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A Writer's Toolkit:
A Guide To Effective Writing and Communication
A Writer's Toolkit has been developed by the Ministry of Forests to help ministry staff write clearly and directly. While the Toolkit has been prepared to assist letter writing in particular, the techniques discussed apply to all writing. If you have any comments, or if you would like to receive a hard-copy of the Toolkit containing additional sections, contact Tim Ebata at firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to the Forest Practices Branch
Table of Contents
Section One: Getting Prepared
Section Two: Drafting a Response
Section Three: Enhancing Your Writing
Section one: Getting Prepared
"Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is
simplicity itself ó it is the occurring which is difficult." (Stephen Leacock)
Chapter 1. Reviewing the incoming letter
Writing a good response letter begins with an accurate interpretation of the reader's
needs (in this guide, 'the reader' refers to anyone who has written a letter to the
minister). This means thoroughly reviewing the incoming letter to:
- identify the reader's concerns; and
- consider important qualities about the reader.
Identifying the reader's concerns
Most incoming letters are written simply and clearly express the reader's concerns.
However, some letters may be poorly written or address more than one issue. In
this instance, identifying the reader's concerns can be more difficult. If you have
trouble identifying the reader's concerns, look for:
Consider the following two letters:
- introductory or concluding statements (these are the first and last sentence in
paragraphs which often introduce or reiterate main points);
- any questions or requests;
- inaccurate facts or information; and
- situations in which the reader expresses anger, frustration, disappointment, etc.
Example letter 1
The Honourable Minister of Forests:
This is a plea to save our forest and watersheds. The beautiful scenery and woodlands and water are beyond compare. I was born in this country in 1914 and to see the devastation is heart-breaking.
Yours truly, Mrs. K. Weese
This is a simple letter and it is easy to identify the reader's concern. The reader is
concerned about preserving forest land and watersheds from development.
A response letter could refer to the government's protected areas initiatives, to the
Ministry of Forests' commitment to reforestation, to the Timber Supply Review, to
the Forest Practices Code which requires sustainable forest practices and provides
a more substantive legal basis for enforcing those practices, or to the Forest
Renewal Plan which is renewing provincial forests and increasing the jobs and
value from each tree harvested.
Because the reader mentions "watersheds," the response could also provide
information on the ministry's objectives for maintaining water quality and quantity.
Now consider a more detailed letter. What is the reader's primary concern?
Example letter 2
I am writing to you with concerns about Streamside Management Zones on Class I and Class II streams. I believe that thirty metres of unlogged timber along our streams is an inadequate depth next to a logged (clear-cut) area; instead, 100 metres is the depth that should be left for the following
On the coast, heavy winds will, in most cases, blow down a 30-metre buffer strip but 100 metres will withstand almost all heavy winter winds. Therefore, this allows the trees to fall into the streams at a natural rate of L.O.D. and not all at once.
- The importance of wide enough buffer strips along streams for biodiversity is a very real and important consideration, especially when we are talking about true integrated management and all the other forest values. Thirty metres is not sufficient depth for this concern.
- Corridors along streams are important habitat for wildlife, especially in winter and at lower elevations. It is especially crucial that 100 metres are left for wildlife as 30 metres will definitely not fit their needs.
I urge you sir, as Minister, to please reconsider your ministry's position on these vitally important Streamside Management Zones and make them a sufficient depth.
Tony Arthurs, X-Y-Z Forest Committee, Vancouver Island Region.
Although this letter appears quite complicated, there is only one primary concern: 30 metres is an insufficient depth for a buffer zone on Class I and Class II streams. A response to this letter would certainly want to clarify the ministry's policy regarding Streamside Management Zones on Class I and Class II streams, and as Streamside Management Zones are addressed in the Forest Practices Code, the reader may be directed to the chair of the Forest Practices Code Technical
Subcommittee for additional information.
Considering the reader
It almost goes without saying that the information you provide must be relevant to the reader's concerns. But more than that, the information must be intelligible to the reader: Review the incoming letter with a view to determining:
Is the reader a student, a professional, someone who appears well informed? Does the reader express general concerns? Or, are they more specific and technical in nature? The answers to these questions will determine how much detail (technical information) is required in your response.
- the reader's age or level of education;
- the reader's knowledge of the issue(s) and of government or ministry policy; and
- the reader's reason for writing.
Look for words and phrases that reflect the reader's knowledge of the issue.
Establish why the reader is writing. Is the reader requesting information, complaining about a particular decision, or trying to influence government policy?
Consider how the reader will use the information you provide. A person requesting information for a school project or paper would probably prefer information included in reports, backgrounders, or fact sheets. A person requiring clarification of a particular policy or decision would probably prefer a letter signed by the minister or appropriate ministry personnel.
Now, consider again the previous two example letters. What assumptions can be made about the readers?
The first letter is a compassionate request from an elderly woman to preserve our forests and watersheds. It is a general letter in the sense that it includes little or no technical information which supports the reader's view. In all likelihood, the reader has little knowledge of provincial forest policy. A response to this reader should be written at a general level. It should be simple, direct and not too technical. Note that appears to be an emotional issue for the reader. The response letter should be drafted with sensitivity to the reader's feelings.
The second letter is more technical. Words and phrases such as Streamside Management Zones, Class I and Class II streams, buffer, and L.O.D., indicate the letter's technical nature. A response to this reader should address the issue in technical terms and get straight to the point. Because the reader represents a committee, one could reasonably assume that any information you provide would be shared with that committee and, possibly, the public.
In reviewing the incoming letter, have you:
Good writing focuses on the reader. Try to:
- identified the reader's concerns
- determined what information the reader needs to know and why
- established what background information, if any, would be useful
- considered the reader's age, level of education, and knowledge of the issues
In many instances, you will have to research issues. Chapter 2: organizing your
information offers research tips which may save you time and effort.
- write to the reader's level
- be direct without being short or abrupt
- present information in a way that is useful to the reader.
Table of Contents
Chapter 2. Organizing your information
A good response letter provides relevant and factual information. While researching or acquiring information can require a lot of work, there is no substitute. Once you have acquired your information, however, consider these time-saving techniques:
Ministry staff are a valuable source of information. Do not hesitate to contact someone if you think they may be able to help. Staff can be very accommodating, particularly when someone else is drafting the letter.
- Develop a resource file and date all of your information-keep it current.
- Develop standard paragraphs for single issues which generate a great deal of correspondence (Commission on Resources and Environment, Forest Practices Code, Protected Areas Strategy). Adapt these paragraphs for new incoming letters. Be aware that standard responses become stale and have to be rewritten to reflect new events.
- Anticipate emerging issues and develop pre-approved responses.
- Link or cross-reference your files with other issues (Old-Growth Strategy Project and Parks and Wilderness for the í90s with the Protected Areas Strategy).
- Share information with other writers.
If you cannot say everything you would like to say in your letter, then supply the name and address of a contact person capable of providing additional information or enclose appropriate brochures.
In some instances, a phone call can clarify concerns and reduce work load. If you choose to contact someone by phone, consider a brief follow-up letter to that person to document what you discussed.
Once you research your main points, you need to shape your information into a well organized response letter. This can be simpler than you think.Chapter 3: selecting a response provides some easy to follow letter-writing outlines.
Table of Contents
Section 2. Drafting a Response
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." ( George Orwell)
Chapter 3. Selecting a response
Response letters can generally be divided into two basic types: simple and complicated. Simple responses may be written quickly and easily. Complicated responses require more detailed information and are often more difficult to organize.
Simple responses include yes letters, no letters, and interim or referral letters.
The Yes letter.
The Yes letter provides positive news. It awards contracts, grants, fulfill requests or makes special recommendations. The Yes letter should:
- open politely and positively;
- move directly to your main point;
- outline the terms or requirements expected;
- reiterate your main point(s); and
- close positively.
Yes Letter Example
Thank you for your letter supporting the Guidelines to Maintain Biological Diversity in Coastal Forests.
Like you, I believe that maintaining biodiversity in our forests is essential for a healthy environment and economy, and I appreciate the time and effort you spent reviewing the draft guidelines.
Thank you again for taking the time to express your support.
The No letter
The No letter communicates negative or unwelcome information. It should be written as straightforward and neutral as possible. Although effective writing is usually succinct, a No letter should provide enough detail to substantiate the decision, as a short letter may lead people to feel like they have not received the attention they deserve. The No letter should:
- open politely and professionally;
- outline the details of the issue;
- state the decision;
- explain the reasons behind the decision;
- close politely and professionally.
No Letter Example
Thank you for your letter regarding forest management in Clayoquot Sound.
I wish to acknowledge your organization's request for a moratorium on timber harvesting in the Clayoquot Sound area. After a full and careful review, the government decided that imposing a moratorium on all timber harvesting was simply not feasible. Such a moratorium
would severely affect forest workers, their families and communities.
Instead, government has decided to allow selective harvesting in carefully chosen areas. In this way, local economies will be sustained and land-use options preserved while a longer-term strategy is developed.
Thank you again for writing and expressing your views.
The Interim or Referral letter
The Interim or Referral letter provides a more neutral message than Yes or No letters.
The Interim or Referral letter informs readers that a decision has not been made or that further study and review are necessary. This letter also provides the names of ministries or other people better suited to address the reader's concerns. The Interim or Referral letter should:
- open politely;
- outline the issue in the first paragraph;
- provide all relevant details, describe any action be to be taken and, where
necessary, provide the contactís name and address;
- close on a positive note.
Interim or Referral letter example
Thank you for your letter regarding grizzly bears and their habitat in British Columbia. As your concerns fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, I have forwarded a copy of your letter to my colleague, the Honourable, _______, Minister of Environment, Lands and Parks, so that staff there may provide you with information about hunting and poaching.
For your information, in June 1992, government permanently protected the entire Khutzeymateen valley because of its high grizzly bear values. The Khutzeymateen supports the largest concentration of grizzly bears along British Columbia's coast, and it was the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears. I have included a study report on the Khutzeymateen for your consideration. In other areas, grizzly bear values are protected through guidelines which safeguard biodiversity, fisheries and water resources.
Thank you for taking the time to express your views.
Four popular methods for organizing complicated responses are outlined below. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages which you should consider before beginning a response.
The reader's method addresses the reader's concerns in the order these concerns appear in the incoming letter. To use this method simply begin your letter with the following statement:
Thank you for your letter of________, in which you raise several important forestry issues. I will address these issues in the order presented.
- easy to use;
- allows you to move quickly from one idea or issue to the next, from one period of time to another;
- not necessary to link ideas; and
- excellent method for letters which raise a lot of varied points.
- cannot be used for single issue letters
- your response may not flow well.
The chronological method organizes information according to a time frame. The chronological method usually provides:
- a brief history of the issue
- a summary of what is presently happening; and
- an outline of what may happen in the future.
Chronological method example
Thank you for your letter regarding the Commission on Resources and Environment (C.O.R.E.).
In January 1992, the commission was established to develop a comprehensive strategy for land-use planning and management in British Columbia and to develop, implement, and monitor regional land-use planning processes.
Through C.O.R.E., government recently announced a land-use plan for Vancouver Island that creates 23 new parks and increases the amount of protected area on the island from 10.3 percent to 13 percent. As part of the plan, a number of small areas containing outstanding local "special features" will be preserved, and a new North Coast Trail will be developed from Port Hardy to Cape Scott Park, providing new recreation and tourism benefits on the northern island.
Over the next several months, government will review permit approvals that have been held up pending the commission's land-use recommendations and move ahead with initiating a Vancouver Island jobs strategy, and establishing Community Resource Boards.
- easy for the reader to follow sequence of events;
- particularly useful if the reader is unfamiliar with an issue or you are uncertain how much the reader knows about an issue; and
- covers single issues well.
- responses tend to be long; and
- may not be suitable for addressing multi-topic letters.
The list method simply states and details your main ideas in point form.
List method example
British Columbia will still have old-growth forests in 20 years for the following reasons:
- there are approximately 3 million hectares of mature coastal forest that are considered inaccessible for harvesting and which will remain indefinitely as coastal old-growth forests;
- according to the current inventory, there are 2 million hectares of operable mature coastal forest in British Columbia. Using these figures, there are at least 50 years of harvest; and,
- there are approximately 300 000 hectares of coastal old-growth forest permanently protected in federal and provincial parks. The government intends to double the amount of parks and wilderness areas in the province by the year 2000. These new parks should contribute to the amount of old growth already protected.
- presents information quickly and effectively
- is a good way to provide a lot of technical detail
- no need to link ideas
- allows you to move quickly from one idea or issue to the next.
- may appear impersonal
- does not provide the reasons for the decision
- may not flow well.
Inverted pyramid method
The inverted pyramid method presents your main points in order of decreasing importance. The first paragraph introduces the topics, and the following paragraphs discuss each of them in detail.
Inverted pyramid example
Government is committed to maintaining a healthy environment and a heathy economy. It has initiated several strategies, including the Protected Areas Strategy, the Timber Supply Review, the Forest Practices Code, and the Forest Renewal Plan, to help ensure the long-term sustainability of our forest and range resources.
The Protected Areas Strategy is enabling various planning processes to identify, evaluate, and make recommendations to Cabinet on protected areas.
The Timber Supply Review is re-assessing the province's timber supply to better reflect present day values and concerns.
The new Forest Practices Code is changing the way we manage our forests by enforcing practices that protect our woodlands and watersheds.
The Forest Renewal Plan is ensuring provincial forests are renewed and increasing the jobs and value from each tree harvested. . . .
- the most important issues may be addressed first;
- effective way to address multiple issues; and
- allows you to move very quickly from one idea or issue to the next, from one period of time to another.
This guide presents each method separately. In practice, you may find that a combination of these methods allows you to respond to the readerís concerns more effectively. If you still have trouble putting ideas onto paper, see Chapter 4: creating a response letter outline, which provides simple steps for drawing up a response letter outline.
- linking issues can be difficult; and
- hard to develop a logical flow.
Table of Contents
Chapter 4. Creating a response letter outline
If you have trouble organizing your information, try developing a response letter outline. An outline arranges your ideas into tightly structured paragraphs, which are easier to manage. To draft an outline simply:
Write down your main points
If you have trouble putting ideas onto paper, consider prefacing your ideas with statements such as "The purpose of this letter is to. . . ." or "I want to provide you with information about. . . ." The ideas which complete these statements are your main points; your letter should express and support these points.
Write down supporting statements for your points
Include all relevant facts, upcoming events, contact names, etc. Do not worry about noting everything or about the order in which the facts appear. If you forget something you will probably remember it as you write your first draft.
Place each supporting statement under the main point it supports
Your supporting statements clarify or strengthen a main point. Place each supporting statement under its main point. Each main point should have at least one supporting statement. You will now have several groups. These groups are your "paragraph outlines"; they provide the information for your paragraphs. Some paragraph outlines will be larger than others because some main points require more supporting detail than others.
Divide particularly large paragraph outlines into smaller outlines. Each outline will then become a separate paragraph. This will help to keep your paragraphs short. Try to limit paragraphs to four or five sentences. Where possible, vary paragraph length to maintain your readerís attention
Arrange the supporting statements logically
The first sentence in a paragraph usually states the main idea. The other sentences support or illustrate the main idea. To arrange information logically within paragraphs remember to place:
Once you rank all the supporting details and order your paragraphs you are ready to write. Before you do, however, refer to Chapter 5: Content and structure, which describes the basic structure of a letter.
- the strongest supporting statement right after the main point; and
- other supporting details in order of decreasing importance.
Table of Contents
Chapter 5. Content and structure
Response letters generally should not exceed a page and a half with paragraphs less than four or five sentences. Of course, there are exceptions. Let the reader's concerns guide the amount of information you provide.
A letter has five basic parts:
- opening statement
- closing paragraph
- signature block.
The appropriate forms of salutations are outlined in Section 1.1, Chapter 13, Forms
of Address, Correspondence Policy and Procedures Manual.
Ministry policy requires that if the incoming letter includes a courtesy title (Mr., Ms., Mrs.), then
we address the author with this courtesy title. Otherwise we address readers by their first and last names.
The opening statement introduces your letter's topic(s) and helps to establish its tone. It must be clear and polite and is usually only one or two sentences.
Some examples of opening statements include:
Thank you for writing to express your concern for forest management in community watersheds.
Thank you for your letter of July 1, 1994, regarding the Cariboo Mountains Wilderness Area.
If you are responding on behalf of the minister, consider:
The Honourable _________ , Minister of Forests, asked me to respond on his/her behalf to your comments regarding raw log exports from British Columbia.
The body of your letter should present ideas clearly and effectively. Try to pay special attention to how you present information in individual paragraphs and in the overall structure of your letter.
The body of your letter should be:
As you draft your letter, keep in mind:
- easy to understand.
- short sentences and paragraphs are easier to read
- a letter is a reflection of the individual who signs it, not the person who writes it. Try to keep your views and values separate from the response; and
- that you are writing for the minister's, the deputy minister's or an assistant
deputy minister's signature.
Contact and enclosure paragraphs
Even a well-written, well researched letter cannot deal with every aspect of every issue. Consequently, you may want to enclose a report or brochure along with your letter, or you may wish to provide the names and addresses of other contacts.
I have included a news release and a technical backgrounder on the log-around strategies for your review and consideration. Should you require further information please contact Ira Foster, Resource Officer, Campbell River Forest District at (604) 286-9327.
Contact or enclosure paragraphs often appear just above the closing paragraph; however, they can also appear elsewhere in your letter to bridge different issues. Remember to provide the contact's full name and address, and let contacts know you have referenced them in your letter (give them a cc:).
Closing paragraphs conclude your letter. As they are the last words read, they should be polite and sincere.
Some examples of closing statements include:
Thank you again for taking the time to write and express your concern about forest management in British Columbia.
Thank you for writing to express your concerns.
To someone writing from out of province consider:
Thank you for your interest in British Columbia's forest management.
If someone other than the minister is signing the letter, then it may be appropriate
Thank you again for your letter. If I can be of further assistance, please call me at (604) 356-8763.
The correct signature blocks are outlined in Section 1.1, Chapter 16, Signature Block, Correspondence Policy and Procedure Manual. You can also type "csslist" at the prompt of the main Office Vision menu to access correct signature blocks.
Table of Contents
Section Three: Enhancing Your Writing
"All morning I worked on a proof of one of my poems, and I took out a comma; in
the afternoon I put it back." (Oscar Wilde)
Chapter 6. Refining language and tone
Once you complete your draft, re-read the incoming letter and ask yourself:
In almost every instance you can improve your response by editing. Some letters may require extensive revision; others can be enhanced simply by changing a few words or phrases. Begin by considering the language and tone of your letter.
- Does my letter address the reader's concerns?
- Is my letter polite and easy to understand?
- How would I feel if I received this letter?
- How can I improve my response?
Do not write to impress the reader with your importance, position, technical knowledge, or mastery of big words and fancy phrases. Write to convey your meaning. Use plain language and bias free language in straightforward sentences.
Plain language is:
- the appropriate and correct use of vocabulary;
- well structured sentences;
- consistent with established grammatical patterns and familiar style;
- free of jargon; and
- applied with sensitivity to the needs and expectations of the reader
Bias free language
The English language has historically reflected a male bias. Bias free or gender inclusive language addresses and includes women and men. Its use is now required in all government communications ó written and verbal ó because it is a sign of equal treatment and respect. The omission of gender-biased words is an important part of bias free language.
Instead of: chairman, alderman, foreman, or workman; Use: chair or chairperson, councilor, supervisor, or worker.
Use one of the following methods to eliminate gender-biased pronouns:
Use the plural
Not: Every committee member will receive his report on Friday.
But: Committee members will receive their reports on Friday.
Not: Each District Manager should ensure that he attends the meeting.
But: District Managers should ensure that they attend the meeting.
To eliminate problems associated with gender-biased pronouns simply omit the
Not: Each applicant must submit his report.
But: Each applicant must submit a report.
Not: Every applicant must submit a report to his selection committee if he hopes to receive the position.
But: Every applicant must submit a report to the selection committee in order to receive the position.
Replace he with a gender-inclusive word
Not: Every government ministry has a deputy minister. He is responsible for the overall administration of the ministry.
But: Every government ministry has a deputy minister. This official is responsible for the overall administration of the ministry.
For more information on gender-inclusive language, refer to:
Communicating Without Bias. 1992. Province of British Columbia. Ministry of Womenís Equality, Victoria, B.C.
Correspondence Policy and Procedures Manual. 1994, Section 1.1, Chapter 9,
Gender-inclusive Language. Province of British Columbia. Ministry of Forests,
Tone conveys a sense of the writer's interest and attitude toward the subject and the reader. Depending on the sentence structure and the type of words used, tone can be formal, humorous, sarcastic, patronizing, angry, condescending, sincere, etc. Consider the tone in the following examples.
- It would seem that the Ministry of Forests might perhaps do better by looking a
little more favourably on its human resource needs. (tone: weak, bureaucratic)
- The Ministry of Forests will be up the creek unless it immediately hires some
staff. (tone: colloquial, condescending, aggressive)
- To meet its growing workload, I believe the Ministry of Forests should hire two
more project managers by the end of September. (tone: direct, professional)
The following suggestions can help you to create an effective tone.
Use plain language to help develop a direct tone
Through an investment of $2 billion over the next five years, the Forest Renewal Plan will generate more jobs in the forest industry and increase the value from each tree harvested.
Use bias free language to help develop a sensitive tone
Everyone has the right to an appeal. A person may exercise that right at any time.
Avoid overstatement to help maintain a sincere tone.
The following sentence is overstated:
I am really impressed by your suggestions regarding allowable annual cut (AAC) levels in the Strathcona Timber Supply Area (TSA), and I can hardly wait to talk more about them with you.
Avoid the obvious to help maintain a professional tone.
The following sentence contains an obvious statement.
Let us not forget that until the forest company built that road, very few people could drive into the valley and enjoy the splendours of this wilderness setting.
Omit biased words to help maintain an objective tone.
The following sentence contains biased words.
You have manipulated the facts in order to reach your conclusions.
Use introductory phrases to help maintain a humble tone
It is my understanding that. . . .
Staff advise me that. . . .
Minimize negative words to help maintain a positive tone
There is a big difference between writing you are wrong and writing you
are incorrect. An even better way of phrasing this might be your information is
inaccurate. Review your letter for the number of positive words or phrases used. A positive letter will get your point across more effectively than a negative letter.
Below are some examples of responses to individuals who were particularly hostile and aggressive.
I regret that you feel the information shown on the maps was not complete. It was not the ministry's intention to deceive anyone. Rather, ministry staff wanted to produce a simple product suitable for the general media and for the press conference. I expect the maps achieved this end. Nonetheless, I appreciate your concerns and will consider your comments when developing future visual aids.
I regret that you found the public information session in Victoria inadequate. I have received numerous letters supporting the efforts of the Tsitika Follow-up Committee.
Your tone should always be informative rather than persuasive. Try not to force an idea or opinion; instead, support your views with fact and reason. Keep in mind that a polite, helpful tone is as important as the information you convey.
Following is an example of a response letter which develops an appropriate tone and sense of empathy. The reader listed a number of concerns including the need to preserve temperate rainforest, forest practices, and forest industry employment.
Thank you for your letter regarding preservation of our temperate rainforests.
You raise a number of valid points, most of which beg the question, Why do we log? The obvious answer is that logging provides jobs, creates community stability, helps fuel local economies, and provides revenue for the province. More than that, logging helps to provide British Columbians with a high standard of living, and while peopleís values have changed with respect to how they want resources managed, they still expect to live well. The question then becomes, how do we combine the two?
As you have suggested, one way is to protect more areas and promote other industries like tourism. Government is doing that. In May 1992, the Premier announced the Protected Areas Strategy (PAS) that will double British Columbiaís protected areas by the year 2000. PAS is a single, integrated process for coordinating all of British Columbiaís protected areas and programs and objectives, including the Old-Growth Strategy Project and Parks and Wilderness for the '90s. It is a key component of the provincial land-use strategy being developed by the Commission on Resources and Environment (C.O.R.E.) and will enable various planning processes to identify, evaluate, and make recommendations to Cabinet on protected areas.
Another way is to promote more sustainable and environmentally conscious forest management. This is being done, in part, through the development of a Forest Practices Code. The code documents sustainable forest practices and provides a more substantive legal basis for enforcing these practices. It is responsive to new scientific information and technology, field results, and changing social values. Penalties and audit procedures are included in the code, along with regulations and standards for protecting fish, wildlife, site degradation, community watersheds, and biodiversity.
I agree with your comments that there are forces operating within the forest sector, such as modernization and improved efficiency, that tend to limit jobs.To combat this trend in employment, the Ministry of Forests actively encourages the forest industry to produce more speciality products. By diversifying the range of products, the forest industry will be able to serve a wider range of markets.
Similarly, the Small Business Forest Enterprise Program encourages production of higher value-added products. In recent years, there has been less emphasis on mass production of standardized lumber products and an increase in the production of various sizes of lumber and specialized wood products such as furniture components and door and window stock. These products command higher prices and utilize a larger portion of each log.
In closing, I assure you that land-use decisions in our province are made by and for British Columbians. Although, at times, it may seem that decisions allowing timber harvesting are made to benefit foreign companies, this is not the case. Where harvesting does occur, it is to provide employment for forestry workers and economic stability for resource-based communities.
Thank you again for your interest in British Columbia's forest management.
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Chapter 7. Considering style and mechanics
After refining language and tone, you can begin to check style and consider some
other elements of composition.
Use the active voice
The active voice is one in which the subject of the sentence performs the action. For example, consider the following two sentences and note the differences between them. The first sentence is written in the passive voice, the second in the active voice.
Passive: The allowable annual cut was decreased by the Chief Forester.
Active: The Chief Forester decreased the allowable annual cut.
In the first sentence, the subject is being acted upon. In the second sentence, the subject performs the action. In a sentence where the subject performs the action, your writing is more effective. Where the subject is being acted upon, your writing lacks energy and directness.
The active voice has a specific style. It consists of:
Consider another example.
- a subject-verb-object order in the sentence;
- the use of an action verb; and
- the use of specific subjects, and objects.
Passive: Mike was spoken to by Ray.
Active: Ray spoke to Mike.
Again, the second sentence, written in the active voice, has much more impact than the first sentence, which is written in the passive. To ensure that your sentences are written actively find the verb or verb phrase of the sentence. In this instance:
was spoken to
Put the verb or verb phrase in its infinitive or root form,
Add "ing" to the verb, "speaking," and ask yourself who or what does the "action." In this example, Ray does the action (speaking), so Ray is the subject and must be placed before the verb for the sentence to be written actively. In the first example, the chief forester did the action (decreasing), so the chief forester is the subject of that sentence.
Another form of the passive structure is the divine passive, in which the subject is missing; it is an object-verb pattern as in:
The report was evaluated.
Who or what does the evaluating? In this example, it is not clear who evaluated the report. There is no subject. You should provide one.
The regional manager evaluated the report.
Note that there are some advantages to using the passive voice. Use it when the doer of an action is unknown or when you deliberately want to avoid strong language. Keep in mind, however, the passive voice is generally overused in business communication.
Write to the reader's perspective
Ensure that some of your sentences begin with the readerís name, or with the word "you." Decrease the number of sentences that begin with the Ministry of Forests, or government.
Note the difference between the following two sentences.
Government recognizes the importance of tourism to our economy.
In your letter, you emphasize the importance of tourism to our economy.
The second sentence is written to the reader's perspective. By emphasizing the reader's position, you acknowledge the reader's views and are more likely to develop a sensitive tone. Be careful not to overuse this technique.
Address the reader's concerns directly
Identify the readerís concern(s) and address them directly. This will make your response stronger and more personal. If you agree or disagree with the points the reader makes, say so.
I disagree with your comments regarding forest industry accountability.
Like you, the ministry supports preserving complex and fragile forest ecosystems.
Where possible, use the first person pronoun, I, to address the reader directly.
I agree (or disagree) with your comment regarding. . . .
If you are writing for the Ministerís signature, be sensitive to the context in which the first person is used.
Address the issue directly
I appreciate your concern that forest companies might pursue their objectives at the expense of public interests. However, all forest operations in British Columbia are strictly controlled and monitored by the government. Forest companies are required to follow. . . .
Address issues that are particularly contentious, or that lack government policy or direction, in broader, less direct terms. Do not avoid these issues, but present them in more general terms. Be aware that this approach may weaken the impact of your writing. It will, however, help guard against providing inaccurate or compromising information.
If you find yourself skirting the issue, it may be because you do not know the subject as well as you should. You may need more information. Let the readerís needs guide you. Again, if the reader's needs cannot be addressed within a letter, provide the name and number of someone who can provide additional information.
Use action verbs
Action verbs express action. Linking verbs express states of being or condition. The most common linking verb is some form of the verb "to be" (is, are, was, were, will be). Linking verbs weaken the impact of your writing. Consider the following sentence.
John is a driver.
John and driver represent the same person; the sentence links complementary ideas together and, therefore, contains a relatively small amount of information. Compare:
John drives a logging truck.
The action verb drives conveys more information and energy than the linking verb is. Rather than link complementary ideas, an action verb expresses two different ideas. Action verbs strengthen the impact of your writing.
Inform rather than persuade
The tone of your letter should be informative rather than persuasive. Present a point of view supported by fact or reason, rather than force an idea or opinion.
Consider the following sentence.
A local resource-use plan has been finalized for the area.
What does finalized mean? Was it approved by the District Manager? Does it mean that the LRUP will be put into practice? Tell the reader exactly what you mean or the reader may draw incorrect conclusions.
Avoid umbrella nouns and verbs which have a multitude of meanings. Compare:
The Minister reviewed the committee's recommendations
The Minister supported the committee's recommendations.
The same may be said of nouns. Compare:
the Carmanah Valley Forest Management Advisory Committee
Keep words/sentences simple
To communicate effectively, your letter must be easily understood. A person should be able to read your letter once, without stopping, remember all the main ideas and most of the supporting statements. Use simple language-obscure or technical words may distance you from the reader. In general, a shorter sentence will get your point across more effectively than a longer sentence. That is because people want information quickly. They only read what they feel is necessary.
On average, sentences under 25 words work best.
Compare the following opening sentences:
Thank you for your letter regarding forest practices in British Columbia.
Thank you for writing and expressing your concern for the way in which forest management practices such as clearcutting and grapple yarding are carried out in British Columbia.
Again, remember to use simple words and sentences. Vary sentence length where
Delete unnecessary words/sentences
Since a shorter sentence will achieve greater clarity, eliminate wordy phrases. Strip sentences down to their essentials. Sometimes it may be necessary to use a transitional phrase to orient the reader or bridge ideas. Some examples of transitional markers are included below.
Do not write more than what is necessary to get your point across. Use a single, active verb where possible.
Keep phrases parallel
The principle of parallelism states that parallel thoughts should be expressed in grammatically parallel terms. Consider the following two sentences. The first is parallel; the second is not.
Basic forest management consists of selecting a site, harvesting the wood, and reforesting the area.
Basic forest management consists of selecting a site, harvesting the wood, and area reforestation.
If you are presenting three or more like items in a sentence or in a list, make sure that each item begins with the same word form (noun, verb) or phrase. In the first sentence above, all the verbs end in ing-selecting, harvesting, and reforesting. In the second sentence, two verbs end in "ing" and one does not. These phrases are not parallel.
Link your ideas
Develop your paragraphs logically so that one idea flows into another. The reader must sense progression or movement through your letter from one idea to the next. The transitional markers outlined below can help you achieve movement while maintaining unity.
Use transitional markers to move your reader through the letter. Transitional
markers help achieve unity and cohesiveness. They include:
also, but, because, consequently, conversely, definitely, for instance, fortunately, generally, generally speaking, however, in addition to, nevertheless, not only, of course, perhaps, possibly, probably, since, therefore, without a doubt, with that in mind, yet
Apply the conversation test
Read your letter out loud to rid it of stilted wording, inappropriate tone, stiff and
formal phrasing, and jargon that obscures your meaning. Compare:
Should you require further information on the subject referred to, you may wish to contact the director of the Integrated Resources Policy Branch, Ralph Archibald.
If you would like more information, please contact Ralph Archibald, Director, Resource Planning Branch.
Consider the physical layout
To a large degree, the way the reader responds to your letter depends upon how your information is presented on the page. People respond better to writing that has a lot of "white space": areas without text which rest the reader's eye.
Reading is a visual experience. Review your letters in terms of how the text appears on the page. Keep in mind that open spaces draw attention to your writing.
Consider these methods to create more white space:
- use lists: lists get your ideas on paper in an efficient, effective, and easy-to-read format; list the main points of a complex sentence to make them stand out
- use bullets: bullets catch your readerís eyes and give your points more impact; note that numbers or letters prioritize your points; and
- use frequent paragraphs (use the white space of a page to highlight your
important elements, and create readability).
More than one draft
In order to produce a good final product, you will have to redraft your letters. You may find that having someone else review your work is effective since at times you are too involved in the response letter to catch subtle errors.
Table of Contents
Communicating Without Bias. 1992. Province of British Columbia. Ministry of
Womenís Equality, Victoria, B.C.
Correspondence Policy and Procedures Manual. 1992. Province of British
Columbia. Ministry of Forests, Victoria, B.C.
The Elements of Business Writing. 1992. Blake, Gary and Robert W. Bly.
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York, N. Y.
The Elements of Style. 1979. Strunk, Wm. Jr and E.B. White. Macmillan
Publishing Co., Inc. New York, N. Y.
The Perfect Letter. 1990. Westheimer, Patricia H. and Nelson, Robert B. Scott,
Foresman and Company. Glenview, Illinois.
Plain Language Clear and Simple. 1991. Government of Canada. Department of
Multiculturalism and Cititzenship. Ottawa, Ontario.
Powerful Business Writing. 1992. McKeown, Tom. McGraw-Hill Ryerson.
The Practical Stylist. Baker, Sheridan. Harper and Row. New York, N.Y.
WriteRight. 1992. Venolia, Jan. Self-Counsel Press. North Vancouver, British Columbia.
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Ministry of Forests
Forest Practices Branch
P.O. Box 9520 Stn. Prov. Gov.
Last modified February 15, 1997