Book review: Words to Live By

Derek Knights
Monday January 02, 2017
Written by Derek Knights
As our world and our businesses grow more complex, our writing must reflect this and help make them more understandable.

Good writing still needs to come from good writers. Earlier this year, I wrote mini-reviews of four books on business and report writing and I’ve made it my mission to keep doing this.

This is my tale: I thought I was a great report-writer because I’d being doing it so long. But at age 40 and writing reports for more than 20 years, I found myself with a tutor to teach me business writing. You see, my boss (and her bosses) weren’t as impressed with my writing as I was.

Developing good writers on your staff is important, but it might be more difficult than you think. Two psychologists studied what they call the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which demonstrates that about half of any group will overestimate their abilities in various tasks, sometimes significantly. They think they write well, because they can’t recognize what they’re doing wrong, and you will be hard-pressed to convince them otherwise. Studies in the U.S. and Canada show roughly 40 per cent of the population score less than 3 (out of 5) on literacy skills, including 20 per cent of university graduates. So, probably half your employees think they write better than they do, and almost half have unsatisfactory literacy skills.

Look carefully at your employees (and yourself), then look at this book: “Writing Without Bullsh*t: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean,” by Josh Bernoff, HarperBusiness, 2016, ISBN: 978-0062477156. Bernoff cuts through the bull early in this terrific new book, and boils writing down to the basics. He introduces the term Iron Imperative: you must treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. Three early chapters in his book are about change: Change Your Perspective, Change What You Write, and Change How You Write. Those three chapters should be required reading for every security manager.

Most large organizations will have a “style guide” so, in theory, people writing on its behalf are consistent. If you have one, use it. If you don’t have one, make one. Bill Walsh is the copy editor for the Washington Post, so it’s his job to enforce consistency and he has written three books you will find helpful.  And they’re funny.

Mr. Walsh writes concisely, though not necessarily in his titles:

•     Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print — and How to Avoid Them, McGraw Hill, 2000, ISBN:978-0809225354

•     The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, McGraw Hill, 2004, ISBN:978-0071422680

•     Yes, I Could Care Less: How To Be A Language Snob Without Being A Jerk, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, ISBN:978-1250006639

A copy editor’s responsibility starts with ensuring that if it’s “online” the first time you write it, it doesn’t become “on line” or “on-line” later in the article, newspaper or book. And that’s just where it starts.  If the copy editor is the publishing world’s traffic cop, then the “style guide” is its list of laws and regulations. Readers notice things; if your spelling and word use indicates you wrote haphazardly, then your reader will read it that way. If you don’t care, why should they?

Most people know that spell-check (spellcheck?) has limitations; so do all the other technology-based solutions. For reports or proposals, nothing beats a literate employee who knows how to write and cares about it — and they are made, not born.    


Derek Knights, CPP, CISSP, CFE CIPP/C, PCI, is the senior manager, strategic initiatives, global security and investigations, at the TD Bank Group (www.tdbank.com).

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