Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Without going into detail, they are a series of almost 1,000 ancient biblical texts. Biblical scholars have been putting together pieces of the text with advanced microscopes and computers to ascertain their meaning, almost like the puzzle-like scraps of paper shown in the image to the left.
Many authors have the same problem with their writing. I especially see this in literature reviews of scholarly journals, but in real life the consequences are even more direct. Take a good look at your writing. Do your readers have to piece the logic of your writing together as if it were a puzzle? I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about.
In the summer of 2005, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work for Robert Goodwin, Esq. At his law firm I got a firsthand look at family law, and working for an honest person renewed my faith that there are indeed good lawyers out there. During one of his cases, I believe child-custody case, I noticed a document written by a social worker. Years later, I cannot recall what the document said, but to be honest I probably would not have remembered the next day either.
The document was written so poorly that it was difficult to make out what the social worker’s opinion was, let alone the facts that supported that opinion. This is a real shame because the child’s welfare was directly in the hands of this man or woman. I wonder if Mr. Goodwin could even use that document in court. Ridden with ambiguity, poor writing might have put that child in the hands of the wrong parent.
If you work directly with clients and your position involves any kind of writing–even something as simple as case notes–remember that every single word matters. I have worked in high-pressure, nonprofit environments in which it was difficult to enter case notes in a timely and clear manner. It was also tempting to rush through e-mails, faxes, or letters. But those types of written correspondence affected my clients’ livelihood.
If you aren’t sure if your writing is clear, go through the free lessons on this Web site. There are lessons specifically on clarity and avoiding ambiguity. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll respond so that everyone can benefit from the information. Best wishes with your own writing and your work with clients.