Writing for Developers and Consultants: Use of Language

Words matter.
Grammar matters.

How we use language affects how our audience perceives us. In school teachers and professors taught many of us formal – and strict – rules for writing. Those rules are useful to know, but my point is not that you need to follow them strictly.

You need to control the language you use with intention, and create the impression you want your audience to have.

When we write at work, we are a reflection of ourselves, our team, and our companies. We want all those things to look good to our clients, customers, leadership – our audience. That is not the same goal as learning all the rules of Strunk and White. It’s about choosing the right words and structures to meeting our audience’s expectations.

To do this well, you need to understand the patterns and rules people think of as formal writing, and when to use idioms or patterns that break those rules. Sometimes it is better to follow the rules; sometimes it’s better to break them.

It’s a matter of fashion, pure and simple. People do need to be taught what the socially acceptable forms are. But what we should teach is not that the good way is logical and the way that you’re comfortable doing it is illogical. It should just be, here is the natural way, then there’s some things that you’re supposed to do in public because that’s the way it is, whether it’s fair or not.

John McWhorter

Strategic Use of Passive Voice

In college several professors demanded I never use the passive voice in my formal papers. Microsoft Word of the day backed up that assertion by flagging every passive sentence as a grammar error. In those papers they were right, since they controlled the grading standard, but those are not the rules I follow today.

Shortly after graduation my wife and I discovered the power of the passive voice when our rabbit chewed through a power cable of our brand new printer. When I called support I said: “The power cable is frayed.” They didn’t ask how the cable became frayed, they just assumed it had arrived that way and shipped us a new one. Perhaps not our most ethical moment, but a useful one in understanding the power of breaking the formal rules we’d been taught.

A simple definition of the passive voice is:

A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.

UNC Writing Center

The classic joke is “Why was the road crossed by the chicken?” where we have clearly reversed the subject and the object of action. More commonly we leave the true actor, the person who should be the subject of the sentence, out of the sentence entirely. There are lots of discussions on the passive voice around, because it is an important concept to understand. But banning passive sentences is the wrong approach.

Passive construction makes sentences weak and frequently unclear. Without editing I will often write too many passive sentences in a post. But sometimes the weakness of passive construction helps to drive my point home.

In writing with clients over use of active voice can become accusatory. Think about the difference between “The data set provided has many errors.” vs “You provided me a data set with many errors.”

The first gives the reader room to blame a file, a process, or another cause other than themselves (which may be correct). The second points a finger. When I am trying to resolve a problem caused by bad sample data, pointing fingers, placing blame is not helpful. Sometimes we need to be clear, and identify actors explicitly. Sometimes we want to indirect to avoid creating unneeded tension.

Other Rules to Follow Strategically

In school our teachers taught many of us that paragraphs should always have three, or more, sentences that mirror the three sections of a paper: introduction, body, conclusion.

But a sentence by itself stands out and draws attention.

If every sentence were by itself they would stop standing out, so mixing emphasis and longer structures is still a good idea. The readability checker I use for my blog dislikes long sentences, preferring short choppy structures. Short punchy writing is easy to skim, but exhausting to read. Overly long sentences are hard to follow and may reveal incomplete thinking because they contain too many ideas. It’s a balance to be used carefully.

Punctuation is also taught as a series of strict rules. However use of commas, semicolons, periods, dashes, and so on are also matter of personal style. If you know the purpose of a mark you can decide when you want to use which to add emphasis and clarity to your text.

Starting sentences with conjunctions was most gracefully debated in Finding Forester (movie staring Sean Connery as an aging writer teaching a young African American boy how to become a writer):

Forrester: Paragraph three starts…with a conjunction, “and.” You should never start a sentence with a conjunction.

Jamal: Sure you can.

Forrester: No, it’s a firm rule.

Jamal: No, it was a firm rule. Sometimes using a conjunction at the start of a sentence makes it stand out. And that may be what the writer’s trying to do.

Forrester: And what is the risk?

Jamal: Well the risk is doing it too much. It’s a distraction. And it could give your piece a run-on feeling. But for the most part, the rule on using “and” or “but” at the start of a sentence is pretty shaky. Even though it’s still taught by too many professors. Some of the best writers have ignored that rule for years, including you.

More or less any rule or pattern you have been taught, you should explore when to follow and when to deviate.

Practice Until Your Comfortable

I know of no magic way to become comfortable using language carefully, except by doing it. Be thoughtful when you write. Edit carefully at every chance. Ask for feedback when you available. And write in as many contexts as you can justify.

My whole point in keeping a blog, even well passed the era of independent tech blogging (and with limited care for the theme being used, SEO, or monetization) is to force myself to write regularly. I write different types of posts with different styles and attention to care. Some of that is months I’m being lazy, and some of that is very intentional. I first wrote for this blog when I had a job that actively discouraged me from communicating well – I told time and again that developers cannot write clearly. That’s crap: it was then, and it is now. So I started writing at least monthly to keep myself in practice.

Your practice does not need to be a blog. Find yourself some form of routine writing, and play with your style over time. Just a few suggestions of things to try:

  • Letters to friends and loved ones (on actual paper and with a stamp)
  • Short Stories or other fiction writing
  • Contribute project documentation to an open source project
  • Essays for Medium (more or less blogging with less commitment)
  • Participate in an online writing challenge
  • Journaling
  • Take a writing course

Still More to Come

As I said in my first post on this topic, communications skills for developers and consultants is an enormous topic. I have not yet planned the series, but you should expect more to come.

Writing for Developers and Consultants: Editing

The most important thing you need to have to be a successful consultant is excellent communications skills . If your client doesn’t understand and trust what you tell them, it doesn’t matter what you suggest, create, build, or deliver.

I have been helping a few colleagues lately work on their client communication skills and figured I should write down my suggestions for how developers can communicate well with clients.

Everyone on a project team needs to be able to communicate what they need, what they are doing, and how their piece of the project works. They also need to know how to address their own errors and mistakes so the project moves forward and the client trusts that errors will be resolved.

As I sat down to write this piece I realized the topic is huge; far too large for one post. I’ve thought about the importance of good writing, editing, grammar, the kinds of email messages we send, documents we write, and presentations we give. 

All of those probably justify at least one post, so I’m starting here: editing.

Why Editing is Important

Editing probably feels like an odd place to start a series on writing, but it is a thing you can start to do now that will help you write more effectively. If you have a college degree you probably got into the habit of writing papers fast, and turning them in at the deadline. But you almost certainly didn’t do enough editing of those papers (I’m married to a college professor, and I talk to college professors a lot: No. You. Didn’t.). If you don’t have a college degree, it’s also unlikely many people have sat down and talked to you about the importance of editing. If you’ve come to consulting from a writing-heavy background you’ve figured out by now the value of editing – this post isn’t really for you, so please come back for later installments.

Editing is how you take poor, or merely acceptable writing, and make it clear and compelling. 

Good editing is about more than basic mechanics, it’s about testing that your idea or explanation makes sense. Editing lets you clean up awkward, but technically correct, expressions. And it gives you a chance to reflect on how your audience will read the material. As you edit, see if each sentence makes sense to them the same way it does to you.

Editors Are A Luxury

A good editor is worth their weight in gold – sometimes more. Well known authors have been known to change publishing houses to follow a good editor. They are also not part of your typical consulting team. For consultants, having an editor is a rare luxury. 

For large documents, good teams will make sure one or two people give completed drafts an editing pass. Often getting support from a marketing department to edit a conference talk is possible. Another person reading an email and offering edits happens exceptionally rarely. It’s the same with internal presentations. No one will edit your chat messages except you.

So, while an outside editor is an invaluable tool, a consultant should not expect to have access to one.

Be Your Own Editor

That means you have to be your own editor. Editing your own writing is hard. If you could see the mistake the first time, you would have fixed it before you write the next sentence (those kinds of fixes are not the same as editing, that’s “fixing typos” or “not being lazy”).

There are three main tricks I use when being my own editor:

  • Put the document aside between writing and editing – the longer the better
  • Reading it aloud to yourself (yes really, out loud)
  • Edit on paper (use one of those printer things)

I wrote the first draft of this while sitting in the Atlanta airport. I revisited and edited a printed draft a few days later (my wife also took a pass – see above). And again after I put it into my blog. It’ll probably get a few tweaks after it’s posted.

Don’t Let Edits Be Personal

Writing, even technical writing, is very personal; editing should not be. 

A good edit may be brutal to the original material. If you get too attached to your first draft, you will be tempted to skip asking for an edit or doing an editing pass yourself. That’s part of why I put a document aside for a bit between writing and editing, it gives me space to see the flaws in my words and ideas.

Several years ago I was editing a long report for AFSC, and the first draft was far too long, too detailed, had too many tangents, and didn’t focus on the intended audience. I attacked it. She and I spoke several times to make sure she understood my goal was to help make her was succeed. Through aggressive editing we made sure her great work achieved her intended goal: stopping the unchecked growth of private prisons.

I deleted entire sections, rewrote the summary (which someone else then edited for me). I pulled in favors, got my wife to edit drafts. We debated chapter order, technical details, and sentence after sentence. What started at 100 pages, ended up being 20 page report with an 8 page summary that journalists and politicians cited as they debated proposed private prison expansion. Because of that work, and follow on efforts by people using it as a model, private prison growth has slowed substantially (if that’s not a topic you know about, trust me that’s a good thing). The author and I became friends and worked together well on follow up projects and efforts. She appreciated the value of the edits even if they were painful at first.

Edit Aggressively

Whether your editing for yourself, or for someone else, dig deep and edit aggressively. If you haven’t done much editing you want to think about every word, every piece of punctuation, every detail. As you get more practice you’ll find short cuts and learn your own weaknesses (or your team’s).  I use too many words, and write long sentences – I attack those. Shorter is better.

Using traditional grammar tools can be helpful, particularly if you are unsure about the basic grammar rules. But if you use tools like Grammarly or ChatGPT to rewrite things make sure you think carefully about if, and why, you like that version better. Used well Generative AIs are a useful tool, but if you lean on those tools too much you don’t actually get better yourself.

More to Come

As I said at the top, communications skills for developers and consultants is an enormous topic. I have not yet planned the series, but you should expect more to come (and I’ll edit this section to add references).

Do Not Consult Like Col. Flagg

Sometimes we learn best from counter examples. Col. Flagg was an recurring character on M*A*S*H. He was a CID man with Army Intelligence, and spent much of his time bloviating about his suspicions about everyone while threatening to kill people for fun.

Flagg seemed to have taken every piece of tactical advice he was ever given to absolute extreme. It leads him apply his most aggressive techniques – like threats of torture, or attempts at bribery – to every situation he encounters.

Consultants get a lot of good tactical advice about how to address our clients and our work. But if we take things too far we are only slightly less clueless than Flagg.

Col. Flagg’s Over-Generalization

Probably the best example of Flagg’s constant misapplication of techniques by generalizing their use is in The Abduction of Margret Houlihan from season 5. Chief Nurse Margret Houlihan hurries off late at night to deliver a baby in a nearby village, telling only the guard, Kilnger, who promptly goes to bed. When no one can find her in the morning, Potter calls for help searching for her. The army’s answer is to send Col. Flagg. He arrives, dressed as Mussolini, claiming to look like a Chinese double agent (if that agent chose the same get up), and proceeds to request the provisioning of several items clearly planning to torture someone.

Flagg spends the day wondering around, threatening everyone he talks with, trying to get information about Houlihan. He never finds anything of use, but does get in a number of good one-liners.

Finally Houlihan, who was never in any danger, returns to camp unaided. Flagg declares victory, throws himself out a window – so know one will see him leave – and breaks his leg.

Anyone who had been a consultant long enough can find parallels between Flagg’s useless bloviating, and consultants who try to address every client project as interchangeable.

Col. Flagg Consulting

Good advice often is context specific – you need to know when and how to use it.

Anytime I am in a meeting with a client, and I recognize that a piece of stock advice may apply, I try to reflect on the context of the moment. Does the advice actually apply, or would a different approach be better.

For example, consultants are often told to never say “I don’t know” in front of a client when asked a question we are unsure how to answer. Instead we are taught to say “I need to get back to you about that” or “let me verify with another team member before I respond.”

Up to a point this makes sense. We are paid experts; clients don’t want hire someone who does not know how to complete the job. Often making a space to make sure you are correct is the right response to an unknown. It’s far better than making up wrong answers. And, more often, better than making a client nervous because you haven’t had 30 seconds to Google the answer.

But clients can also smell something is fishy if you always claim to know everything. When I was a client, I never trusted consultants who pretended that they had seen and done everything. I knew they were lying to me because no one knows everything – leaving me to sort truth from fiction. That never ended well for the consultant.

“Nobody gets the truth out of me. I keep myself in a constant state of confusion.”

Col. Flagg

Consultants who cannot track context and adjust their approach accordingly, risk consulting like Col. Flagg.

M*A*S*H Consulting

If you didn’t know, or can’t guess from context, my wife and I are M*A*S*H fans. We grew up with it. We bought the DVDs as they Fox released them. It’s our go-to for something comforting to watch. It’s entertaining, and full of great lines and moments to borrow for life examples. As part of marking the show’s 50th anniversary this is the second in a short series of posts using consulting lessons from characters in M*A*S*H.

Consult like Father Mulcahy

Father John Patrick Francis Mulcahy (aka Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy depending on the season), spent 11 seasons of M*A*S*H trying to balance his two realities. He was a priest, opposed to violence (aside from boxing), thrust into a war zone. As the 4077th chaplain he was responsible for the spiritual and emotional care of more or less everyone else. Father Mulcahy spends many scenes helping in OR. He supports the doctors however he can; he brings supplies and drinks to the staff; offers prayers for the dying; even assisting in surgeries at times. 

Mulcahy’s Balance

Throughout the show his story is one of a man struggling to find balance – sometimes he does it well, sometimes he misses. The writers make his goal most clear in the episode Heroes. A former boxing champion has come to came on a USO tour stop and has a stroke that is eventually fatal. As the boxer lays in a coma, he explains the influence the champ had had on his world view. 

Mulcahy talks about his struggle with the idealism in Plato and his desire not to be beaten up at school. He tells the story of the first professional fight he’d seen. The now dying champ, had asked the ref to stop the fight so he didn’t hurt his opponent too badly.

“And I realized for the first time, that it was possible to defend myself and still maintain my principles. … That was when I made up my mind to keep one foot in the ideal plane and the other foot in the real world.”

Father Mulcahy

Mulcahy Consulting

Consulting is, obviously, less challenging than Father Mulcahy’s world. But M*A*S*H has a lot of useful ideas to use to inspire us in our lives. If you aren’t familiar with the show, I highly recommend it (although new viewers might start in Season 2 or 3 since it took them a season to find their feet).

Balancing the ideal and the practical is one of the challenges in consulting. We can often see an ideal solution for a client, but the client doesn’t have the time or budget to reach that ideal. Our job is then to find a balance between that ideal solution and meeting deadlines and controlling budget. We need to keep one foot on the ideal technical plane, and the other in our practical world.

Like Mulcahy, sometimes we get frustrated that we can’t do our best work for doing for reasons that feel short-sighted. Finding ways to work on personal projects or other things that allow you to be technically purest can help keep skills sharp and scratch itches can help. Unlike Father Mulcahy, leave the choice to charge into other people’s battles to rescue a wounded soldier to the properly trained.

We may sometimes error in the other direction. Like Mulcahy trying to write the perfect sermon during a visit from a cardinal, and miss the place we should really be (hopefully we can pull it together as well as he does). It’s easy to get focused on our own goals, and miss a client’s needs go in a totally different direction.  But it’s our job as consultants to course correct and deliver on our obligations.

In the end try to consult like Father Mulcahy would.

M*A*S*H Consulting

If you didn’t know, or can’t guess from context, my wife and I are M*A*S*H fans. We grew up with it. We bought the DVDs as they Fox released them. It’s our go-to for something comforting to watch. It’s entertaining, and full of great lines and moments to borrow for life examples. As part of marking the show’s 50th anniversary this is the first in a short series of posts (not sure how many yet – at least two maybe more) using consulting lessons from characters in M*A*S*H (likely avoiding some of the obvious choices like the doctors for things we can take from others).