Event review: Getting the message across: Clear writing tips with Frances Peck

Written by Amy Haagsma; copy edited by Karen Barry

Review of seminar Getting the Message Across: Clear Writing Tips with Frances Peck (offered by EAC-BC on March 19, 2015).

Frances Peck is a writer, Honorary Certified Professional Editor, and long-time EAC member and volunteer. She has taught at the University of Ottawa, Douglas College, SFU, and UBC; presented seminars for EAC branches across Canada; and delivered training for a number of government and private-sector organizations.

One of Frances’ specialties is editing and rewriting for clarity, making her the perfect choice to teach EAC-BC’s recent half-day seminar, Getting the Message Across: Clear Writing Tips. The seminar focused on techniques to improve clarity in workplace and public documents to better communicate the intended message.

Introduction: What is clear writing?
Frances began by explaining what clear writing is, and what it isn’t.

Clear writing means a document is easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to act on. Clear writing is not dumbed-down content or simplistic prose—it is simple without being simplistic.

Part one: The blueprint
The first step is planning, and Frances emphasized the importance of setting aside time for this.

Consider your purpose and objectives, and focus your attention on the reader. Who are they? How familiar are they with your topic? How are they coming to your document, and what is their reason for reading it?

Once you’ve identified your reader, decide what they need to know, what they don’t need to know, and what points to play up and play down. Speak directly to your reader, and put your key points up front.

Part two: The construction
After planning, start developing your first draft. Don’t aim for perfection yet; the goal is just to get it down on paper. Write headings, points, and secondary points; be sure to also note what not to cover.

Once your draft is complete, bring in clear-writing techniques at the revision stage. Frances presented several tips for improving clarity, including the following:

  • Use concrete, everyday words and short sentences.
  • Favour positive language over negative, and active voice over passive.
  • Choose verbs over nouns to convey action and tell a story.

Part three: The design
The last stage in producing a document is design.

Readability is influenced by a document’s structure and the use of headings, the amount of white space, the typefaces chosen, and the graphics used. All of these elements should aid comprehension, not inhibit it. Each heading level adds complexity, so Frances advised sticking with two or three. Graphics should help to communicate complex material or a large volume of information at a glance.

Frances also recommended reading The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams, an entertaining read and a handy reference book for novices and experts alike. It covers design principles and is full of excellent tips and examples.

Amy Haagsma is a communications professional and a graduate of SFU’s Editing Certificate program.

Karen Barry is launching into freelance editing and is currently enrolled in SFU’s Editing Certificate program. She has a background in biology and over 15 years’ experience writing and editing research papers, technical reports, grant proposals, and promotional and educational materials.

Image by Shutterstock.

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