Archaeology Hack #9: Write clearly and logically

(This is part of a new and ongoing series called Thor’s Day Cultural Resource Management Archaeology Hacks. Quick as lightning, these tips are designed to help you make the impact of Mjölnir on your next project.)

Further good archaeology writing with clear, direct sentencesProper archaeology is synonymous with writing. If we didn’t write stuff down, archaeology and the cultural resource management industry wouldn’t be much better than American Diggers. Unfortunately, writing clearly and logically is something archaeology is not known for.

I frequently see journal articles and cultural resource management archaeology reports bloated with lofty prose, jargon-laden sentences, and spineless statements written in a voice so passive it makes me wonder how the author decides which pair of pants they should wear in the morning. None of this makes it easy for non-archaeologists to understand what we do; thus, the intellectual chasm between our profession and the rest of society continues to grow.

Cultural resource management reports are no different than academic writing in this respect. Unlike most journal article authors, CRMers have a lot of shoes to fill with every single report. We have to fulfill client obligations, regulatory strictures, and, most importantly, stay true to our ethical duty to conduct archaeological research. It takes experience and creativity to accomplish all of these goals while also making a profit from our services.

Clear, logical technical writing is the only way the goals of CRM can address all of these needs. I have previously talked about constructing logical paragraphs, which are the foundation of logical essays; however, these logical paragraphs will not make sense if they are not composed of clear sentences. All of the problems I’ve ever had with my writing came from an inability to write clearly. Quality, clear, direct sentence composition is the only way we can combat unclear writing.

Write as if you are explaining what you did to a fourth grader

I was once told by one of my former bosses—a CRM principal investigator with over 25 years of report-writing experience—that I should write every single sentence as if I was trying to explain my project and its results to a nine-year-old. She explained that a fourth grader’s reading vocabulary was more than adequate to explain cultural resource management archaeology and would make our writing assessable to all non-archaeologist adults. Also, writing at this level made it more likely that our clients would actually read a large portion of the report instead of just glancing at the “Recommendations” section before calling us to explain. (She also fantasized about a time when CRM reports could be made entirely of pictures, like a comic book, so it would be easier and more engaging for our clients to read but we’re not going there.) This tip, along with embracing the hamburger technique, changed the way I wrote and the way I thought about written communication.

Further enlightenment came from another boss who told me I should always be thinking of a way to eliminate the word “of” from every report. He believed that focusing on the elimination of the word “of” would almost force me to write in active voice, which is the preferred voice for academic/research writing. This exercise also simplifies your sentences, moving them closer to fourth grade competency, and makes your writing much clearer.

I could continue with anecdotal evidence of how we can all clarify our writing, but I don’t have to because the good folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center have done most of the heavy lifting for me. Their webpage on “Writing Clear Concise Sentences” does a much better job explaining how we can all benefit from writing clearly. They have 10 basic tips that you can download as a free PDF, but I just want to address the four biggest violations I see most frequently in cultural resource management reports:

1) Put wordy phrases on a diet: Wordy phrases are unclear and sound weak. They are hard to read, making your audience strain to understand what you’re trying to say. They almost always move you away from active voice (Notice how the phrase “almost always” in the previous sentence makes it sound weaker and less definitive [i.e. less clear]? That’s because those words are not necessary for me to convey what I’m trying to say.) They confuse perfectly clear statements.

The key is to know what you want to say and write it as directly as possible. “We identified 12 prehistoric artifact concentrations,” is much better than, “During the course of our week-long field investigation, 12 prehistoric artifact concentrations were identified by the field crew.” Your client doesn’t care how long you were out there, unless you went over budget, or who identified what. They just want to know what you found. So, tell them as clearly as possible.

2) Don’t start sentences with expletive constructions: What’s an expletive construction? I didn’t know either until I looked at the UWisconsin website.

Expletive constructions are phrases like, “there are”, “it is,” “it was,” “one might,” ect. Oftentimes, a version of the verb “to be” is involved.

Expletive constructions make every sentence they touch weak and obscured. They make it difficult to identify the sentence’s subject, which makes it confusing. These phrases are also unnecessary. Your sentences will be much clearer after you’ve eliminated them.

If you can’t use expletives in what you’re writing, you shouldn’t use expletive constructions either.

3) Use active voice as much as possible: Archaeology is practiced in the present but we report on the past. This means a lot of our sentences explain things that happen in the past tense. Also, we are rarely 100% sure of our findings so we have to find ways around making statements that are not true. The problem is: Using all that past tense and having to parse our words can move our writing into passive voice (i.e. the bane of all technical writing).

Active voice is when the subject of a sentence it what is performing the action. Starting sentences with expletive constructions is a major source of archaeology writing that isn’t in active voice. If your subject is obscured with unnecessary words, how can you expect your reader to find the subject of that sentence without digging deeper? How can you expect your reader to expend extra effort just to figure out what you’re saying? The answer: They aren’t. Your reader is not going to spend one single iota of effort to figure out a passive, unclear sentence.

You can still write recommendations, conclusions, and summaries in active voice even if you cannot be 100% sure of what happened in the past. Rather than hedging your bets with sentences in passive voice, (Perhaps, the establishment of a settlement in the project area might have been the result of seasonal transitions between salmon harvesting and camas root harvesting loci.) just say what you know and leave it at that (The settlement in the project area is similar to archaeological sites associated with salmon and camas collection.) Anyone that reads your writing will thank you for sticking with active voice throughout your report.

Passive voice is for poems, Facebook posts, and other informal writing forms. Active voice rules the day for everything else.

4) Never, ever use unnecessarily inflated words: Fourth graders do not know the meaning of obfuscation. They don’t know what teleology is. Or, pedagogy. Or, morphology processes. Or, bioturbation…

Why use a $100 word when a $5 one will do? Using big words does not make you look smart. It actually makes you look like you’re too dumb to know your audience. If a fourth-grader doesn’t understand it, don’t use that word.

I understand that archaeology requires technical terms, also known as jargon, but we don’t have to make our sentences unreadable by using obscure nouns and verbs; or, even worse, creating obnoxious jargon chains. Jargony writing is an immediate turn-off. Your client won’t even want to use your report as toilet paper because they won’t want to touch it at all, let alone read it. Keep it simple. Write to the fourth graders. Don’t use jargon unless it is absolutely, absolutely necessary.

Getting your reports slashed with red ink is an experience I would like to spare you.

Who am I to give you advice on cultural resource management report writing? If you’ve read my blog posts or eBooks, you’ve probably never seen me write a proper “journalese” sentence. Why would you trust someone that writes as poorly as I do?

I learned how to read from my mother, learned how to write proper sentences in middle school, and wrote some stuff that won awards in college; but, I learned how to write reports as a cultural resource management archaeologist. I didn’t know any of this stuff until I had to write, on command, for a living. There’s something about knowing if you don’t learn how to write well enough, you aren’t going to be able to pay your bills that makes you grow as a writer.

My writing has evolved over the years out of necessity. In the past, supervisors and editors have ravaged me like a hobo on a ham sandwich. They cut deep with red ink, making so many comments the paper looked like Jack the Ripper had gone wild. Coming to work and seeing a draft report with the words “DO OVER” scrawled on the front cover in brilliant red ink is nothing to write home about. It’s sad to fail over and over again.

In the beginning, I used to get depressed with how badly I was getting scrutinized. I eventually realized I was getting better and, even though the comments/edits were still intense, I was no longer making the same mistakes anymore. Comments on my grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics were replaced by edits regarding the logic and clarity of my statements. Eventually, my supervisors were commenting on how to properly apply archaeological method and theory to regulatory strictures. I still get edits, but they are more about content rather than grammar.

Learning how to write clearly and logically is the best thing we can do to help further the public’s understanding of archaeology. As someone that has been bludgeoned by editors, I offer my advice freely. It is based on experience, trial, and error. You can take it or leave it, but don’t say I never gave you anything.

Write a comment below if you want to join the discussion or send me an email.


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