Writing logically, concisely, and with impact benefits the company and the individual author. As a basic tool of business, good writing skills should be part of every environmental professional’s knowledge base. Proposals, technical reports, procedures, and business correspondence must be logically structured, well laid out, clear, and to the point if the desired information is to be relayed.
Often, environmental professionals are not trained in effectively writing technical documents, and good documentation models are not available to them. When developing your writing project, consider ways you can achieve the following:
- Write to meet the needs of your audience (technical or nontechnical readers)
- Organize your information effectively
- Develop a clear and concise writing style
- Eliminate jargon, clichés, redundancy, wordiness, and overused phrases
- Improve wording and phrasing
- Eliminate lengthy sentences and paragraphs
- Follow the standards for correctly writing numbers, units of measure, equations, and symbols
- Understand the proper use of tables, graphs, charts, and illustrations
- Follow the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization
- Sharpen editorial skills.
Define the Audience
Think about who will read your document before and while you write, determine how much information the reader will need to reach his/her needs, and adjust your writing to help your reader understand the information presented. When defining your audience, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who needs this document?
- What do they need to learn from the document?
- How will they use the information presented?
- What is their education level?
- What is their existing knowledge base on the topic?
As the author, you will probably have a good knowledge of the subject area, but you also need to have a clear idea of what information needs to be communicated and how the audience will perceive the information.
Develop the Outline
Before you begin writing, develop a numbered outline. It is a quick, logical way to sketch out the topics you are going to address. The outline helps you organize ideas in sequential order, provides an overview of topics, shows topic relationships, and allows you to view and arrange your topics from general to specific. Many scientific, engineering, and environmental documents follow a format similar to the one below.
- Front Matter (cover, table of contents, abbreviations and acronyms, lists of tables and figures)
- Executive Summary or Abstract (concise, short summary of the document’s major points)
- Body of Report (includes major subject headings with subsections providing increasingly detailed information)
- Introduction—subsections include subject and purpose, background, and scope of work.
- Design/Theory, Criteria, and Methods—subsections include objectives, approach, state of current knowledge, criteria to be followed, and methods used in development.
- Design/Theory Development—subsections include detailed design/theory development, using tables, illustrations, and other supporting materials.
- Cost Estimates and Schedule—subsections include cost estimates, level of effort details, and schedule to complete the project.
- Recommendations—subsections include the recommended action and alternatives based on client requirements, scope of the work, and cost/schedule considerations.
- Conclusions—summarize the key points developed in the document with the final recommendations and any alternatives offered. This section reflects the executive summary.
- Acknowledgments—lists contributors to the study and/or document. This is a supplemental section that is used as needed.
- Literature Cited—list references used in document’s research and development.
- Appendices (information too cumbersome for the document, or materials that supplement the work but are not required)
In the body of the document, you can add subsections with increasingly specific information (including tables, figures, and graphs). Developing an outline before you begin writing is an excellent way to organize your thoughts and information, and the outline makes the writing task easier because you have established a hierarchy of topics rather than a random collection of ideas. Tables and figures used in the document should provide specific information that supports the text, should clearly present information to the reader, and should be called out in an appropriate paragraph and immediately follow the reference as layout allows.
In most writing, the introduction announces the topic, purpose, and scope of the document; the body develops the topic into detailed paragraphs; and the conclusion summarizes the document’s discussion and findings. Sometimes is it easier to develop the document’s body before writing the introduction, so if you have difficultly forming the introduction, start in the middle.
Using your previously developed outline, start by defining the subject of the document; state your purpose. You can then expand this topic sentence into an entire paragraph, describe in increasing detail the focus of your work, and outline any data gaps there may be. The introductory section should provide any background information your reader needs to understand your focus, and you will need to define the scope of your project as well.
The sections in the document’s body describe the design, development, estimates, recommendations, and conclusions for the research and development phase of your work. Describe how the work developed and the tools used in the development (e.g., equipment, laboratory analysis, and field procedures). Present the findings that resulted from the work and discuss how the results were obtained. Provide evidence and materials to support your findings. Describe how you came to your conclusions and how you developed the recommendations. The same general-to-specific writing method works for each major section and corresponding subsections throughout the document’s body. Fill in your outline with detailed information in a logical, organized manner.
Once you have completed main sections, take the major topics and findings and condense these paragraphs into smaller versions by cutting out the specific details. What did you do and what was the result? This condensed version will serve as your executive summary or abstract. List the references that you used in the research and development and provide any supplemental materials in the appendices.
Clarity and Completeness—Clarity means saying what you have to say in an organized fashion. Many writers who have something to say and who arrange their information in a logical manner still have difficulty making their writing clear to the reader. To be clear, sentences must have proper grammar and punctuation, and the text must effectively develop general concepts into specific details. The writer should evaluate those details and remove any irrelevant information from the text. The reader needs only enough information to understand the concept, perform the task, or make a decision. Eliminate wordiness and jargon to further clarify your writing.
Completeness in writing means that the topic is adequately developed with details, explanations, definitions, and evidence so the reader is not left with a vague idea of what is meant. In scientific, engineering, and environmental writing, describing a process is a large part of the documentation task. Process development is a step-by-step description of how something is done. If the purpose of the process is to give the reader an outline of the steps to get something done, less detail is needed. If you intend to teach readers how to perform the process, then complete, detailed steps must be provided; the exact order of the operation is essential; and supplemental descriptions may be needed to correctly perform the activity.
Coherence—Coherence means making a connection with your audience by ensuring that your sentences are logically related, are grammatically whole, and allow the reader to follow the train of thought step by step. Your task is to present the relevant material coherently using logical sequencing in a structured fashion (remember the outline).
The following grammatical tools can help you build coherence into your writing:
- Active voice—using an active voice in your writing shows the reader the direct subject-verb relationship. Active voice flows more smoothly and leaves no room for ambiguity.
- Repetition—repeating keywords and phrases or using forms of the same words to selectively achieve a sense of connection in sentences and paragraphs. Being selective is key in using repetition. The writer must balance the use of key words in key places to link and reinforce the main idea, rather than just repeat the same terms over and over again.
- Parallelism—using the same sentence structure in subsequent sentences and paragraphs. Parallelism uses the same pattern of words to show two or more ideas that have the same level of importance. Coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, but, or, however, therefore) are a tool to achieve parallel structure in your sentences.
- Enumeration—listing ideas in the text to clearly define sequential thoughts or events.
- Transitions—using conjunctions to link ideas that (a) are the same, (b) are different, (c) are in addition to the main thought, (d) show cause and effect, or (e) shift from general to specific thoughts.
Review your Writing
With the writing completed, review the document as a whole. Does it have all of its pieces and are those pieces in logical order, with concise headings? Do your tables and figures support the text? Read the document through from the beginning to end and note where the information seems lacking, or hard to read and understand. Note any mistakes in the text and correct them. Do you need to add more detail in one area and less in another? Read your document with a critical eye—can you get your point across in two sentences instead of five? Do you need to add more or different information to get the reader to agree with the conclusion? Does everything in the document make sense and have a purpose? The data must be accurate, so check the details to ensure the information offered is correct and can be substantiated.
As a final check, ask a peer or an editor to review your document. A fresh set of eyes can pick up on missing components or gaps in logic and detail. Minor problems can be caught by someone who is not as familiar with document. Format glitches detract the reader, so have the reviewer check the document’s look and presentation. A final review by an outside party is well worth the additional time and effort.
Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. Council of Science Editors, Style Manual Committee. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, 7th ed. Reston (VA): The Council; 2006. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2003.