6 writing tips for biotech managers

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Tips to add vigor to your writing
Tips to add vigor to your writing

Following some basic principles of composition will help you express your thoughts with clarity and conciseness.

Companionable is the first word that comes to mind when I think of The Elements of StyleStrunk and White's succinct handbook on writing. When polishing my work I turn to it as I would a reliable friend who speaks with brevity and wit and who never fails to give useful advice. Here are a few tips from the book to help you with your next sales memo.

1. Use the active voice.

The active voice usually delivers more punch than the passive voice. Consider these examples.

Passive: Copies of last week's minutes were distributed by me to the group.

Active: I distributed last week's minutes to the group.

In the first sentence the speaker seems less bold, less direct—less willing perhaps to assume responsibility for handing out minutes.

Writers are sometimes reluctant to use the first person pronoun I. They shouldn't be. In most cases, saying won't make you appear self-absorbed. Instead, it will show that you are willing to take ownership of your work.

2. Put statements in positive form.

“Make definite assertions,” Strunk and White advise. To give your writing more force and vigor, it is better to say what something is than to say what it isn't. Avoid sounding timid or evasive, as though unwilling to offend.

Indirect: He was not always mindful about arriving on time.

Direct: He usually came late.

3. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

Strong details evoke memories and sensations─and help liven the world on the page. The following examples come straight from The Elements:

Vague: A period of unfavorable weather set in.

Concise: It rained every day for a week.

After reading the first sentence, a reader might wonder what kind of unfavorable weather the writer is referring to. A cold drizzle that lasts a week at the shore, or a moment's hail that drums on a shed roof? Selecting the right details adds color to your work.

4. Omit needless words.

The fewer words you use, the quicker the reader will grasp your meaning. In the following list, the italicized words are the ones to toss into the compost pile:

used for educational purposes ─ used for education

the question as to whetherwhether

the reason as to whybecause

5. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.

Keep items parallel in lists. Following a pattern does not make your writing boring and predictable; it gives it rhythm and balance.

Not: Surgery, radiation, and to give chemotherapy are possible therapeutic approaches.

But: Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are possible therapeutic approaches.

6. Keep related words together.

Confusion and ambiguity result when words are carelessly placed in a sentence. Here are more examples from The Elements:

Confusing: He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center.

Clear: He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug.

In the first sentence it's hard to tell which is in the center—the stain or the rug. The second sentence leaves the reader with no doubt.

Years ago I encountered on a client's desk a small plaque with the words Be brief, be bright, be gone. No doubt the plaque was intended for visitors who overstay their welcome, but I suspect that the same sentiment goes for writing. Say what you've come to say, then exit—as gracefully as you can.

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