Effective government writing is really no different from effective writing in any other professional setting. It is writing that gets its message across to the reader while conveying an overall impression of authority, thoroughness, reliability and care. It contributes significantly to how you as a government employee come across to the people you work with and for.
Make it your goal to write everything you writefrom e-mail to policy recommendationsso that it is characterized by the following attributes.
Everything you write must have a purpose that is clear both to you and to the intended reader. Purposeful writing is useful; it may solve a problem, answer the reader's questions, advance the goals of your organization in some way, result in a desired outcomeor do several of these things at the same time. In government, you are never writing simply to express yourself or for no purpose whatsoever. If that is what a writing task feels like, you need to do more thinking about what your purpose is.
Much of what students write at university really has no audience (and often a vague purpose). The result is that inexperienced writers often haven't noticed the difference between, say, writing an essay and writing a proposal. The latter must make an impact on its reader; to do that it must be written with the reader's needs in mind. Writing for your intended reader, rather than for yourself, is the biggest improvement you can make as a writer.
Your goal in writing is always to convey your meaning in a way that your reader can understand easily. Clear writing is a product of effective thinking, planning, language use and organization. In government (and everywhere else, in fact), clear writing saves time, money and effort. It is essential to achieving an organization's goals. On the other hand, unclear writing takes more time to read and figure out, invites irritation and confusion, and wastes huge amounts of time (and, of course, money).
Concise documents are as long as they have to be to achieve their purposeand not a word longer. Nothing is more disrespectful of readers than expecting them to plow through pages of poorly organized, wordy, unfocused writing and to try to locate the meaning themselves. Conciseness represents work on the part of the writerthe work of planning, organizing, choosing an appropriate design, revising, and editing so that readers optimize the time and effort they put into a document.
In all situations where you are responsible for conveying information, you must record your facts carefully, check any that seem questionable and be prepared to stand behind anything you write. Inaccuracies can be expensive, annoying or simply confusing. They can of course also hurt your reputation as an employee.
Often, a government document is intended as the basis for action. A recommendation report, or even a memo, may request action on the part of the reader. In these, and all cases, it is crucial that readers have all the information they need. A complete document includes necessary background information for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject. It contains sufficient detail or analysis, and it provides clear references to any additional information or includes it as appendices.
All communications in the public sector must be honest, fair and unbiased. These are the minimal ethical expectations of everything you write. Readers should be able to judge your argument on its merits; omitting information, overstating facts, understating the significance of objections, slanting the way information is presentedall will lead your reader to question the reliability of the entire document. Effective government writing must always be clear and well organized, but must also always be fair, reasonable and honest.
Situated Within Its Strategic Context
All language occurs within and is shaped by its context. In government, the context is usually strategic; that is, it relates to the goals and objectives of the organization. Make sure readers know how a topic looks in its full strategic context: for example, what other topics, policies, decisions it relates to; what relevant background influences the current status; what plans affect how it will look in the future. Ask yourself: What additional information does my reader need in order to have the full picture?
Designed for Readability
A well-designed, professional-looking document achieves a number of purposes that are important to government communications. First, it is more likely to be read, which is the first step in achieving a document's purpose. Second, it helps readers understand, by enhancing the clarity of the writing itself. Third, it conveys a tone of professionalism, which helps relations between writer and reader.
Government workplaces can sometimes seem unreasonably busy and the writing demands impossible to meet. However, much information can be thought of as having a "best-before" date. Reports that are finally written months after they were expected can leave readers feeling that they're wasting their time. Delays in getting documents out can have more serious repercussionsdecisions may be delayed, critical information may be left out of decision making, or others in the organization may resent the delay. Make sure the documents you are responsible for are completed by their due date.
The documents produced in government workplaces reflect the professionalism, care and authority of their writers. As a result, they should always observe the standard conventions of grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage. While some errors are clearly more serious than others (those that interfere with meaning are the worst), all errors invite readers to conclude that you are careless, and interfere with the message that you want to get across. As a result, the document will not achieve its purpose, and readers could well conclude that you are incompetent and unprofessional. Review the description of Language Usage Essentials and consult LBH about any of these that you're not sure you understand.