Writing well

02/03/2012 § 2 Comments

Consultants write. Good consultants write well. Unfortunately, writing well takes some effort. You have to learn how to do, refresh your skills, and make sure that you apply those skills.

Like other consulting skills, good writing can be learned. A liberal arts degree is best for this, but the undervaluing and demise of the BA will have to wait for another post. Instead, most people will have rely on short courses and books about writing. As it happens, a colleague lent me an excellent book: Clear, Concise, Compelling by Simon Hertnor.

He offers a quote from somewhere that encapsulates writing for consultants:

Your time is important, so I’ll be brief.

There are two reasons people hire consultants:

  • they have a problem they don’t know how to solve
  • they need cover for something they already want to do.

Quality of writing isn’t central to the second type of assignment. For the first type, clear writing is critical. The client needs a clear description of the problem and plain advice on what to do. If they wanted to get involved in the intricacies and nuances, they would have done the work themselves. Sometimes, of course, the problem is complex. That doesn’t mean your writing has to be.

Hertnor’s book is really good at the basics. And the basics are what people get wrong all the time.

To keep this from being an advertisement for a single book, let me say that there are many books about writing. Elements of Style is a classic and many people swear by it. I’ve found it a bit dated and hard to use, but that’s only one opinion. My workplace has just bought a couple of writing manuals from Penguin books. They are apparently good, but they are more like reference manuals than how-to books. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is more readable, but focused on punctuation. Ask around — you’re sure to know one pedant with strong opinions on writing and a shelf of books to recommend.

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§ 2 Responses to Writing well

  • Seamus Hogan says:

    Elements of Style “a bit dated and hard to use”? Nooooooooooo! If you read only one book, make it this one. (“Omit Needless Words”, what could be simpler or more contermporarily relevant!)

    If you want something longer, how about “The Complete Plain Words” by Sir Ernest Gowers, initially written as a guide to help British public servants write better.

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