You” View
Audience-oriented messages that address the reader directly using the pronouns/pronominal adjectives “you,” “your,” or “yours” have a much greater impact when the message is positive or even neutral. Writing this way is a little counterintuitive, however, because when we begin to encode any message into words, we do so naturally from our own perspective. The sender-oriented messages that result from our perspective don’t register as well with readers because they use first-person personal and possessive pronouns/pronominal adjectives (I, me, my, we, us, and our) that tend to come off as being self-involved. In the above case, the contract is shared by both parties, but saying “our contract” is a little ambiguous because it may be read as saying “the employer’s contract” rather than “your and my contract.” Saying “your contract,” however, entitles the reader with a sense of ownership over the contract, which the reader would likely appreciate.
The trick to achieving audience-oriented messages is to catch yourself whenever you begin writing from your perspective, making excessive use of first-person personal pronouns and pronominal adjectives like I and my, and immediately flip the sentence around to say you and your instead. Simply changing the pronouns isn’t enough, though; in the above case, we changing the wording so that the contract is sent by you rather than received by me. Switching to the audience perspective takes constant vigilance and practice even from seasoned professionals, but soon leads to an audience-oriented habit of writing that endears you more to your readers and leads to positive results. An added benefit to habitually considering your audience’s perspective is that it makes you more considerate, sympathetic, and even empathetic, improving your sense of humanity in general.
This stylistic practice involves using first-person pronouns (I, we, etc.) as seldom as possible, but obviously you can’t do without these entirely—not in all situations. When it’s necessary to say what you did, especially when it comes to negative situations where representing your perspective and accepting responsibility is the right thing to do, not using first-person pronouns will result in awkward stylistic acrobatics. Simply use the audience-oriented “you” view and sender-oriented first-person personal pronouns when appropriate.
b. Prioritize Audience Benefits
Whenever you need to convince someone to do something, leading with the positive result—what the reader will get out of it—followed by the instruction has a much better chance of getting the reader on board. Notice in the two example sentences above that the reader-hostile version places the demand before the result, whereas the improved, reader-friendly version places the result before the (kindly worded) demand. This simple organizational technique of leading with the audience benefit works because people are usually more motivated by the carrot (reward) than the stick (consequence), and dangling the carrot attracts the initial interest necessary to make the action seem worthwhile. It’s effective because it answers what we can always assume the reader is wondering: “What’s in it for me?”
Messages that don’t immediately answer that question and instead lead with the action, however, come from a sender-oriented perspective that initially turns off the reader because it is perceived as demanding in tone. Obviously, some situations require a demanding tone, as when being nice gets no results and necessity forces you to switch to the stick. Again, leading with the demand may be what occurs to you first because it addresses your immediate needs rather than your reader’s, but making a habit of flipping it around will give your writing greater impact whenever you give direction or issue instructions.
c. Focus on Future Positive Outcomes
Focusing on what can be done and improvement sits better with readers than focusing on what can’t be done and criticism. In the above case, the initial rendering of the problem focused on blaming the reader for what they did wrong and on the impasse of the situation with the contract. The improved version corrects this because it skips the fault-finding criticism and instead moves directly to what good things will happen if the reader does what needs to be done. The reader of the second sentence will associate you with the feeling of being pleased by the taste of the carrot rather than smarting from the whack of the stick.
The flipside of this stylistic preference involves replacing negative words with positive words unless you have an important reason for not being nice. Being vigilantly kind in this way takes some practice, not because you’re a bad person but because your writing habits may not reflect your kindness in writing. Vigilance here means being on the lookout whenever you’re tempted to use the following words or their like in situations that aren’t too dire:
Rather than shaming the author of a report by saying that their document is terrible, for instance, calling it “improvable” and pointing out what exactly they can do to fix it respects the author’s feelings and motivates them to improve the report better than what you really want to say in a passing moment of disappointment. Of course, taking this advice to its extreme by considering it a hard-and-fast rule will obviously destroy good writing by hindering your range of expression. You’ll notice that this textbook uses many of the above words when necessary. In any case, make it a habit to use positive words instead of negative if it’s clear that doing so will result in a more positive outcome.
On its own, translating a single sentence like the one exemplified above will likely not have a lasting effect; over time, however, an habitual focus on negative outcomes and use of negative language will result in people developing a dislike for dealing with you and, by association, the company you represent. If you make a habit of writing in positive words most of the time and use negative words only in situations where they’re necessary, on the other hand, you stand a good chance of being well liked. People will enjoy working with or for you, which ensures continued positive relations as well as opens the door to other opportunities.
6. Convincing and Confident
When all the other aspects of style described above are working in concert, and when the information your writing presents comes from sound sources, it naturally acquires an air of confidence that is highly convincing to readers. That confidence is contagious if you are rightfully confident in your information or argument, decisive in your diction, and avoid lapsing into wishy-washy, noncommittal indecision by overusing weak words and expressions like:
These timid, vapid words are death to any sales message especially. This is not to say that your writing can’t err toward overconfidence through lapses in judgment or haughtiness. If you apply the same rigour in argument and persuasion that you do in selecting for quality research sources that are themselves well reasoned, however, by considering a topic holistically rather than simplistically for the sake of advancing a narrow-minded position, it’s easy to get readers to comprehend your information share, follow your instruction, buy what you’re selling, and so on.
- Assemble a Six-Cs scoring rubric for assessing professional writing using the descriptions throughout The 6 Cs of Style above. In the highest-achievement column, list in point-form the attributes of each characteristic. In the columns describing lesser and lesser levels of achievement, identify how those expectations can fall apart. For help with the rubric form, you may wish to use Rubistar’s writing rubric template.
- Find examples of past emails or other documents you’ve written that make you cringe, perhaps even high school essays or reports. Identify instances where they are unclear, unnecessarily longwinded, incoherent (lacking both a clear organizational pattern and transitions that drive the argument along), rife with writing errors, rude or even discriminatory, and/or unconvincing. Assess and score those specimens using your Six-Cs rubric from Exercise 1 above. Begin to think of how you would improve them.
- Find a professionally written document, perhaps from a case study in another class. Assess it using the same Six-Cs scoring rubric.
Canadian Human Rights Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. H-6). https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/h-6/section-3.html
Gray, D. (2011, November 27). Carrot-and-stick management. https://www.flickr.com/photos/davegray/6416285269/
Hamilton, M. (2013, July 15). Replying to @stephenharper. [Tweeter post]. https://twitter.com/stephenharper/status/356767355533139968