With reports, memos, e-mails, letters and day-to-day recording,
there seems to be more and more writing within social care and
precious little guidance about how to do it effectively, writes
Graham Hopkins. Make no mistake, writing is a skill. And, like any
skill, the more you practise and learn, the better you can get.
Time and again inquiries into social care tragedies point to poor
quality communication at the heart of the problem. Training is
seldom seen as a priority because we can all write, can’t we? But
there are some basics to bear in mind.
Often, planning is seen as a luxury that time can ill afford. But
to write anything well you need to know three things: why you are
writing it; what you want to achieve; and who your target audience
Good writing is simply this: that your reader understands what you
have to say, in the way you meant it to be understood, at the first
time of asking. So, make sure you leave no room for other possible
meanings. For example: “Service users should be told
of their right to complain in writing.” This reads as if service
users must put their complaints in writing. “Service users should
in writing of their right to complain” is preferable.
Use everyday words
Why do we write words that we wouldn’t say? Who would say, for
example, “Can I look at your paper to ascertain what’s on TV
tonight?”. We would say “find out”, but write “ascertain”? Choose
everyday words. So, don’t “initiate” anything that you can “start”
or “begin”. Don’t “modify” your writing, “change” it. Don’t
“implement” changes, “carry them out”. Ignore “statutory”
requirements, act on “legal” ones. And finally, don’t use everyday
words “henceforth” – use them “from now on”.
A sentence should only have the words it needs to make it work.
People don’t have time to watch you beating about the bush as you
go around the houses. Often, less is more. So, don’t do things “on
a regular basis” when you can do them “regularly”. Why say “you are
requested to” when “please” does the job (and more pleasantly, to
boot)? Don’t write, for example, “The garden area to the front of
the property was found to be in an unkempt, overgrown state” when
“The front garden was overgrown” can do the job in 13 fewer words.
Keep sentences short
Unlike New Labour’s penal policy, effective writing favours the
shortening of sentences. You should look to average about 15-17
words a sentence. Normally, there should be just one piece of
information in each sentence – but there can be more provided it is
manageable (as in this case). If you have a long sentence check for
commas or other punctuation, you might be able to use a full stop
instead. Also, look for conjunctions (and, but, because, which,
although, however) because there’s a good chance that you could
stop and start a new sentence there. However, you might need to add
a word or two to get started again.
Jargon can be useful shorthand between those who
understand it, but generally it should be avoided. It is often used
to make the ordinary sound significant (a child’s playhouse thus
becomes a domestic experience environment). Remember that jargon
excludes, so stick to words and phrases that everyone can
understand. And if you really have to use it – explain it.