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steps he can take to improve his skill. But only he—through disciplined, conscious effort and practice—can order his thoughts and present them clearly, logically, and convincingly to the reader.
Standards for Effective Written Communications
How can "effectiveness" be measured?
In reviewing your own or someone else's writing, how do you measure its effectiveness? What standards do, or should, you use?
The principal standard, of course, is whether you think it can be relied on to do well the job it is being sent out to do—whether it will accomplish its objective and will represent the Service properly.
Indeed, whenever you or anyone else initials or signs a written com-. munication, you are saying, “I predict that this communication will do its job in, at least, an acceptable way.” If you can't make that kind of prediction, you shouldn't send it out.
You base your prediction on your experience with similar communications and, especially, on your experience in communicating with people (orally and in writing) on similar subjects and in similar situations.
What kinds of jobs must communications do?
Most, if not all, of our written communications must accomplish one or more of the following:
1. give information (or request it)
decision or take an action)
whoever must use the file document with information, instructions, or justifications)
What characterizes communications that “do their jobs"?
Judgment is required in applying the general standard referred to in the first paragraph under “How can effectiveness' be measured?” Some specifics are necessary on which to base this judgment.
It is foolhardy, however, to try to come up with any set formulawith any criteria that communications must meet—which will ensure the communication of thoughts and ideas from one mind to another. The communication process is too difficult and too imprecise to be dealt with in such a simple way.
The best we can do is profit from our own experience in communicating with other people and from the experience of those who have made a study of communication—especially how best to communicate using the written word.
This experience shows that written communications are most likely to succeed when:
1. they are receiver-centered, that is:
• when they are responsive—when the writer speaks directly
to the receiver's situation or problem and relates general information to it
• when the writer gives the receiver only the information he
needs or wants instead of “throwing the book” at him and
leaving to him the hard job of extracting what he needs 2. they are organized or arranged to make it easy for the receiver
to get his answer and to follow the writer's thinking 3. they are expressed simply and clearly as messages between
people (person-to-person messages, not station-to-station)when the writing style does not call attention to itself and
get in the way of communication 4. they reflect the appropriate attitude on the part of the writer
to the situation-courteous, helpful, and reasonable, even
when the situation requires firmness and objectivity. In measuring the effectiveness of communications, then, we judge them by:
Is the style direct and natural—appropriately
These standards are used in appraising letters during the workshop course.
In addition, to make it easier to identify specific strengths and weaknesses of the letters being appraised, we also use the following more detailed checklist:
Writing Appraisal Chart
1. Is it COMPLETE?
a) Does it give all the necessary information?
c) Does it give additional information the reader needs?
a) Is the information correct?
Do paragraphs clearly reflect this development? b) Is the sentence structure clear?
Are there any constructions that are ambiguous? c) Are sentences short enough for ease in reading? d) Have connectives been chosen to show correct relation
ships between ideas?
(Technical language? abbreviations?)
a) Does it contain only essential facts?
b) Are ideas expressed in the fewest words consistent with
clarity, completeness, and courtesy? c) Have unnecessary repetitions and "wind-ups” been
omitted? d) Has unnecessary quoting from regulations been omitted? e) Has detailed information concerning the routing of the
document through the various organizations of the
Service been omitted?
a) Is the tone calculated to bring about the desired response?
words with an unpleasant connotation? c) Is it free from hackneyed or stilted phrases which may
amuse or irritate the reader? d) Will the tone reflect favorably on the Service? 6. Is it NEAT, with GOOD MARGINS and CLEAR, CLEAN
SUMMARY: How effective is the communication?
Can ALL writing meet ALL these standards?
We have to deal with the reality that not all our writing will meet every standard fully and that workload will not permit us to polish every document to the point of perfection.
At the same time, we must avoid letting substandard writing go out just because, as we say, “We have to get the work out.” We must face the fact that getting the work OUT does not necessarily result in getting the work DONE! Repeat correspondence in our files testifies to that point.
Approving a communication that is not fully acceptable adds up to taking a calculated risk. This means that we must use good judgment in determining in what specific ways the writing falls short and what effect its shortcomings will have on accomplishing its purpose and on our relations with the receiver.
Two standards must be met, to the best of our ability, in every written document:
CORRECTNESS – All communications must be correct—no
question about that. APPROPRIATE – All communications must be courteous and TONE
appropriate for the situation.
Other standards must be met, at least to some extent:
The writing must be COMPLETE to the extent that it is RESPONSIVE; that all important points are covered.
It must make unmistakably CLEAR to the receiver, at a minimum, key points in explanations and instructions.
It must be CONCISE to the extent that conciseness is critical to clarity and to tone.
It's possible, however, that some writing may be approved (with the notation that “next time” certain improvements should be made) if they:
Are too complete_contain more information than the receiver needs, but not so much as to confuse him.
Have some sentences which are not crystal clear, provided that key points are clear and that, in context, the sentences will not be roadblocks to clarity.
Are not so CONCISE as they should be in terms of economy or the style we're working toward, Another reality we must face is that people will differ in their judgment of whether the writing is clear, concise, and appropriate in tone.
The originator is so close to the writing that it is harder for him to read it in terms of the way it will affect the receiver than for another to do so.
Of the three, APPROPRIATE TONE is the standard on which it is most difficult to get understanding and agreement. It is therefore one of the hardest standards for the writer to meet. It comes closest to revealing how the writer sees the recipient, how sensitive he is to language and its impact on people, and how he thinks the specific situation should be handled.
All written communications are, and should be, judged critically on tone. Those judged most critically are replies to what we might call “complaint letters.” In them, we must deal with emotional reactions fully as effectively as we deal with the facts in the case. Tone is all-important here. Even a word or two, thoughtlessly or unwisely used, may require the document to be rewritten.
The "Acceptability Scale"
Facing the reality that not all written communications will meet every standard fully, we appraise writing in the workshops (as they are appraised on the job) in terms of an “acceptability scale.”
At one end of the scale are documents which are clearly unsatisfactory