As a writer, I understand all too well the anxiety produced by a blank word document. Writing is a daunting task, and there is incredible pressure to do it well. Professional writing, in particular, needs to sound credible and competent. In the quest for the perfect professional report, however, diction and craft are often thrown out the window.
Here’s the thing: professional writing doesn’t have to suck.
Some fairly easy guidelines to follow involve the elimination of over-abbreviation and a limited use of technical terms. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls this the “curse of knowledge,” or the inability to put ourselves into the shoes of a less-informed reader.
“The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose,” Pinker says. In order to rid yourself of the “curse,” take an extra moment to clarify jargon or complex concepts. Use an example if you have to. You should write as if your readers have less knowledge than you on your particular subject. Envision yourself as your readers’ guide; you must hold their hand through the pages.
Pinker’s recent book, The Sense of Style, goes deeper into problems faced during the professional writing process. One such issue discussed at length is the human tendency to functionally fixate.
Functionally fixating means that you regard something in terms of its use versus other characteristics like shape, color, or the materials it is made of. This tends to happen as we become more familiar with our surroundings and concepts. So while your knowledge of function may make complete sense to you, it may completely baffle your inexperienced reader.
“Even among cognitive scientists, a ‘poststimulus event’ is not a standard way to refer to a tap on the arm. A financial customer might be reasonably familiar with the world of investments and still have to puzzle over what a company brochure means by ‘capital charges and rights.’ …And heaven help the sleepy traveler trying to set the alarm clock in his hotel room who must interpret ‘alarm function’ and ‘second display mode.’”
As you write to portray your expertise on a subject, do not be afraid to “dumb it down” some. Use concrete and everyday imagery for abstract concepts so that your reader is not caught going over the same sentence two or three times before it starts to make sense.
And, of course, always have a peer review your work. Ask a colleague or classmate with similar knowledge to your own to review the work. Chances are, if he or she does not understand certain points you are trying to make, then your readers won’t either.
Finally, walk away from your first draft. When you finish, take a break. After a while, your words will become too familiar to catch any of your mistakes. Go on a walk; read the newspaper; catch up on your favorite show. When you come back, your brain will be refreshed and your eyes prepared to analyze.