Tuesday, July 18, 2017

big picture writing issues

I have so many pet peeves when it comes to writing, often triggered by reviewing reports that annoy me in some way. That’s why I have a whole separate “writing" label.

I've recently been in multiple conversations where someone (not me!) turned the discussion to “training young professionals to write the reports we need”. Usually the complaints boil down to a few major issues.

Mechanics: the easiest to blog about, and the easiest to fix. I can note abbreviation issues, misused words like they’re/there/their, table and figures don’t match the text references, etc. and send the report back for revision. I can pull together checklists to handle the vast majority of these.

Writing style/voice: this one is relatively easy to explain to someone who’s already a good writer, whether they are familiar with the mechanics of environmental report writing or not. Minimize the passive voice and “there are” constructions. Mix up your sentence structure so that you don’t say the exact same thing six times in a row, just with different nouns. Break up 300-word sentences and two page paragraphs so that your reader is not faced with a wall of text. Don’t use a 10-dollar word if a 10-cent word fits just as well.

I’m not trying to force a “house style” on young professionals (although with other good technical writers, we definitely have differences of opinion and covertly/not covertly “fix” things our way), but am aiming for a basic level of writing that is not going to make the organization look bad. One problem I run into when trying to train someone on writing style is that they don’t hear/see the difference between brain-numbing text and ok text, and so they can’t replicate it on their own. They may be able to explain/say something but somehow what they say doesn’t actually make it to the page. Or they may read something and not actually hear how it sounds. Reading the text out loud can help with this.

I don’t know of any training that will help someone “get” how to write clearly, within a reasonable time frame, and without requiring massive revisions. Usually we limit the struggling writer to very simple reports that are essentially the same and can be copied/pasted almost entirely, in the hopes that they will gradually pick things up and be able to move to more complicated reports. I can suggest that the struggling writer read more to pick up an ear for language, but it’s really hard with someone who has already reached their early 20s (or later) and just doesn’t have an ear for these things. I have limited time to push/cajole/produce major revisions so that a document can go out the door, and honestly, it becomes career limiting to the writer because I’ll either give up and do it myself or find someone else who can pick up these things without so much handholding.

Big picture: what to include in the report? The easiest report to write is the one that requires only minor changes from a template, but even that requires some intellectual curiosity and an ability to spot potential issues. If we’ve been sampling the same set of wells for 10 years and there’s a persistent issue (high turbidity, anomalous chemistry, doesn’t recharge quickly), is there something we can do to redevelop the well? Does the existing monitoring well network actually capturing what’s happening? Are there “stray” detections that suggest that something is changing or getting worse? And if there are field observations/notes that there are access issues (such as a well at the edge of a parking lot continually getting buried with sand), are they getting into the report?

Small issues that can point to big-picture problems can be tough to evaluate for a reviewer because if the writer and/or the field crew (a whole other issue) don’t flag them, the reviewer may not know enough about the project to catch them and ask those questions.

Many writers want to slap together a report and move on with their day without worrying about quality or critical evaluation, which is ok for a while. But if the site ends up contested in some way, or a big client wants to rebid a bunch of work, those reports are sitting out there, just waiting to be critically evaluated. A poor body of work, in environmental consulting, is a time bomb. On the flip side, a critical mass of well-written, coherent, and scientifically reasonable work is a great foundation for future work.

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