7 Cs of Tight Writing

The Seven Cs of Tight Writing

The Seven Cs include the following writing styles and considerations:

  • Completeness
  • Clearness
  • Concreteness
  • Correctness
  • Conciseness
  • Courtesy
  • Character

Although these seven Cs are most often emphasized in business and technical writing books and courses, all writers should be aware of the importance of these principles and how to apply them to their prose. 

Completeness

Remember the Ws of writing: Who, Where, What, Why, Where, When and How? Before you start writing, you should know where you want to go, how you plan to get there, why you want to write in the first place, and why anyone else (e.g. potential readers) would want to follow you. 

Research: Research is important with both nonfiction and fiction. For instance,

1.      Say you plan to write a Historical Novel featuring a protagonist who lived in Siam in the 1800s. Before you put pencil to paper, you need to know more about Siam than what you saw in The King and I. You need more area history than you will find on Wikipedia, and you definitely need to bone up on Buddhism. Solid background research not only complements your story but assures the reader that they can relax and enjoy the story while learning a bit of history.  Solid research helps your writing satisfy the reader, which is much better than leaving them thinking they’ve missed something. 

2.     On the other hand, say you need to write a White Paper.  You want your document to be both interesting and complete, but at the same time you don’t want to create a list-based paper. You want this white paper to grab readers, quickly assuring them that you understand their problem well enough to help them solve it. 
Once again accomplishing this goal requires that you arm yourself with detailed product information along with solid research about the potential clients.  If you equip yourself with more research than you can actually fit into the paper, you are in a great position to pick and choose which details closely match the intended audience. 

Complete Experience: Whether they read fact or fiction, today’s discriminating reader wants and expects the author to give them a complete reading experience. If they want clipped information they can read online forums.

Clearness

Clear writing emanates from a good understanding of the subject and a clear vision of the goal for the paper, manual, letter or story.  Clear writing tends to be elegant, logically arranged, and easy to follow. 

Clear Thinking:  Clear writing is a product of clear thinking. Before writers attempt to explain a product or a process to their readers, they need to fully understand the product or process themselves.  Clear writing omits ambiguous terms and phrases, uses words that directly convey the writer’s intent, and develops only one idea per paragraph.

Transparent Style: Clear writing does not purposefully draw the reader’s attention to style. In fact, clear writing is so easy to read, follow, and digest that most readers won’t stop to think about the writer’s style at all – which can be a good thing.  Most often, when a reader stops to think about the person who penned the article they’re reading, they are not thinking positive thoughts. They are often thinking: What? Or, What on Earth? Or, I don’t get this!  There may be nothing a reader wants to do less than reread a sentence because the meaning wasn’t clear.

Transitions: Clarity includes writing sentences and paragraphs that logically hang together so that they seem to just magically and sensibly flow. Writers use transition words to help readers understand the relationship between ideas in sentences and paragraphs. Transition words like but, yet, moreover, in the meantime, next, and eventually are important tools for both fiction and nonfiction writers, who use them like stepping stones to help the reader follow the writer’s train of thought.   

Familiarity: In addition to being eminently readable, clear writing feels familiar.  Clear writing not only flows, it uses words that are familiar. For instance, today’s writers should use:

  •  “before” instead of “prior to”
  • “after” instead of “subsequent to”
  •  “use” instead of “utilize”
  • “require” instead of “necessitate”
  • “helpful” instead of “advantageous”

Clear writing promotes clear images in the mind of the reader.  Improve the clarity of your writing by cutting unnecessary words, using action verbs whenever possible, and choosing concrete terms that not only help readers easily comprehend but remember what they are reading.

Concreteness

Concrete words and phrases include objects, persons, actions, and behaviors – as mentioned above, concreteness adds clarity to your writing.  Writers can achieve concreteness by choosing the specific over the abstract, the definite over the vague and the distinct over the uncertain. 

Mental Pictures: Although concrete writing is crisp, it doesn’t need to seem stilted; concrete writing uses words that paint pictures for the reader, which helps make facts, products, people and places more realistic and memorable.  Concrete writing is creative because it shows the reader what is happening rather than just telling them.  

Eschew Generalities: Concrete language avoids generalities, steering clear from general nouns and pronouns that can easily confuse the reader.  Granted, concrete writing takes more time and effort than general or abstract writing, but the rewards are worth it.  Consider the writing of wildly popular authors, those who sell a ton of books year after year after year. Readers continue to purchase their books because these authors have mastered the art of writing concrete sentences and paragraphs.  They deliberately steer away from generalities, spending the extra time to make their writing more concrete and authentic.

Like completeness and clearness above, concreteness favors active, descriptive verbs and modifiers over words that are abstract or passive.

Correctness

At the risk of sounding like your tenth grade English teacher, in order to explain correctness we need to discuss a couple of common grammatical mistakes.  Note that even if you carefully select concrete words and phrases, and use active verbs 90% of the time, you will still lose credibility with your readers if they run into one of these grammatical errors.  In this section we will briefly examine two of the most egregious grammatical mistakes.

A Dangling Modifier is a word, phrase or clause that implies something different from what the writer meant.  This writing error damages flow and continuity in both fiction and nonfiction.  Much of the time, sentences with dangling modifiers stop readers because they become confused, asking themselves questions like: Is what I just read correct? Is that really what the writer meant?  This is an example:

Incorrect: While driving home the other night, a tree fell across the road.

Problem: Was the tree driving home the other night?

“While driving home the other night” is the modifier, and since modifiers like to latch onto the nearest noun, in this sentence the modifier latches onto “a tree.” How do you fix a sentence like this? Insert the missing noun (the driver) or change the modifier.

Better: While Emily drove home the other night, a tree fell across the road.

Grammar books and online grammar websites offer plenty of good advice for fixing this problem, along with tips for not making the mistake in the first place.

Parallel structure requires writers to compose lists and series of words, phrases and clauses in the same grammatical form. Faulty parallelism often occurs in bullet lists, particularly in presentation and training materials, but it can crop up anywhere. Once again, this grammatical mistake will cause the reader to stop because they know something is wrong … even if they can’t put a name to it.

Incorrect:  She likes to run in the park, sleeping late, and finds joy in making videos.

Problem:  The activities she enjoys [“to run in the park” and “sleeping late” and “finds joy in making videos”] do not have the same grammatical form. 

Correct: She likes to run in the park, to sleep late, and to make videos.  Now the verbs that describe each activity use the same grammatical form.

Also correct: She likes running in the park, sleeping late, and making videos.

Parallel structure means that the items in a list, or the subheadings throughout a document, are the same part of speech.  Remember, an important goal for a writer is to keep the reader reading. Incorrect grammar and word relationships will stop most readers, even if they aren’t sure why.

Conciseness

When you write concisely, you express your opinions, give directions, or explain a scene using the best words, and often the fewest words, possible. Concise writing expresses essential ideas without unnecessary words that don’t add anything important and waste the reader’s time.  Concise writing does not contain useless repetitions or wordy expressions, as explained below.  

Redundancy: Useless repetition weakens your writing and wastes the reader’s time; it may even be insulting. Useless repetitions include common phrases like these:

absolutely certain (certainty has no room for doubt, so it is absolute)

advance planning (all planning is done in advance)

close scrutiny (you need to get close to scrutinize)

assemble together (how else can you assemble?)

ATM machine (the M stands for machine)

PIN number (the N stands for number)

completely eliminate (eliminate infers completeness)

each and every (use one or the other)

final conclusion (a conclusion is final)

first began (When he first began ? the word began is enough by itself)

Because these redundant phrases are commonly used in speech, we may not be able to stop ourselves from saying them, but we need to practice not writing them. 

Wordy Expressions: We hear wordy expressions on television and hear them in speech, but they have no place in your writing. Like useless repetition, empty phrases and expressions weaken your writing.  You can reduce wordiness by cutting these phrases from your document:

Due to the fact that …  (because)

In the event that…  (if)

At this point in time…  (at this point)

In the near future …  (soon)

At the present time…  (now)

With regard to…  (regarding)

In the month of June…  (in June)

Concise writing is clean writing, using only the words needed to express an idea. When editing your prose for conciseness, aim to cut out words and phrases that are vague, repetitious or pretentious.

Courtesy

This applies to business and other non-fiction writing. All business communication (especially emails) should be edited for clarity, conciseness and courtesy.  Courteous communication considers the receiver’s reaction to the writer’s choice of words; courteous communication gets the point across while valuing the receiver’s feelings.

In business communication, avoid using negative words like:

Delay, trouble, unfortunate, never, blame, can’t, wrong, regret, fault, difficult, failed, prohibit, neglect, no.

Character

Character (or personality) combines many principles of effective business communication. Character also applies to fiction writing too, but in a different way.

In business writing, character closely resembles courtesy, but on a broader scale. The character of business communication reveals what the writer thinks about the needs, wants and interests of the readers. 

In fiction, writers need to watch that their protagonist remains “in character” and doesn’t suddenly behave in a way that confuses the reader.  I often run across this writing problem when I judge stories submitted by beginning writers.  In an effort to be entertaining and exciting, the budding author writes scenes where professional people are swearing and fighting, throwing punches and using language that’s completely out of character for them.  I believe a master of creating and maintaining character consistency was Robert B. Parker: Spencer never behaves out of character.

Conclusion

Some experts believe writers should spend their writing time as follows:

   25% planning

   25% writing  

   45% editing and revising

   5% proofreading

Until careful adherence to these Seven Cs becomes habitual, you should use much of that 45% revision time to guarantee that your writing is clear, concrete, concise … etc.  Your readers and editors will thank you for it.

Respectfully submitted,
Ann Gordon
October 2011

© 2011 Gordon Computer LLC

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