Written by Carl Rosenberg; copy edited by Kristin Lathrop
On Saturday, February 23, Editors BC presents Frances Peck’s seminar, “Getting the Message Across: Clear Writing Tips.” So if you want to improve your ability to quickly convey a clear message to your audience, you’re in luck.
The ability to be concise when dealing with reports, briefings, emails, or any other documents is crucial for an audience to get your message. But too often that message gets buried by weak organization, unnecessary detail, abstract language, and other barriers to readability.
Whether you’re a writer or an editor, this seminar will show you how to create documents that meet readers’ needs and get the message across. Topics include writing faster and better (a four-step process); understanding what your readers want (and don’t want); highlighting your key messages; making ideas flow; and eliminating wordiness, abstractions, and jargon. (See the registration page for more details.)
Frances Peck, a partner with West Coast Editorial Associates, is a writer and Certified Professional Editor (Hon.) who specializes in editing and rewriting for clarity. She has taught for the University of Ottawa, Douglas College, SFU, UBC, Editors Canada, and many public and private sector organizations. Frances wrote Peck’s English Pointers, a free collection of articles and quizzes available on the Language Portal of Canada, and is a co-author of the HyperGrammar website.
Carl Rosenberg, a volunteer on Editors BC’s communications and social media committee, spoke to Frances about her work on writing.
Hello, Frances! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. You told us in 2017 how you got into editing, writing, and grammar. How did you come to teach courses on writing as well?
In 1994, the last year I was a sessional instructor at the University of Ottawa, I ended up—and I have no recollection of how this happened—teaching a second-year course on technical report writing. It was an English course, but it was for engineering students who had to pass the course to graduate. It was brutal to teach: over 200 students, maybe four of whom actually wanted to be there; five teaching assistants whose work I had to assign and oversee; and a textbook and material that I knew nothing about. But I learned a ton, as you do whenever you close your eyes and leap into a project you’re pretty sure is beyond you.
The textbook for that course was Paul V. Anderson’s Technical Writing: A Reader-Centred Approach (second edition), and I still have it on my shelf. It taught me nearly every trick that I’ve passed along to writers and editors in the 25 years since that I’ve been teaching writing workshops. It doesn’t much matter whether the content is technical, scientific, legal, administrative—whatever. The principles for getting the information across are the same.
What do you notice is a consistent challenge to writing clearly?
For most of us, the biggest challenge is to get over ourselves. We have to put our writerly needs and preferences in the backseat and let the reader drive the car. As the title of Anderson’s book suggests, the secret to clear writing is to make it reader-centred. You know, as a writer you may be very invested in the history and background of the topic you’re writing about. You may think it’s fascinating and necessary, and you may write pages about it. But does your reader really care or need to know? Maybe not. If they don’t care, and you hit them with a bunch of irrelevant background, they will ask themselves why they should read further. At that point, some will quit reading. Others will lose interest or start to feel confused or alienated.
What can editors and writers do to overcome such challenges?
The biggest trick is to set aside our own preferences for content, organization, wording, and style and think about what best serves our readers. As much as possible, we have to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes. For editors, that tends to come more naturally. It’s our job to play the part of the audience. For writers, it can be harder to be reader-centred. It takes work to distance ourselves from our own material. It takes work to identify who our readers are and to think about what they might want and not want.
Is there a resource on clear writing you recommend?
Besides the Anderson textbook, which is still around, though the main title is now Technical Communication, another classic is Plain Language: Clear and Simple, created and at one time, published by the federal government. When the government stopped printing the booklet, a decision made under the Harper regime, Vancouver’s Iva Cheung, a plain language advocate and long-time Editors BC member, recreated it as a PDF and put it up on a wiki site, where anyone can download it for free. We all owe Iva a huge debt of thanks for that.
What are some of your favourite books and publications?
Funny you’d ask that. I just finished a Twitter challenge where you tweet seven covers of books you love over seven days. Rather than repeat that list, I’ll mention a couple of recent reads I’ve enjoyed.
I’m on a non-fiction kick just now. I really liked Russell Wangersky’s Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself, a candid and wonderfully detailed memoir about being a firefighter. I finally read Dropped Threads, the collection of essays by Canadian women writers co-edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson, and really enjoyed the diverse perspectives in that lineup.
In non-CanLit, my favourite fiction read in the last few months was Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a big, beautiful book—that kind of sprawling Victorian-style novel that creates a whole world you can sink into.
I should also mention Daphne Gray-Grant’s blog, which gives terrific advice about writing. Sometimes there are tips for clear writing in the mix. Gray-Grant is especially good on how to combat procrastination and get the writing done. And she always has wise, practical advice about the ever-perplexing work–life balancing act.
Frances, thank you very much for sharing your experience and expertise. We’re looking forward to your seminar on February 23.
Carl Rosenberg edited “Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine” from 1998 to 2016. He has a diploma in Latin American studies from Vancouver Community College and a bachelor of arts in Spanish language and literature from UBC. He is a volunteer with the communications and social media committee of Editors BC.
Kristin Lathrop aspires to be a travel writer and editor. She has a BA in Hispanic studies from the University of Victoria and earned SFU’s Editing Certificate. Before moving to Vancouver, she spent three years abroad backpacking solo and fulfilling a one-year ESL teaching contract in China. Outside of her day job, Kristin attends dance and fitness classes, hikes local mountains, and dreams of her next trip.
Photo provided by Frances Peck.