The Essentials Of Writing For House Journals

by Nirmaldasan

A business house publishes a journal to communicate to its staff the company's achievements, priorities and perspectives in both the commercial and social spheres. The journal, however, has space to highlight the achievements of the staff and their families. This is done to encourage the staff and involve them in the company's mission. Above all, the house journal is a personality statement addressed to those without the company (customers and competitors). The personality of the journal is in fact the personality of the company.

Keeping this in mind, it is easy to determine the kind of reports that should go into the house journal. But how should these reports be structured? What should be their style?

The structure should be the same as those found in the reports of newspapers and magazines. The style, however, can be very different from that of mainstream journalism. It can be very informal and enjoy a lingo of its own as long as it is in tune with the principles of good writing.

Let us first look into the structural aspects of a good report. The beginning, known as the lead, is the most important part of the story. There are two kinds of lead -- the hard and the soft. The hard lead comes to the point straight away; the soft lead creates a mood or suspense before breaking the news. Some stories, say Mahatma Gandhi Assassinated, demand a hard lead; other stories, like a flower show, can afford a soft lead. But whatever may be the choice of lead, it must be interesting; it must hook the readers and make them read on.

It is therefore necessary not to tell the story in the chronological order, which tests the patience of readers. They would want the report to come to the point. Narrate the facts of the story in the order of diminishing significance; and the resultant structure, better known as the inverted pyramid, will be easy for readers to comprehend and digest. Just look at the story titled The Manjari Magic from the September 2001 issue of the Harvest:

SPIC's Biotechnology Division participated in the annual flower show organised by the Department of Horticulture, Government of Tamil Nadu at Ooty recently. Mr. Surjit K. Chaudhry, Horticulture Commissioner, was the Chief Guest and inaugurated the show. Mrs. Supriya Sahu, IAS, Collector-Nilgiris, presided.

SPIC's Manjari range of cutflowers lent the show their eye-catching brilliance. The novel displays and various contests organised in connection with the show were greatly appreciated. A flower arch and a flower pyramid designed with Dutch roses and Asiatic lilies were the pick of the show.

The report tells us that SPIC 'participated' in the annual flower show and that its Manjari flowers 'lent the show their eye-catching brilliance'. But is this the best order? Is SPIC's participation more important than its flowers making a mark at the show? The sequence should be reversed. The lead may begin thus: "SPIC's Manjari range of cutflowers were the cynosure of all eyes at the annual flower show at Ooty." The other sentences may be suitably rewritten, if necessary, or reordered.

House journals carry statements from the company's directors. These statements, for obvious reasons, cannot be restructured. The best thing to do in such circumstances is to write a report in the inverted pyramid form incorporating the essential points of the statement and print it beside the full text. The report will thus serve as a good abstract for the statement. The same holds good for interviews with directors.

So much for structure. We now look into style. G. Wells in his book How To Communicate says that the most important rule in all report writing is the KISS rule. Keep It Short And Simple. Brevity and simplicity. It is not easy to be brief; and it is more difficult to be simple. Robert Gunning, the plain English guru, offers ten principles of clear writing in his book How To Take The Fog Out Of Your Writing. Let us look at each of them with examples.

1. Keep Sentences Short. For easy reading, sentences should vary in structure and length

but, on the average, should be short.

(Rama loves Sita. Rama has a pronounced affection for Sita. Which will you choose?)

2. Prefer the Simple to the Complex. Many complex terms are unnecessary. When there is a simpler way of saying a thing, use it. Avoid complex sentences.

(Love in the first example is a simpler word than 'pronounced affection'. So principles one and two go together.)

3. Develop your vocabulary. Don't let preference for short words limit your vocabulary. Intelligence and vocabulary size are closely linked; you need long words to think with.

(The shorter word may not always be the precise word. Capsize may be shorter than overturn. But only a ship can capsize; a truck cannot, though sometimes such headings do appear in newspapers.)

4. Avoid Unneeded Words. Nothing weakens writing so much as extra words. Be critical of your own writing and make every word carry its weight.

(A temple is in the process of being constructed. The words in the process are the unneeded words here. They add nothing to the meaning of the sentence.)

5. Put Action Into Your Verbs. The heaviness of much business writing results from overworking the passive verbs. Prose can usually be kept impersonal and remain in the active tenses.

(The passive voice has its uses. But wherever possible the active voice is to be preferred. Rama loves Sita is better than Sita is loved by Rama.)

6. Use Terms Your Reader Can Picture. Abstract terms make writing dull and foggy. Choose short, concrete words that the reader can visualize.

(The word love itself is an abstract term. So instead of saying Rama loves Sita, we should show how Rama loves Sita. We may point out that he pursued a deer which she desired, or that he saved her from the clutches of Ravana, and so on...)

7. Tie In With Your Reader's Experience. The reader will not get your new idea unless you link it with some old idea he already has.

(You will have to put yourself in the reader's place. Don't take anything for granted. Are you sure the reader knows what a DVD is? Or do we have to call it the Digital Versatile Disc? If you know your target audience well, then you will have no problem. This is why in house journals jargon is acceptable -- because all the readers would be familiar with it.)

8. Write The Way You Talk. Well, anyway, as much that way as you can. A conversational tone is one of the best avenues to good writing. Avoid stuffy business jargon. In letters, use "we" and "you" freely.

(Words such as former, latter, earlier, later are not usually used in conversation. Such words must be avoided in writing too.)

9. Make Full Use Of Variety. Use as many different arrangements of words and sentences as you can think up, but be sure your meaning is clear.

(This principle gives you licence to violate other principles. So some sentences can be long. Some sentences can be in the passive voice. But it requires experience to figure out when the other principles can be violated. Robert Gunning says: "Clear writing is an art. It can't be encased in a set of rules, because rules are a substitute for thought and you can't write well without thinking.")

10. Write To Express, Not To Impress. Present your ideas simply and directly. The writer who makes the best impression is the one who can express complex ideas simply. "Big men use little words; little men use big words."

(Robert Gunning has said it all. The aim of all writing is to express, not to impress.)

So far we have looked at structure and style. We have not said a word about grammatical pitfalls. For those who are not strong in grammar, O.M. Thomson's Essential Grammar (Oxford University Press, 1978) is recommended. It discusses only those points a journalist needs to know to produce a clean copy.

(A lecture to the correspondents of SPIC Ltd's house journal Harvest, 17 May 2002.)

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