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Alex Harvie Other Consultant Website
Last edited 10 Apr 2015

Writing technique in the construction industry

Contents

[edit] What makes good writing?

Good writing is fit for purpose.

The range of writing which tends to be required within the construction industry ranges from:

[edit] Technical reports

These use factual language, backing up recommendations with provable findings. The structure needs to be logical, moving from a clear introduction to a well-reasoned conclusion.

[edit] Legal documents

These use specific legal terms which carry accepted meanings to reduce ambiguity. The structure of these documents follows a set pattern in which each paragraph attempts to cover a different issue.

[edit] Marketing documents (websites, case studies, brochures and books)

These use some emotive language and are attempting to persuade the reader. Just how emotive depends on the company’s brand language. The structure of marketing documents tends to be simple and sometimes repetitious, stating the same information in different forms to get the message across.

[edit] Bid and tender documents

These documents require a combination of each of the writing styles: they need to demonstrate that a company is technically capable of undertaking the work while also showing they have the legal, financial and organisational framework necessary for the project. Yet they also have to persuade the reader that the company is the right one to undertake the work. The writing needs to convey the company’s interest and appropriateness without sounding cheesy or as if it is following a pre-existing template.

Bid and tender submissions in particular usually require the input of more than one individual in a company, and this can lead to problems if those providing the text have not agreed a house style. A house style covers essential issues from tenses to how to describe the company’s work.

Companies can resolve this problem by:

  • Employing an editor to tidy up bid documents before they are issued. This can be efficient because specialist editors pick up small inconsistencies and can strengthen the look and feel of documents by adding appropriate captions and headlines in the final stages of production. However timescales and budgets do not always allow for independent editorial input.
  • Agreeing on a house style in advance. This will eliminate many (never all) inconsistencies by encouraging company representatives to adopt a consistent approach to describing the company and its work. Having a house style means that all documents have greater consistency.

The directors of the company may decide to employ the services of a professional writer to assist in the process of developing a house style. The items below are intended to provide a framework for the creation of a written house style.

The development of a written house style is best undertaken in tandem with the creation of a visual brand because together the words and images should reflect the company’s unique style and approach.

A document should be created which includes the following:

[edit] Company information

A paragraph describing the company and outlining what it does. This text will become the base information adapted on the website and used in all documents describing the company. Some companies also include a one-line version which can be spoken by employees when they introduce the company.

A more detailed explanation of what is special about the company, where it sits in its market and the unique service it offers its customers.

Decisions about the language to be used with the company name:

  • Is the company to be described as singular or plural?
  • Should texts use ‘we’ and ‘our’ or should the approach be more formal?

More detailed information which supports how the company is described:

  • How did the company get its name?
  • What are the company’s brand values?
  • How are the brand values reflected in the company’s practice/structure/approach to its work?

If the house style is being developed in parallel with visual branding, then include an image of the logo with text explaining its design.

[edit] Language

A company’s house style should aim to encourage writers to use language which is precise and business like. This means avoiding informal/slang phrases or empty language which can seem pompous. The suggestions below illustrate this, and each company will have specific examples from their specialist work.

WORDY VERSION - followed by concise alternative:

  • A TOTAL OF SIX PILES - six piles
  • A NUMBER OF - few / many / several
  • TO ASCERTAIN THE LOCATION OF - to find
  • AT THE PRESENT TIME, AT THIS POINT IN TIME - now
  • BY MEANS OF - by / with
  • DUE TO THE FACT THAT - because
  • FEWER IN NUMBER - fewer
  • FOR THE PURPOSE OF ANALYSING - analysing
  • FOR THE REASON THAT - because
  • IN EXCESS OF - over / more than
  • IN ORDER TO - to
  • IN THE COURSE OF - during
  • IN VIEW OF THE FACT THAT - because

[edit] Punctuation and grammar

The first time used, spell out the full word followed by the abbreviation in parenthesis. After that, use the abbreviation alone. Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Do not use full stops after each letter, not - R.I.B.A.

A few exceptions have lower case letters - Design for London (DfL).

[edit] Acronyms

Some common abbreviations have become words in their own right and need not be listed in full - BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). Judge your audience’s knowledge.

[edit] Apostrophes

Apostrophes are used for two very different purposes:

  • To indicate that a letter has been removed – ‘do not’ becomes ‘don’t’ to show that the letter o has been removed. This is best avoided in formal documents.
  • To indicate ownership – ‘the building’s dimensions are vast’. The apostrophe here shows something is being owned. The apostrophe also shows whether the owning word is singular or plural. ‘The buildings’ dimensions are vast.’ In this case the subject is plural – buildings. To avoid confusion when writing, think of the word doing the owning (building or buildings) and then add the apostrophe.

Apostrophes are only ever used to show ownership of nouns or objects, never for the words which stand in for nouns, they have their own possessive forms (he/his, she/hers, it/its, our/ours, their/theirs).

There is a common confusion with ‘it’s’. The apostrophe in it’s can only ever mean a letter is missing (it’s raining/it is raining). It is never used to mean owning (The company is well known for its excellence).

[edit] Bullet points

Capitalise the start of words after the colon in a simple list, there is no need for commas or full stops.

The project included the following:

In a more complex list use capital letters after the colon and full stops to make each point a self-contained sentence. There is no need to add ‘and’ at the end of the penultimate bullet point.

The project included the following:

[edit] Capital letters

Too many capital letters can be hard to read, and none at all feels dated. Current usage is to use capitals to start a title in a document and then revert to lower case letters unless there is a proper name:

  • Project report on London’s wild species
  • Client feedback report

Specific situations:

  • If it is a generic term or title, do not capitalise (landscape architect), use capitals when naming a specific person with their title (Jo Smith, Landscape Architect).
  • Use capitals in proper names (London Borough of Wandsworth and Wandsworth Council), but not in generics (London’s boroughs).
  • Points of the compass are generally given initial capital letters when referring to a specific place (the North of England, the North-east, the South-east) but for a more general reference, do not capitalise (northern England, in the south of the site). In London, use capitals for specifics (East End, West End), but not for general areas (west London). Some exceptions have become names (Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and the West).
  • Seasons do not require initial capitals (summer, autumn, winter, spring).
  • The euro doesn’t require a capital letter when written out in full. With figures use its symbol.
  • Architectural styles have initial capital letters (Classical, Modernist, Brutalism, Gothic, Post Modernism, Arts and Crafts).
  • Formal procedures generally use capitals (Flood Risk Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment, Design and Access Statement).

[edit] Captions

Start captions with a capital but do not use a full stop.

[edit] Colons and semicolons

Colons and semicolons provide stronger breaks than commas. A colon is like an equals sign in maths and is used to begin lists.

The project’s key features:

  • Repair to existing structure
  • Piling analysis

A semi colon’s main use is to balance out two related but standalone clauses, rather like an equals sign in maths.

The project should take a year to complete; the team has been on site for six months and is half way through the build.

[edit] Commas

Commas provide a pause between information and divide lists. No comma required before a final ‘and’ in a sentence. Commas are used before quotations:

The project’s engineer stated, ‘We are delighted to have won such a prestigious award.’

[edit] Company names

Use the full legal company name including any additions (Ltd, plc, Inc) in the first instance. After this, use the name as used by the company itself (the BBC, Laing O’Rourke - not O’Rourke’s, Arup not Arups).

[edit] Compound words

Many compound words have become part of common use and do not require a hyphen, for example, landmark, guideline, masterplan, shortlist, housebuilder.

[edit] Countries

United Kingdom or UK (comprises England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), Great Britain (comprises England, Scotland, Wales).

[edit] Dates

In general text use date, month, year (10 April 2008); in technical documents use numerals (10.08.12); decades are in numerals (1960s). Centuries don’t need a capital (the 19th century, not 19th Century).

[edit] Days of the week

Days of the week are best written in full, with initial capitals.

[edit] Dimensions

In general text, write dimensions in full (the area of the ground floor is 8,000 square metres). In a technical document use abbreviations (ground floor 8,000sqm).

[edit] Exclamation marks

These are best avoided in professional communication.

[edit] Full stops in abbreviations

Use eg, ie, etc; not e.g, i.e. and etc.

[edit] Headlines in documents, brochures and bids

Capitalise the first word and proper nouns (Sustainable building report).

[edit] Hyphens

The main use for hyphens is in creating modified adjectives before a noun, for example, high-specification materials (exception - don’t hyphenate after -ly). However if the describing words come after the noun the hyphen is not needed.

A 20-year-old building, but the building is 20 years old.

No hyphen: coordinate, cooperate

Hyphen used: cross-section, cross-fertilise, cross-pollinate, cross-disciplinary.

[edit] Numbers

Write one to nine in full, 10 onwards as numbers. In technical documents keep numbers as numerals, for example, a 3m-long handrail, 10 x 5-beams in the roof. If possible, avoid starting a sentence with a numeral.

[edit] Measurements

Use metric in the UK. This includes hectare in preference to acre and Celsius in preference to Fahrenheit. Exceptions: golf courses are measured in yards, and it is usual to describe speed as miles per hour.

[edit] Quotation marks

Use single quotes around the actual words spoken.

‘We are delighted with the finished building,’ said Gertrude Smith.

Note that even though this is a complete sentence in terms of speech it ends with a comma and the full stop is given to the end of the written sentence.

[edit] Spacing

Leave just one keyboard space between sentences. Programs such as Word automatically provide extra breathing space and justified text with too many spaces looks wrong.

[edit] They’re, their, theirs, there

  • They’re (short for they are, note apostrophe to show missing letter) - They’re a strong engineering team.
  • Their (possessive pronoun) - Their understanding of sustainability is impressive.
  • Theirs (possessive pronoun) - The design is theirs.
  • There (adverb) - The building is over there.

[edit] Spelling

The spell-check function on computers today means many problems are eliminated. However some words remain troublesome. Some have confusing homophones (words which sound the same but have different meanings) and US spelling variants.

  • affect: means to influence something, effect is to bring about change, or the result of change (to affect the environment, the effect of water damage).
  • and: write in full, avoid using & and + unless it forms part of a company name.
  • annex: verb (to annex), the noun has an extra e (we added an annexe to the building).
  • artefact: not artifact.
  • brownfield, greenfield and greenbelt: not brown field, green field, green belt.
  • capitalise not capitalize: realise not realize, customise not customize, keep the ‘s’ in UK text.
  • compliment and complement: to compliment is to offer praise, to complement means to complete, to create harmony or compatibility. The client complimented our work. The colour of the seats complemented the natural wood of the ceiling.
  • discreet, discrete: discreet means to be tactful or prudent; discrete means separate.
  • disinterested, uninterested: disinterested means impartial, uninterested means lacking in interest.
  • effectively: not affectively.
  • ensure, insure: ensure is to make sure of something, insure is related to insurance.
  • everyday and every day: an everyday occurrence, we do this every day.
  • focused, focusing: not focussed and focussing.
  • forward, foreword: to travel forward, a foreword is introductory text in a book.
  • fulfil: not fulfill. But infill, not infil.
  • greywater: not grey water, also blackwater, rainwater.
  • inquiry: this relates to an event such as a public inquiry. An enquiry is something you make when you ask a question/enquire.

[edit] Other common mistakes

  • less and fewer: less applies to quantities such as volume, mass or area, fewer relates to numbers. Generally you can’t count/numerate less, but you can fewer - less water, fewer apples. Note that less/fewer are comparatives and usually require qualification; less or fewer than what?
  • Licence and license. Licence is a noun, wheras license is a verb.
  • maybe, may be: maybe we should consider an alternative, this may be it.
  • none: a commonly used abbreviation of ‘not one’ which is treated as a singular.
  • pavilion: not pavillion.
  • practice and practise: practice (with c) is a noun, such as an architectural practice. Practise (with s) is a verb or doing word, such as to practise. You can hear the difference with a similar word - to advise and to offer advice.
  • principle and principal: a principle is a general rule, a principal is a senior manager or the main thing.
  • rainwater or rain: not rain water.
  • receive, conceive, deceive: - i before e except after c.
  • recommend: not recomend.
  • separate: not seperate.
  • stationery, stationary: stationery is papers and pens, stationary is to stop still.
  • until: not ‘til or till.
  • would have: not would of.

[edit] Protocols

If the directors agree, the house style document may set out protocols for handling different forms of communication.

[edit] Answering the telephone

What should the person answering the phone say?

  • The company name and a greeting?
  • The company name and the name of the person speaking?

How is someone’s absence to be handled – will the caller be put through to voicemail? Is there to be a standard statement on voicemail?

[edit] Emails

It may be worth reminding employees that emails are easily recreated from hard-drives and back-up files and are admissible in court as a permanent business record. Emails should be treated with the same care as the production of other business correspondence.

Suggested protocol questions might include:

[edit] What is its purpose of the email?

Email should be used to set up meetings, announce the agenda and report minutes. Email is not used to hold the meeting.

[edit] Consider the length.

If it’s more than two paragraphs attach a word document.

[edit] Who needs to see it?

  • Do not send office-wide emails without your manager’s approval.
  • Beware of (unintended) manipulative tactics like sending a message and Cc-ing a long list of senior staff.
  • If you need to send multiple To’s or many Cc’s, specify the required response and state from whom and by when it should be done.

[edit] Tone and content

  • Do not say on email what you would not say in person.
  • Never chastise a person via email - do it in person, no matter what your title is.
  • Beware when sending a reactionary email. Make a draft and leave it for a while before sending. Most emails like this are then changed before sending or not sent at all.
  • Do not send a sensitive/confidential email. Hold a meeting or make a phone call. Emails are easily forwarded or printed.
  • On the other hand, if you receive a sensitive email, respect its confidentiality.
  • Beware of passing on unnecessary or confidential attachments or discussions within the body of the email. There are many examples of offending material that was accidentally transmitted through attachments.

[edit] Look

A standard typeface, type size and branded footer should be applied to all emails sent on company business.


This article was written by --Alex Harvie 17:49, 2 July 2013 (BST)

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