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What it concentrates on are those principles and practices which can appropriately be covered in an intensive workshop course. It is to be used for outside study to augment workshop discussions and assignments. And it may be used as a guide for continuing self-development back on the job.
Can writing skill be acquired?
We must get rid of the notion that one either has the “talent” to write or he hasn't—and that if he hasn't, there is little to be done about it.
True, the person who does creative writing—who writes novels, essays, poetry, and the like—must have some special aptitude for this kind of work.
But the kind of writing required of the Government worker is different. It is utilitarian—meant to accomplish a specific purpose. It is simply a substitute for a face-to-face or telephone communication with another person about official matters.
The skill to do this kind of writing—and to do it well—can be acquired. Indeed, if the Revenue employee is to do his present job effectively and if he has an ambition for a higher level job, it is essential that he develop the ability to write clearly and convincingly and to appraise analytically the writing other people do.
For if there is one thing we have learned in the Internal Revenue Service, it is that we are in the communication business as well as in the tax business—that they are inseparable. Virtually every assignment of significance requires us to communicate—orally and in writing. And our success depends significantly on how well we do both.
Settings Goals and Standards
This chapter is in two parts. The first lists some important points for you to consider before you tackle the job of improving your writing. The second describes the standards which letters, memorandums and reports must meet to be effective.
How you "do" them depends on how you "view" them
First, check your attitude toward the writing your job requires of you.
Do you see it as an important part of your work—the end product which represents the work you have done and which gives the receiver essential information?
Or do you see it as a disagreeable (and perhaps unnecessary) chore to be performed after you have completed your "real work”?
Do you see it primarily as a means of documenting the facts you have uncovered, the sections of the law or regulations you've identified as being pertinent, and the internal policies you've been careful to follow?
Or do you see it primarily as a "communication" by which you try to give the receiver the specific information he needs and wants—to get it across to him clearly and convincingly—so he can make the decision or take the action required?
THE WAY YOU SEE THEM MAKES A DIFFERENCE!
The Revenue employee who recognizes that the written “end-product” of his work is vitally important to him and to the Service—and who sees it as a "communication”—is well on his way to turning out an effective written document.
Writing is thought made visible
Clear writing is impossible without clear thinking for the simple reason that writing IS thinking made visible. In his book Thinking Straight, Monroe Beardsley has this to say:
For the most part we do our thinking in a medium. For a physical scientist, this medium may consist of mathematical symbols; but for most of us, it consists of words. We think in a language.
Maybe there is such a thing as nonlinguistic thinking—there may be hunches and sudden insights that come to us first as a vague idea that has to be put into words and we may have to grope a little for the words we want. But an idea does not grow into a full-fledged thought, a theory, a proposal or a plan, until it is formulated into words. We cannot be sure it is clear, for it is not ready to be critically examined until we verbalize it in
some way." As you think through the message which your official responsibility requires you to transmit to others, you think in words. Then you face the task of capturing those words on paper. Often you face the further task of translating them into other words which the reader is more likely to understand than the ones you have used to think with. For those you think with are part of your technical training, part of your specialized knowledge—and not words that an employee in another functional area or the "lay taxpayer" knows or is accustomed to thinking with.
The ability to use words—to think with and to communicate withis one of the most essential tools you have in carrying out your job.
Many of us shy away from the job of writing because we are somewhat reluctant to discipline our thoughts—to order them so they are ready to be communicated. Often it is not the writing itself that bothers us, but the disciplined effort required to plan what we are to communicate and to check what we have written to be sure it carries out that plan.
Writing is hard work because thinking is hard work! Dr. Linton frequently says in his lectures, “If the writer doesn't sweat, the reader will!” He's right. And when the writer is paid for transacting official business by means of his written communication, the burden of communication is clearly on his shoulders. He, not the recipient, should do the sweating.
2 Monroe C. Beardsley, THINKING STRAIGHT: Principles of Reasoning for Readers and Writers, 2nd Edition, (C) 1956. Reprinted by permission of PrenticeHall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Happily, as the writer works to sharpen his writing he also sharpens his thought processes. Thus he gains as much as his reader.
Learn to examine writing critically
Not all of us have developed this essential ability. In Effective Revenue Writing 2 (the course which the Service contracted with Dr. Calvin Linton to write), Dr. Linton has said:
The ability to diagnose and criticize your own writing is a necessary but rare ability. At best, the average writer can tell when his writing is not effective but precisely what ails it he does not know. At worst, of course, poor writing occasions no self-doubt in the writer's mind at all. ...
Over the years your writing has fallen into certain patterns; has developed stylistic traits of which you are yourself probably unaware. Only by a real effort can you see your writing as it is, not as you rather assume it is.
This takes, first of all, character and the desire to do even better a job which you already may be doing reasonably well. It takes, too, a willingness to admit that your writing, though perhaps good, can and perhaps should be much better. And that is a very personal matter. It is as if we ourselves were to admit that our personalities, our thinking and our judgment are less than they should be.
To diagnose your writing you need1) some knowledge of the theory or the writing principles on which good
writing depends. Here the goal is not “by-the-book” correctness, but functional effectiveness.
2) skill in spotting words, sentences, and paragraphs that do not get
their message across and equal skill in determining why they do not and what to do about it.
Identifying bad writing habits is, of course, only the first step—the second is replacing them with good writing habits by conscious effort in applying the principles that will bring about improvement.
Only the writer can improve his writing
No one can really be “taught” to write effectively (he can, of course, be taught to write correctly—to make subjects agree with verbs, to use "who" and "whom” properly). Others can counsel and guide him, call his attention to his writing strengths and weaknesses, and recommend