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Professional Style. Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011. Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011. Professional Style “Professional style” is a term we are going to use to describe the style of writing used in professional, business, and public-policy situations.

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professional style

Professional Style

Administrative Policy Writing

Spring 2011

administrative policy writing spring 2011
Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Professional Style

  • “Professional style” is a term we are going to use to describe the style of writing used in professional, business, and public-policy situations.
  • All writing to and from the government is written in a professional style.
  • This is especially true if you are writing on behalf of a governmental body. Even if what you are writing doesn’t feel very important or formal, you are writing on behalf of the sovereign, whether it is the federal, state, or local government.
  • … something not to be taken lightly.
  • Writing in a professional style is important for all types of writing we talk about this semester.
administrative policy writing spring 20111
Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Professional Style: Some General Points

  • Professional style requires a higher level of formality than most people are accustomed to.
  • We live in an age of informal communication:
    • email
    • texting
    • Facebook
  • Because informality is the norm, you have to consciously adopt a more formal tone in professional writing. Almost like you are speaking another language.
  • But you should not be stiff, bureaucratic, or aloof either: a balance.
  • Government correspondence is subject to the Public Information Act. (More on this later in the semester.)
  • As a general rule, if you work for the government, assume that everything you write is public information: email, letters, etc.
  • Imagine everything you write on a billboard over Interstate 35.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Some Elements of Professional Style

We are going to talk about five elements of professional style:

  • Maintain a professional tone.
  • Avoid laying blame unless you must.
  • Focus on facts, not assumptions or opinions.
  • Stay on point.
  • Be concise.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Professional Tone

  • Professional tone means a level of formality and professional distance.
    • Talk about people by using Mr. or Ms. rather than their first name or nickname. (Exception of inter-office communications and email).
    • First person is usually ok.
    • Keep personal information to a minimum for your own protection. Assume that whatever you are writing is open to the public.
    • Always keep it polite.
    • Never put anything down in writing that you would want to take back later. You can’t!
  • Avoid slang on one hand and unnecessarily stuffy words on the other.
    • No: “What’s up with that?”
    • No: “What is the subject-matter of this inquiry?”
    • Ok: “What’s this about?”
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Professional Tone

  • Resist the temptation to
    • Say anything sarcastic
    • Make any jokes, especially about anyone
    • Say anything crude or in poor taste
    • Adopt shorthand: incomplete sentences, typos, texting speak.
  • These rules apply to letters and email.
  • Email is generally less formal. In my experience, referring to people by their first name and using contractions is acceptable in email.
  • But still write it complete sentences.
  • Remember, email is a permanent record with your name attached to it. You will be judged by your style and tone.
  • How might the author of the following email be judged for this document three years later?
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Avoid Laying Blame

  • This is another tip for your own protection.
  • Police maxim: Anything you say can be used against you.
  • Don’t be overly paranoid, but there is some truth to this. Think very hard about creating a document that expresses your opinion on fault.
  • Find ways to address a problem without throwing jabs at those you believe are responsible.
  • Usually, assigning blame does not help solve the issue. It is more about making the writer feel better.
  • Of course there will be situations where you have to assign blame. My advice is simply to try to avoid it whenever you can.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • As a general rule, professional writing is about facts and what conclusions should be drawn from those facts. Most everything you will write in a professional context will boil down to this.
  • As opposed to the writer’s own personal feelings on the subject. Thus, professional writers must resist the urge to editorialize in their writing.
  • This is especially true in the public-policy or business context.
    • If you are writing under a government or business letterhead, you are speaking for that body.
    • Whatever you say will be attributed to it.
  • Thus, professional writers must filter their writing through a “work persona” who doesn’t express the same views as the person their friends or family knows. Skilled professional writers learn how to take on multiple personalities.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • Consider this situation:
  • Sue is an employee of BP.
  • BP was the operator of the notorious Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
  • In April 2010, an explosion on Deepwater Horizon resulted in an enormous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the loss of several lives.
  • BP fell under intense public scorn. Many people believe that the spill was caused by BP’s negligent operations.
  • Sue is part of the environmental compliance team at BP and must correspond with the federal Minerals Management Agency, Coast Guard, and other governmental entities on a regular basis.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • Sue personally dislikes BP and thinks the spill could have been prevented.
  • The environmental team has received a letter from the Coast Guard requesting certain documents related to safety operations on another oil rig in the Gulf called the Deepwater Nautilus. Sue is responsible for responding to this request.
  • In her response, Sue concludes with the following comment:
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • What do you think?
  • Do you think Sue could get into hot water over these comments?
  • Do you think it is fair?
    • Is she being paid to express her opinions about the spill?
    • Shouldn’t her bosses at BP be able to control the views expressed by the company?
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • Focusing on facts also means writing in a way that avoids making assumptions.
  • An assumption is a conclusion you make without having the facts to back you up. This is especially important in investigative writing.
  • Government agencies often write investigation reports. The purpose of these documents is to collect and record facts and conclusions.
  • These documents are important because they can become evidence in a trial. Millions of dollars may hang in the balance.
  • We will talk more about investigative-report writing later in the semester.
  • Investigators must be very careful to report on only those matters they observed rather than assumptions.
  • Why? Assumptions are sometimes wrong. Thus, they can undermine a writer’s credibility and be misleading.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • Paul is an investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Paul inspects commercial aircraft to ensure that the airlines are complying with FAA’s safety regulations. Paul records his findings in investigation reports. These reports cover a variety of checks Paul performs on each aircraft.
  • Some of the items Paul checks include the landing gear tire pressure, the integrity of fuel and hydraulic lines, window and door seals, and the integrity of the aircraft body.
  • On one occasion, Paul was assigned to inspect twenty aircraft in one day. Because he was in a hurry, Paul took some shortcuts that, in his mind, were entirely sensible and justified.
  • For example, Paul observed several “fresh drops” of fuel in the area of the fuel lines on one aircraft. He didn’t have time to crawl into the space with a flashlight to see if the drips were actually coming from the line. Paul thought a leaking fuel line was the only possible explanation for the presence of fuel outside the fuel lines.
  • Thus, Paul recorded a violation of FAA rules for leaking fuel lines.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • As a result of the violations Paul recorded in this investigation, the FAA initiated an enforcement action against the airline and sought a substantial fine. Leaking fuel lines are considered a major violation of aircraft safety rules.
  • The airline denied that there was any leak on this aircraft. The FAA agreed to re-inspect the aircraft with safety personnel from the airline.
  • When investigators actually looked at the suspect fuel line, they found no leaks.
  • It turns out that the “fresh drops” were a result of refueling the plane. As the fill hose was disconnected, some excess fuel ran down the fuel line and left the drops. This occurred just prior to the investigator's arrival.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Focus on Facts

  • Moral of the story?
  • The investigator made an assumption about what he was seeing rather than relying on observations.
  • His assumption caused the FAA to pursue an frivolous enforcement action against the airline.
  • Thus, time was wasted and the FAA looks bad.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Stay on Point

  • This seems like pretty straight-forward advice. But sometimes it is harder in practice.
  • Public-policy writers often deal with complicated information.
  • It is rare to deal with a single, isolated problem. Rather, problems or issues are usually messy.
  • They may be related to or dependent on a host of other issues.
  • Professional writing has an organized feel. It deals with complicated issues with a calm, step-by-step approach.
  • Writing that tries to tackle multiple issues at once is confusing and feels disorganized.
  • In addition, by working through only one issue at a time, you are more likely to cover all the relevant questions or possible conclusions.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Be Concise

  • Professional writing is usually directed to busy professional people.
  • Assume that people are not reading your document because they are particularly interested in it.
  • Rather, they just want something from it:
    • What was observed during this investigation?
    • What are your conclusions?
    • What are the steps we need to take in order to accomplish this goal?
  • With this in mind, you should write in a way that gets to your point quickly. This doesn’t mean professional writing is terse or overly brief. Like so many things, it is a balance.
  • So how do you strike that balance?
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011

Be Concise

  • When you write about an issue or problem, you are telling a story. That story can be very long and complicated and can involve many actors.
  • In order to make your story meaningful and concise, you must focus on relevant facts. Not every fact is relevant.
  • Not everyone is interested in the whole story. Different audiences may care about only one part.
  • Be sensitive to this. Tailor your story to your audience.
  • Example: the following document is a timeline of events from the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 from
  • Which of these facts is relevant to the issue of how much oil was released?
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011


  • Professional style is generally more formal than everyday communication.
  • Maintain professional distance and avoid personal information.
  • Assume that whatever you are writing is public information.
  • Even in email, keep it somewhat formal and polite.
  • You are creating a permanent record with your name attached to it.
  • Avoid assigning blame.
  • Focus on facts, not your own personal opinions or assumptions.
  • Stay on point.
  • Be concise.
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Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011


  • Questions? Comments?
  • Complete the professional style exercise. In this exercise you will revise several passages to make them conform with the elements we have covered.
  • No writing project for this week!