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Becoming a better writer can advance your career

It may surprise many safety professionals but one of the simplest things you can do to advance your career is to become a better writer. Being a good writer requires you to master two competencies; the first is the ability to understand the technical language of safety; the second is being able to express that knowledge in a clear, concise and coherent manner.

We all know safety is both an art and a science. It is in fact one of the more multi-disciplinary areas of study for any professional to enter. While the major focus for many safety professionals has been on the “art” of safety, strong writing skills in the safety profession are not common. The current standard for safety certification in Canada is the Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) designation awarded by the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals (BCRSP). Twenty years ago the examination was a written essay format. In its current format, a candidate can pass an examination without ever having to write a single word.

Safety professionals are required to write many documents, including policies and procedures as well as inspection, incident investigation and audit reports. Submitting such reports to the senior leadership team with grammatical or other typographical errors not only makes you look bad, it makes the whole safety department and safety profession look bad.

In my 20 years of university teaching, the most common mistakes I have seen are run-on sentences, pronoun errors and mistakes with apostrophe usage. The classic mistake is simply using the wrong words with the wrong meaning, the worst of which include not using the right form of the following words: affect versus effect; complement versus compliment; principal and principle;  to, too and two; their, there and they’re; and your and you’re.

It is important the breadth of writing skills is developed to allow you to write for any audience, including the CEO, vice-president, managers and front-line employees.

Here are my top 10 suggestions for becoming a better writer:

Develop your reading skills:

Read the newspaper, safety publications, journals and books — the best writers are prolific readers. Reading helps you develop your writing skills by example. By repeatedly seeing the correct use of language, your writing will improve.

Take a free online course:

There are numerous good quality courses available online for free. They range in complexity and difficulty. Take a look at KhanAcademy, Coursera and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare.

Enrol in classes or a formal program at a college or university:

Most universities and community colleges offer courses as well as full- and part-time programs in technical and business communication. Most offer a full certificate and many of these are available online. Some online courses may even be free.

Use a dictionary and thesaurus:

Sound technical writing involves being precise with words, language and information — it’s as simple as that. Every good writer regularly accesses both a dictionary and thesaurus to make sure the word choices are correct and optimized to increase reader understanding.

Buy a good desk reference on technical writing:

The more informed you are about the field of technical communication, the better a technical writer you will be. A good desk reference will teach you about technical writing styles and the different types of technical writing.

Keep sentences and paragraphs short:

The mechanics of technical writing are important. A good rule is to keep sentences to 10 words or less. Using shorter sentences forces the writer to think through the message before writing. Keeping paragraphs to 10 sentences or less is also a good practice. Both of these strategies will increase reader understanding, which is the overall goal.

Use present tense and avoid jargon:

These two rules are important for conveying ideas clearly. Remember that the audience will have a range of reading comprehension levels. Use the present tense where you can and avoid the use of jargon that requires local knowledge of colloquialisms like “Easy as pie” or “Where the rubber meets the road.” These concepts do not translate across other languages or cultures.

Look for simplicity:

Safety can be a technical subject and sometimes safety professionals find it difficult to communicate their technical knowledge to audiences that have less technical backgrounds. For example, safety professionals have to write inspection, investigation and audit reports and convey essential technical details to senior management. This can be a challenge if the managers don’t understand all the safety technology and terminology. A great skill is the ability to strip away the complexity of occupational health and safety management systems and present the ideas in a way that everyone can understand, with minimum effort.

Keep a notebook of your mistakes:

When you get feedback from your colleagues who review your draft documents, make notes of your errors and use this to create a “Tips list.” By compiling a list of errors and formally making note of them it is unlikely they will be repeated.

Offer to review colleagues’ technical writing:

Every written document undergoes some form of review before it is finalized. Offer to be part of the review team. This takes time and can be hard work but it will sharpen your eye for detail. Also, it provides exposure to the styles and nuances of the various types of technical writing.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of COS.

Glyn Jones

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships in Calgary and the regional vice-president of Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut for the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He also provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs. He can be reached at gjones@ehsp.ca.
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