Writing for the Reader


by Silver Donald Cameron

Editorial Guidelines
for the
Canadian Parks Service
Atlantic Region

 

1. AN OVERVIEW: WRITING FOR THE READER

Speaking with one voice

A prince once asked Confucius the first thing he should do as the ruler of a nation.

"Rectify words and correct language," said Confucius.

Without clear and accurate language, explained the sage, the things which should be done are left undone. Things fall apart. Eventually morals and law deteriorate, and "the people are lost."

Extravagant? Perhaps -- but we can all remember occasions when things went horribly wrong because someone failed to communicate clearly. And that is the whole purpose of writing: to communicate.

The Canadian Parks Service produces vast amounts of written material every year. Some of it communicates well, some not so well. In the past, some of our publications have lacked focus, while others were directed towards the wrong audience.

Writing is a highly sophisticated skill, and CPS managers should normally contract the work to professional writers. On occasion, however, CPS employees may need to generate visitor publications themselves. These Guidelines are intended to assist writers of both kinds to keep our publications consistent from one site to another, helping the public to see our parks as a unified system which offers the same high level of service in every individual location.

 

What we write -- and why

The visitor publications of the Canadian Parks Service serve three basic functions: marketing; interpretation and education; and operations.

These are not tidy, watertight categories. Many publications serve two of these functions, and occasionally a publication will serve all three. But when we study the specific requirements of these three functions, we can see that each has its own appropriate tone and style of writing.

With a little further thought, we can see that the difference lies in the response we want to evoke from the reader. Communication, after all, is a two-way process. One person sends out a message, and another receives it. Good writers never forget that their work is aimed at a reader -- and if the reader fails to grasp its meaning, the writer has failed.

Every piece of good writing aims to have an effect of some kind on a reader.

    * "Marketing" publications aim to influence the reader.

    * Educational writing is intended to enlarge the reader's understanding.

    * Operational writing informs the reader about facts and policies.
 

We will discuss these differences in more detail later. Right now, let us review the qualities they share with almost all good contemporary writing.

 

Before we write

The first thing a good writer does is not to write, but to think about three issues.

    * First, who will read this?

    * Second, how do I want to affect that person?

    * Third, how will I organize and present my material in order to achieve that effect?
 

If you are a scholar or a scientist writing in a professional journal, you can assume that your readers know all the technical terms of your discipline, and can follow all the common procedures. You can pepper your text with graphs and equations and write whatever you like about "morphology" and "etiology" and necromancy." If you are writing a note to remind your seven-year-old about her karate class, on the other hand, you will -- without even thinking about it -- choose a very different sentence structure and vocabulary.

The publications of the Canadian Parks Service fall somewhere between these extremes. Our readers are certainly literate, and they are probably adults with a reasonable general-purpose vocabulary and some interest in our subject -- but they are not usually specialists or experts. Usually the reader will be a current or potential visitor to one of our parks. The more accurate and detailed a reader profile we can develop, the more precisely we can direct our writing towards that particular reader.

This tightly-focussed approach to a specific readership is exemplified in magazines like National Geographic and Readers Digest. If you read these magazines as a writer, trying to see how their writers accomplish their effects, you'll immediately see how carefully their articles are directed towards their readers. Vocabulary, story structure, syntax, imagery, detail – every aspect of every article is matched to the interests, understanding and reading level of the magazine's chosen reader. Because these magazines aim for a readership which is probably very like the Canadian Parks Service constituency, their articles provide appropriate models for our own publications.

Always observe one cardinal rule: treat the reader with respect. At one level this is simply common courtesy, but there are sound pragmatic reasons as well. Everyone, after all, is pleased by flattery. If you treat readers as though they were a little more intelligent and well-informed than they are, they will admire your perceptiveness and pay attention; if you talk down to them, they will resent your pretensions and stop reading. Again, if you assume that readers are mature, intelligent, responsible people, you greatly increase the chances that they will actually behave that way -- which will make life more pleasant for everyone in the park.

Next, how do we want the reader to react? Are we trying to persuade parents to bring chidren to our park, or are we hoping to convince visitors to stay longer or come at a more convenient time? Do we want to help them understand the importance of our exhibits? Or is our goal simply to acquaint them with the park's rules and procedures?

Suppose our subject is dunes. If we want to inform and enlighten, we might start our piece by observing that dunes are unique, restless landforms which may wander around the landscape, disturbing everyone's plans. If we want to stress the fragility of dune ecology, we could entitle our pamphlet The Delicate Dunes. If we are seriously worried about dune erosion, we may choose to be blunt: our first sentence might be, "When you visit the dunes, please stay on the boardwalk."

The character of the reader. The desired effect. The presentation.

When we understand those three things, we are ready to write.

 

Planning the piece

Try to capture the essential theme of your text in a single sentence.

     To see the most interesting features of this park, you have to go on foot.
Or:
     Nobody can gain a decent appreciation of the Fortress of Louisbourg in less than a day.
Or:
     The natural phenomena of Fundy National Park are unique in the world.

When you have isolated your theme, you have an invaluable yardstick. You can hold any sentence, paragraph or image up to that yardstick and decide whether it helps to convey or amplify your theme, or not. If not, scrap it.

Create some kind of map of the piece before you start. Many writers use a point-form outline. Don't spend a lot of time on this – you'll be changing it as you write anyway – but do make some kind of road map, however sketchy and provisional. Professional writers often don't bother with written outlines; like competent mathematicians, they can figure it out in their heads. But they've had years of practice.

If you're not a professional, you'll probably find a written outline very useful. One way or another, you have to determine where you'll start, what points you need to cover and in roughly what order, and where you'll end. The Delicate Dunes, for example, might have an outline like this:

Statement of theme
How dunes develop
     - sources of sediment
     - action of wind and waves
     - what stops the sand: marram grass, flotsam etc.
The ecology of dunes
     - how the beach protects the shoreline
     - how the beach uses dunes
     - vital importance of plants
     - animal life, including birds
Threats to dunes
     - beach mining
     - construction
     - heavy foot traffic
What you can do -- and what you should not do
Restatement of theme as conclusion

 

Drafting the piece

Once you have your outline, you're ready to start writing.

So begin – at the end. Start with your conclusion.

Your conclusion is your destination. By stating it clearly at the outset, you establish your purpose and direction immediately. Don't make your reader puzzle over your purpose. You have already captured your theme in a single sentence: now let the reader know, right away, what that theme is. You'll re-state the conclusion again at the end, where it belongs. But it also belongs at the beginning, encapsulated in a story, an image or a succinct opening sentence which will capture the attention of readers and let them know exactly where you are going.

Look at the Confucius story which introduced these guidelines. That little story captures your attention: you weren't expecting a story, particularly one about Confucius.

The story goes on to tell you at least four things. First, the story reveals that we will be discussing language, and that the proper use of language is vitally important: that is our major theme. Second, it contends that poor communication has serious public consequences. (We know that the readers of these guidelines are government employees, and this is an important point for writers in a government agency to understand.) Third, the piece may use unexpected references and examples in order to keep the reader alert and interested. Fourth, the parks service does not look only to European traditions for its insights.

Write your first draft quickly. Sketch out its structure in big bold strokes; don't get bogged down in details. You're going to re-write it anyway, and you'll find it's always much easier to edit an existing text than to create one from scratch. What you need at this stage is really just an amplified outline.

As you go, you can mark points that need attention. One professional writer inserts this symbol -- [**??] -- in his drafts to indicate points that need work. When he rewrites, he uses the search function of his word- processor to find the double asterisks which will lead him from one problem area to the next.

As you write, keep your objective and your reader constantly in mind. Is your work clear? Is the argument moving towards your chosen conclusion? Does this fact have to do with the formation of dunes, or would it be better to use it later, when you talk about their ecology?

Be simple. Use short, uncluttered sentences. (When you feel your short sentences are beginning to feel choppy and monotonous, however, insert a long sentence, like this one, to vary the rhythm.) Choose concrete words rather than abstract ones. Don't say "inorganic materials" and "resource management regulatory officials." Say "rocks and cobbles" and "fisheries officers."

Try reading your work aloud. In some mysterious way, the written word rings like speech in the reader's interior "ear." If you find a sentence awkward to say, it will probably look awkward on the page. If it sounds stuffy and stilted, it will come across to the reader that way, too.

Good writing, by contrast, begs to be heard. "Listen to this," says a wife to her husband, laughing over a particularly delicious passage from the book she's reading in bed. She doesn't hand him the book: she reads the passage aloud.

Avoid the passive voice except in desperate emergencies. Because they express action, verbs are the most powerful words in our language; the passive voice robs them of their impact. "The waves sweep sand up the beach" is vivid and pictorial. "Sand is carried up the beach" is flabby and vague, and open to misunderstanding. The sentence contains no actor and no action. Who carried the sand? The waves, the wind, or the kid with the plastic bucket?

Look for illuminating images. The foam spilling down the front of the breaking waves may remind you of lace on the front of a blouse; a saucy chattering bird may resemble a television huckster. Use those insights: they will help readers to visualize exactly what you want them to see. Don't be afraid to sound silly. You can always remove the image later on.

In your first draft, above all, don't worry about being "correct." Correcting is easy, but creation is a fragile, easily-inhibited process. Forget about your critics, your supervisor, your high-school English teacher. Right now, concentrate on communicating your meaning and, if appropriate, your enthusiasm -- your fascination with your subject, your concern for the park environment, your desire to see more schools making use of the park for field trips. That elusive quality of enthusiasm is the engine that will drive your piece. If you don't catch it in your first draft, you won't be able to graft it on later.

 

The first rewrite

"The first rewrite?" groans the apprentice. "I've never rewritten anything before in my life."

Amazing. You wouldn't expect to get a paint job right in one coat or develop a perfect golf swing your first day on the course. Why should you expect to do something far more sophisticated without at least the same amount of effort? Why do so many people think that writing, unlike any other complex skill, can be mastered without practice, and made perfect without polishing? Dr. Samuel Johnson, who created the first English dictionary, put the point precisely.

"What was writ without pains," said Johnson, "is commonly read without pleasure."

Not only are you going to do at least two rewrites; you're also going to seek criticism. Choose someone who loves you -- or at least respects you -- and show that person what you've written. You want a kind but honest critic who will show you your foolish mistakes without making you feel foolish. Ask whether your piece is clear and logical, and whether there's anything ambiguous in it. Ask them to look for anything which might be confusing or irrelevant.

This is not just masochism. You know your subject well, but your reader generally does not. Phrases and concepts which are perfectly clear to you may throw other readers completely off the track. Earlier in these guidelines we said, “We know that the readers of these guidelines are government employees...” In our first draft, that sentence read “We know that our readers are government employees...” A sharp-eyed manager noticed an ambiguity: did "our readers" mean readers of these guidelines, or readers of CPS publications? Good point. So we changed the sentence to make it that little bit clearer.

Don't be inhibited by half-remembered half-valid "rules" from high school. Never split an infinitive. It's preferable not to split them, but sometimes it's impossible to really convey your meaning without splitting them – as we just did, earlier in this sentence. Did you notice? Would it have been better to say "really to convey" or "to convey really?" Those phrasings are be utterly "correct," but they're unspeakably clumsy. If you must split an infinitive, split it -- or re-cast the sentence, provided you don't lose force and meaning.

Never end a sentence with a preposition. Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have called this a form of pedantry "up with which I will not put." Sometimes a preposition is exactly the right word to end a sentence with.

Every sentence has a subject and a verb. Nonsense. Sentence fragments are a common feature of modern prose, which closely echoes the conventions

of modern speech; they imitate the jump-cuts and discontinuities familiar to us from advertising, the electronic media and the discordant, kaleidoscopic quality of contemporary life.

The main rule -- if there is one -- is that spoken English constantly changes, and from time to time the principles of good writing must also change to reflect current usage. In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge announced they would henceforth write poetry "in a selection of the language actually used by men." They were reviled by academicians and grammarians, but the new language of poetry gave us Wordsworth's glorious sonnets and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A similar revolution in the early twentieth century gave us the poetry of T.S. Eliot and the novels of Ernest Hemingway.

So follow the old rules when they work -- but be willing to break them when your text requires it. Break any rule to avoid writing something pompous, obscure or barbarous.

In your first rewrite, look especially closely at the structure of your piece -- at the logic of the argument, and the transitions which move you from one paragraph to the next. Consider the proportions of your work: have you given too much attention to the minor details and not enough to the main issues? Did you start in the right place? Would the piece be improved if you simply removed the first paragraph or two? (Don't laugh: in many writers' work, the first few paragraphs are merely warm-ups and wind sprints, and the real action begins somewhat later.)

Pay particularly close attention to your lead and your conclusion. The lead is absolutely vital. Readers have plenty of other things to do, and the lead has to seize their attention, draw them into your piece, compel them to read it immediately. And the conclusion is literally the last word, the passage that will reverberate in their minds. Make it memorable, and be sure it reinforces that core theme which you set forth in a single sentence before you ever began to write.

 

The second rewrite

The real object of the second rewrite is to polish and tighten your piece, to do the fine-tuning which remains after re-organizing. By now, your piece should have a clear argument, suitable proportions, smooth transitions and a strong overture and finale. But even after a first serious revision, most writers' work remains wordy and unpolished. Once again, show your work to someone else. It should be clear and well- organized, but some obscurities or ambiguities may have crept in during your re-writing. Ask your friendly critic to look for passages which are verbose or awkward -- and to be alert, once more, for anything which remains unclear.

Look once again for any unfamiliar or technical terms which may cause readers to stumble. If you have to use such terms, include discreet, diplomatic explanations. Slip the explanation into your text the first time the term occurs. The jellyfish, you may say, is in hydrostatic equilibrium: since the water presses equally on all sides of it, the animal does not move. That doesn't sound like a lecture, but now your readers know what you mean.

And don't forget that "technical terms" include your own professional shorthand. Phrases and concepts which are commonplace in your work may still be somewhat unclear to your reader. What services, for example, does a "serviced campsite" actually offer?

The second rewrite is also the time to rid your piece of routine errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and sentence structure, all of which can change your meaning. If you aren't a good speller, run your piece through the spell-checking software on your computer. Proof-read it carefully, too, and you may avoid telling your readers that Louisbourg is liberally furnished with French widows. Look for careless errors like the confusion of "it's" (which means "it is") for "its" (which means "belonging to it.") Every dog knows it's master. Whoops: that's not what we meant.

Keep your modifiers close to the words or phrases they modify. Wanted: a kitchen stove for an old lady with four cast-iron legs creates a very remarkable old lady.

Most of the work in the second rewrite involves cutting and simplifying. Take that cumbersome, slow-moving complex sentence and break it into two simple sentences. Rid your work of needless fluff. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should pull its own weight. What you can cut, you should cut.

Strengthen weak qualifiers, changing “Denys was rather upset because his home had been essentially ruined” to “Denys was upset because his home was ruined.” Better yet, make the sentence more active: “Denys was furious at the brigands who had burned his home.” When you see the phrase "There is," you can usually find a way to shorten the sentence. “There is a story that Bigot possibly had spies... “ means “Bigot may have had spies... “

Jonathan Swift advised the writer to:

Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline...

This is painstaking work, but the results are worthwhile. You may lose some nuances, but you will strengthen the heart of your piece, which is the essential point you want to convey.

The second rewrite is also the point at which you finally confront the problem of space. This, too, is painful -- but the effort to bring your piece down from 800 words to 500 is an exceptionally valuable exercise. Out go the little digressions and the redundant adjectives. By re-shaping a sentence, you reduce it from 13 words to ten. Cutting is a chore, but it's no worse than working a crossword puzzle. And, though you may not see it at first, the whole painful experience will almost certainly improve your work.

 

Read, read, read

The best writers are voracious and discriminating readers. A wide experience of good contemporary writing will provide you with a standard – an almost instinctive "feel" for the quality of a piece of writing, including your own. Make it a habit to read non-fiction authors who write successfully for a wide public – Joan Didion, John McPhee, Harry Bruce, Barbara Amiel, George Plimpton, Walter Stewart, Norman Mailer and many others. Stretch your sense of prose style with mavericks like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. Don't forget the early masters of the North American language, like H.L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, James Thurber and Stephen Leacock.

Read popular authors in your own field of professional interest. Do you work with buildings? Try Moshe Safdie and Withold Rybczinski. Science writers might sample Lewis Thomas, Isaac Asimov, Rachel Carson, Harry Thurston. Travel writers may be particularly relevant to parks work – writers like Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Ronald Wright.

When you read as a writer, read critically. How is the writer achieving the effects which please you? Are you being affected by surprising facts, strong visual images, or the music of the words themselves? Do the characters "come alive" for you? If so, how does the writer make them so vivid? Is it the force of their thinking or the idiosyncrasies of their behaviour? Perhaps it is the sound of their voices, captured in direct quotations on the page. When you feel amusement – or rage, sympathy, horror – try to determine how the writer made you feel that way. Then try to apply those techniques to your own writing.

Reading as a writer, writing for a reader: we are back to communication, that intense two-way conversation through the page which is one of your most powerful professional instruments -- and, at its highest, one of the continuous miracles of civilized life.

 

2. MARKETING: WRITING TO SELL

We noted earlier that CPS documents fall into three main categories: marketing, interpretive and operational – and each type of reader brings a different attitude to your text. The reader of a marketing document does not, in general, want to read it; the reader of an educational or interpretive piece is willing to read it; the reader of an operations piece needs to read it.

Marketing – writing to sell – takes many forms, and much of the writing done for the Canadian Parks Service contains marketing elements. If you are writing an interpretation pamphlet, you want to make your subject as interesting as possible, so that readers will be moved to visit the site or look more carefully at the exhibit. You need to catch readers' attention, attract them to your project, change their behaviour.

That's marketing.

Who will read your marketing piece, and why? Remember, the reader of a marketing piece is an unwilling reader. Ads, flyers, brochures, direct-mail pieces -- all of us are constantly assaulted by publications imploring us to buy, subscribe, attend, contribute and support. The reader is not looking for more marketing materials to review. Indeed, most readers will be inclined to throw your piece away, unopened and unread.

One way or another, you have to seize that reader's attention right away, and make him listen to your story. In many cases, you'll catch the reader without even using words. Your piece will make its first impact visually, perhaps through a stunning colour photograph or a striking piece of graphic design. And now, while the reader is off balance, you have a chance to slip in a few -- a very few -- telling words.

Super. Natural. (An ad for British Columbia tourism.)

Are you getting the right information at the wrong time? (A memorable, very funny series of Bell Canada ads.)

Tell a person who climbs mountains you can't do it right the first time. (An ad for Cadet Uniform Services)

Each of those lines finds a way to engage the reader -- by starting a story, raising a question, or implying a promise. Each one makes you want to read on. You can help me get the right information at the right time? Your company can get it right the first time? Tell me about it. The reader is still impatient, but you've won a moment's reprieve.

Remember, the reader doesn't want to buy a product: he wants to obtain a benefit. Most consumers don't care much about engineering or design. They can't judge such features anyway. They just want to know what the product is going to do for them. The shop foreman isn't buying uniforms; he's looking for a clean, tidy-looking workforce. The sales manager couldn't care less about databases and telephone services; she wants useful information, and she wants it now.

We're more likely to be motivated by emotion than by logic, and emotions are most easily triggered by the senses. As the old advertising slogan has it, "sell the sizzle, not the steak." Make the reader see the flames and feel the heat and smell the smoke. Get him hungry, and he'll be ready to buy.

By the same token, you don't market a park and its services; you market the experience which the park was designed to deliver. Readers aren't really looking for a serviced campsite, so don't tell them about that. Instead, conjure up the tastes and sounds of eighteenth-century Louisbourg, lazy days on the hot sands of PEI, the cool wind blowing off the sun-dappled water of the Bay of Fundy.

You may have to mention some facts about the park's features and services, but keep that information back until the reader is well and truly engaged with your piece. Readers of marketing literature really don't want facts. Despite their impatience, they thirst for romance, poetry and dreams. Atlantic Canada's National Parks and Historic Sites can certainly provide those experiences -- but it's up to you to evoke them.

 

3. INTERPRETATION AND EDUCATION: WRITING TO EXPLAIN

A second form of writing which is common in the Canadian Parks Service can broadly be described as “interpretive writing." We've lured the visitor to the park; now she gazes into a glass case at a piece of rusty metal and wonders why she came. She reaches for a free brochure.

With this reader, you have already overcome a tremendous hurdle. She is already interested in what you have to say. Your assignment is to keep her interested, and to give meaning to this moment in her life.

But there's a problem: she doesn't speak your language. You both speak English, admittedly, but on the subject of your brochure you speak a professional language which she doesn't know. In effect, your writing will be a form of translation from the specialized language of the expert into the all-purpose English used by the general public. That shouldn't be unduly difficult. In every area of life except your professional work, you speak that all-purpose English yourself.

Keep that general reader before you, and remember that you are not writing for other specialists. Leave out unimportant exceptions and qualifications and details. You just want your reader to grasp your main idea.

As always, you want to seize your reader's attention immediately; you also want to move right into your story. Look for a striking fact, anecdote or paradox to use as your lead – something intrinsically interesting which is also central to your subject, perhaps something which needs to be explained. Then circle back and explain it.

Build your structure in a logical fashion, feeding the reader information as she needs it. If you're explaining a process, start with the elements of the process, and then move on to the process itself. If your subject is historical -- a great battle, for instance -- you might well start with the roots of the conflict before discussing the battle itself. When you introduce a new character, give the full name and title -- George Dunk, Earl of Halifax. Later on you can use a shortened form like "Lord Halifax."

Do everything possible to keep time sequences and relationships clear for your reader. Think of your writing as a stretch of terrain, and give your reader plenty of signposts and landmarks. And always remember your central message. Reinforce the message in a strong, clear conclusion.

As some forgotten genius is supposed to have said, "Tell your audience three times. Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em. Then tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you told 'em."

 

4. OPERATIONS: WRITING TO INFORM

Operational writing is perhaps the simplest of all. A piece of operational writing -- a poster, a flyer, a newsletter -- doesn't seek to persuade the reader. It does not represent the fruit of research, nor is it an aid to a deeper understanding of the park's purposes. It simply conveys information which visitors need to know.

Operational writing will also be the simplest of publications in terms of production. It doesn't need slick colour photography on coated paper; indeed, it may not have any illustrations at all. Your objective here is simply to deliver the unadorned facts, in a professional manner, with the minimum fuss and bother. Clarity is everything.

So be brief -- but be correct. If you use "bulletted" lists – and they are very useful in this kind of writing – be sure to use parallel grammatical structures within all the bullets. This is particularly important if the bullets are fragmentary sentences or parts of a long parallel sentence. For example:

VISITORS MUST NOT
      * PLAY RADIOS AND STEREOS AFTER 11:00
      * DRINK FROM FAUCETS NOT LABELLED "POTABLE"
      * PETS ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THE BEACH

Visitors must not play, must not drink, must not ... pets? Change the last item to "allow their pets on the beach," and the parallel structure is restored.

Another common error is the use of apologetic quotation marks to set off important words. A poster headed

"IMPORTANT NOTICE"

looks more illiterate, not more important, than one which says

IMPORTANT NOTICE

If you are doing the final printing or typing, use plenty of white space around the words to make the writing stand out.

 

5. WRITING AS DISCOVERY AND DIALOGUE

These guidelines would be incomplete without at least a few words about the deeper and more personal rewards which writing can bring to you.

As you gain skill and experience, you will find more and more satisfaction in the wrestle and play of words and their meanings. That is as it should be. Writing should not be a chore, but a pleasure.

The ability to write well is an important job skill, and a highly portable one. Managers, for instance, have to lay out the plans, articulate the policies, issue reprimands or commendations, argue for their projects. Other things being equal, the manager who can express those ideas in clear, strong English will always prevail.

And writing is ultimately a source of power and knowledge. The person who writes the minutes, the memos and the newsletters is really writing the history of the organization. The actions recorded in the minutes are remembered; the other actions are forgotten. Your written record becomes the chronicle of what was said, thought and done.

As your experience increases, you will realize that clear writing reflects clear thinking. You may sometimes discover that you can't write clearly because you don't understand your subject thoroughly. Welcome that discovery, and do some more research. You may save yourself, and your organization, from terrible embarrassment.

You will also find that the act of writing clarifies your ideas -- and sometimes the ideas themselves may surprise you. While you are going about your normal routine, your subconscious mind is always working. In the act of writing, you draw on your subconscious -- and you discover that it has remembered events, forged connections and arrived at conclusions without even having the decency to notify your conscious mind. You know more than you thought you knew -- but often it is the struggle with words which gives you access to those rich subterranean seams of understanding. That's the experience Humpty Dumpty describes in Alice in Wonderland when he asks, "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?"

If you persist with the discipline of writing until you, too, have that experience, it will make you humble, reverent and grateful. And it will make all your efforts seem worthwhile.

 

6. SEX AND OTHER OFFICIAL MATTERS: SPECIAL ISSUES FOR PARKS EMPLOYEES

In recent years, terminology has become a complex issue on many fronts. Canadians have become highly sensitive to the inherent sexism in our traditional usage, and to unspoken assumptions which are damaging to minorities, disabled persons and various other groups. Anyone writing on behalf of the Government of Canada needs to be aware of these issues, and should act appropriately.

Canada's multicultural nature is an important and pervasive concern – and if your target audience contains a substantial number of people from visible or ethnic minorities, your style and perhaps your content may have to change. As you write, try to imagine, once again, your reader – and imagine a reader who belongs to a minority. Does the language or the content of your piece make that reader feel comfortable as a part of the CPS clientele? Or have you inadvertently used words or concepts which would make such a reader feel excluded -- or, worse, unwelcome?

Acceptable usage changes very quickly in some of these fields, and on language issues the best precaution is probably to check with the Visitor Activity Section of the Atlantic Regional Office. The Section keeps in touch with sources close to the issues --the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Multiculturalism Program of the Department of the Secretary of State, the provincial and federal organizations responsible for the status of women, and similar bodies. It's their job to advise you.

 

7. THAT WHICH IS READ SHOULD BE GREEN: ENVIRONMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS

The natural environment is at the core of the Canadian Parks Service. Respect and affection for the environment is at the core of who we are, why we exist, and what we do. Just as environmental consciousness and conscience pervades our mission, so it must pervade our writing.

The Atlantic Regional Office of the Canadian Parks Service has published an Environmental Action Plan, and all our parks have instituted extensive environmental programs. You should make every effort not just to acknowledge the importance of environmental concerns, but to integrate specific environmental messages and tips into your text. Tell visitors exactly how to participate in the park's programs for composting, protecting water quality, recycling, and so on. Our objective is not merely to tell visitors that CPS is active and conscientious in environmental matters. We want to heighten their awareness by inviting them to participate.

Whatever hues you may find in nature, colour everything green in your writing.

8. UN MOT FRANCAIS

The Government of Canada is a bilingual organization, and your work will normally be translated into French. If you are responsible for having the work translated, you should remember three principles.

First, use a professional translator, either a private contractor or an employee of the Translation Bureau of the Department of the Secretary of State.

Second, remind the translator to convey the spirit rather than the letter of the original.

Those two points are related. The use of language is perhaps the most subtle and complex of human skills, and many of the procedures of a language are not even articulated. Is it "wrong" to say "a green big house?" No, but a native English-speaker would never place the adjectives in that order.

French has at least as many nuances as English, so a pedestrian translation of your document may be factually accurate without in any way capturing the tone and feeling of the original. Translation is a sophisticated art which requires a deep appreciation of the subtleties of both languages. It is not a job for amateurs, however well-intentioned. Hire a professional and have it done right.

Third and last, follow the proper internal procedure. Before you release any translation to the public, have it reviewed and approved by designated French editors on standing offer with the Canadian Parks Service.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Glossary: English-French, French-English. Canadian Parks Service, Ontario Regional Office, 1987

A Way With Words. Ottawa: Department of the Secretary of State

The Canadian Press Stylebook. Toronto: Canadian Press, 1983

Barbara Florio Graham, Five Fast Steps to Better Writing. Ottawa: Simon Teakettle Ink, 2005. A trenchant and practical guide, with an annotated         bibliography.

S. Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1972. A classic text which has appeared in several editions.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1980. "Not since The Elements of Style has there been a guide to writing as         well presented and readable as this one." – Library Journal

 

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