Public Works and Government Services Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada
Sections

Style Myths

   

One reason I’m a writer is Mrs. Graham, my Grade 9 English teacher at Malcolm Munroe Memorial Junior High in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Brusque, towering, occasionally apoplectic and always, always right, Mrs. Graham hectored and drilled every adolescent who slouched sullen-faced before her on how to write a paragraph, create a transition, use a semicolon.

In contrast to her drill sergeant bearing, Mrs. Graham was more an advocate of should than must. She taught us principles of good writing, but never packaged those principles as absolutes. That’s admirable. Surely for anyone trying to penetrate the swampy heads of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, not typically prized for their sound judgment and subtle discernment, absolutes are a temptation, one that some teachers must succumb to. Why else would so many people hold fast to certain "rules" of effective writing that they picked up in school, dragged doggedly behind them through post-secondary studies, then installed without question in their professional lives?

The sad truth is, the way we learn to write in school is often at odds with the way we should write at work. At school, the aim is to produce writing that conforms to certain guidelines. In the workplace, the aim is usually to convey information to readers. Mastering the art of informational writing often means jettisoning lessons we learned from teachers and professors, lessons that don’t serve readers well.

MYTH: Formal writing is preferable to informal.

FACT: Informal or less formal writing is often preferable because it engages readers and is easier to understand.

In school, many of us learned to write "formal prose": essays, lab reports, research papers and the like. That experience accounts for the widespread conviction that the best writing is formal and academic—writing that someone has laboured over, cramming it full of stilted syllables.

The late Charles W. Morton, associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, once dubbed this the "elongated yellow fruit" school of writing. Morton borrowed the term from one reporter’s description of the bananas police used to lure some escaped monkeys back into captivity. Morton, appalled by this puffery, asked fellow journalists to submit other examples of writing that was not content with precise, ordinary words. He got what he asked for, including a Boston American ski column that called snow "the elusive white substance" and a Travel magazine description of skiers running the slopes on "the beatified barrel staves."

The belief that writing must be buttoned-up and long-winded, that it must at all times carry the sombre tones of Writing, is one of the most tenacious style myths around. The truth is that the best way to please readers is to write as informally as the situation will allow. Address readers directly, use a few contractions, choose simpler words, write shorter sentences. The message gets through much more easily when the divide between the reader and the writer is narrow, when the reader feels almost part of a conversation.

Granted, formality is linked with genre and audience. Cabinet briefings, legislation and UN addresses must by necessity be formal. Promotional material, websites and newsletters are often not. Many other documents fall somewhere in between. To write effectively, we must gauge our medium and our audience, then adopt the right tone. But we must also be mindful that to convey information clearly, we have to engage our readers. That’s as hard to accomplish with formal writing as it is to play baseball in wedding garb.

Example:

In order to effectuate the production of writing whose quality is exceptional, it is not a requirement that formal language be employed in every circumstance or eventuality. That is, writing well doesn’t have to mean writing formally.

MYTH: Good writing is always in the third person.

FACT: First and second person are fine in most types of writing, and are preferable in some.

This myth is tied to the previous one. Just as many people were schooled to drape their writing with the cloak of formality, so they were instructed to avoid any references to first and second person. Once students move beyond grade school and the obligatory "what I did during summer vacation" essays, they are discouraged from writing papers that say "I believe such-and-such" or "You may find that so-and-so." First and second person are too direct, they are told, and too personal. As a result, many people forgo we and you in their workplace writing.

But the fact is, readers are people, and like most of us, they like to talk to and read about other people. Most of us don’t really want to get our safety tips for overseas travel from a branch or a unit, or our statistics on consumer spending from an institute or a trade group. We want to get them from human beings. Using first person (I, we, us) when referring to the writer or originator of the information and second person (you) when referring to the reader or receiver is one of the most effective ways to convey information. The reason is simple: the more directly we address our readers, the more likely they are to pay attention. That is particularly the case for documents that give directions, instructions, policies, guidelines, procedures and advice.

Example:

It is common for individuals who teach writing to recommend that people creating workplace documents consider the benefit of first and second person on the audience. In other words, I encourage you to think about how first and second person can benefit your audience.

MYTH: Never write a one-sentence paragraph.

FACT: Occasionally, one sentence may be all a paragraph needs.

Once again, it’s common to pick up this myth in the schoolroom. In Grade 9, Mrs. Graham had us memorize the classic paragraph structure: first, a topic sentence to announce what the paragraph will cover; next, three to five sentences that support the topic; then a sentence that either sums up or telegraphs the next paragraph.

But Mrs. Graham never said a paragraph had to contain that many sentences, and I learned later, from reading good authors, that one sentence is sometimes enough.

A single-sentence paragraph can serve as a neat transition between major ideas or large sections. If the transitional statement is clear enough, there may be no need to belabour it for the sake of having more sentences. As well, a single-sentence paragraph can emphasize a key point, boosting its contrast, for instance, or its dramatic effect.

A single-sentence paragraph also has the virtue of being short. Short paragraphs are nearly always better than long ones because they break down ideas and make them easy to digest. As William Zinsser says in his classic On Writing Well: "Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read." First impressions matter, no less in writing than in life.

Example:

The "But Mrs. Graham" paragraph above is only one sentence long. It creates a transition between the lessons of the past in the previous paragraph, and those of the present in the upcoming paragraph.

MYTH: Use synonyms wherever possible to avoid the monotony of repetition.

FACT: Using synonyms can cause confusion; repetition of some terms is essential for clarity.

Well-meaning teachers (like Mrs. Graham) encourage their students to build vocabulary by learning synonyms. An admirable goal, no question. After all, describing everything as nice, good or interesting is lame, and there’s a wide world of verbs out there besides be, do and make.

It’s one thing to vary our vocabulary when writing for academic, literary or other writerly reasons; it’s another to do it when writing for informational, reader-centred reasons. In the latter case we need to keep terms consistent, particularly when naming specific things or concepts. If something is a strategy, we need to call it a strategy. If, for the sake of variation, we later call it a program, then a project, then a plan, readers get confused. Is the summer employment strategy the same thing as the summer work project? Or are they different?

The trick is to distinguish between good repetition and bad repetition. Bad repetition comes from mindlessly recycling words, especially verbs, modifiers or catch phrases that we could either spell off or weed out. Good repetition comes from intentionally using the same term to keep the reader on track. Good repetition clarifies and reinforces, reassuring us that a policy is a policy, a surveyor a surveyor, a hard drive a hard drive. The more difficult the material, the more unvarying the specific terms should be.

Example:

The repetition of certain words that don’t need to be repeated constitutes excessive repetition and can be seen as bad repetition. On the other hand, the repetition of a term to prevent confusion among similar terms can be seen as good repetition.

Mrs. Graham also taught us that every essay requires a conclusion (another myth, since it’s okay to dispense with a formal ending once in a while). I would like to conclude by acknowledging that it can be tough to let go of misconceptions, especially ones we’ve nurtured for years or even decades. But when those misconceptions interfere with clear communication, when they put the writer’s needs and preferences before the reader’s, letting go is the only thing to do.