As an EHS professional you might find yourself writing. A lot. We’re talking reports, emails, notes, and maybe even blogs (if you are anything like our busy consultants), and the quality of your writing may not always be at the top of your mind. Never fear--we are here to help by providing five easy tips and resources tailored specifically to EHS writing challenges.
1. Plain Language is Good Language
Have you ever read a document or email that is so confusing you can’t tell what it’s about? The United States Federal Government has actually prohibited this type of writing at federal agencies in favor of what is known as “plain language.” Plain language is a concise writing style that encourages the writer to take their audience into consideration: what is their reading level, what do they need to take from this document, and what sort of words will make sense to them?
Writing with plain language principles in mind is especially helpful for EHS and sustainability professionals because it minimizes confusion in important communications about safety concerns and other common EHS topics. The government has useful public resources and guidelines for writing in plain language, and if you would like to check how readable your document is, you can do that in Microsoft Word – here is a how-to for testing and understanding readability.
2. Style is For Everyone, Even EHS Professionals
Follow a style guide. Depending on what industry and organization you are in, there are different style guides that could be applicable, and your company might even have their own internal style guide. In the absence of specific company guidelines, many engineering and natural science professionals use the Chicago Manual of Style.
We can hear you objecting already – you are an EHS professional, not a writer! Well, anyone who writes is a writer, and you wouldn’t want to be judged on a final report with an unidentified acronym or a chemical name spelled three different ways, would you? Style guides include information on preferred spellings, correct citations, and page layouts to help you stay consistent, tighten up your work, and minimize miscommunications.
3. Organize, Organize, Organize
Starting a report without having a clear organizational structure in mind makes for an excruciating writing process. Instead of keeping all of your info in one long-running document, we suggest segmenting into manageable sections with appropriate descriptive headers – Summary, Background, Observations, Conclusions, Recommendations, etc. It is much easier to write and edit your work when sections are clearly defined—and your reader will thank you later.
4. Watch Your Tone
Sending emails or written statements with difficult or complex messages can be tough. What is even tougher is making sure that these statements are factual but not tone-deaf. Some topics call for sensitive treatment, such as sending a warning to someone who hasn’t followed procedures, reminding an employee of existing H&S protocols, or emailing a client about problems on-site. Always give your email or report a once-over before it goes out, and have a capable peer review it, too. (And if it’s really that sensitive, consider a phone call or in-person meeting instead.)
For more information on how to deliver health and safety feedback effectively, check out our guide we wrote on Breaking the Bad News: How to Effectively Deliver Health and Safety Feedback.
5. It’s Got to Be Usable
Everything about EHS and sustainability should be practical and actionable, right? If you are writing something that will end up online– a downloadable word doc, PDF, PowerPoint, webpage, or blog to name a few examples – usability plays a big part in how likely people are to read and enjoy your writing. To be usable means that it can be read and understood by anybody on the internet: this means that people with different abilities, like visually impaired people using screen readers or deaf people reading subtitles, all need to be able to read your content. There are also writing-focused aspects about the page that matter too: the page should answer a question, include legitimate information, and make sense to most readers online.
In EHS, all types of people will read your writing, from managers to machine operators. For writing to be considered fully "usable," it needs to be able to be understood by all sorts of EHS professionals who might read it, not just who you think might be using it. Usability.gov's defines a meaningful user experience as useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, and credible. Check out Usability.gov for a basic run-through on usability and for more information on how to make your content usable.
Communicating insights and knowledge is extremely important for any effective EHS professional, and we hope that this list of resources and tips helps you do just that—while keeping your audience (and their needs) top-of-mind.
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