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How to write clearly but diplomatically: Tips for UN and international aid professionals

How to write clearly but diplomatically: Tips for UN and international aid professionals

You can write diplomatically and still use plain language principles. Here are some practical ways.

I’ve recapped all the arguments why UN and international aid professionals might want to use plain language. It helps you (and your organization) communicate effectively, promote human rights, break down power imbalances, and be more transparent.

In this post, I’ll show how to write clearly when you need to be more diplomatic.

“Some donors like formal language.”

“We have to be diplomatic.”

I hear these concerns often from UN colleagues. I’ve had a boss tell me, “I know you prefer straightforward style but I need this letter to be a bit more gentle.”

No problem! Plain language doesn’t mean that you are forbidden to use more “diplomatic”/formal language. It comes back to the questions:

  • Whom are you writing for?
  • Why are you writing, what’s your purpose?

If you know that you’re writing to someone who prefers formal language or you’re writing a politically sensitive letter, you need to adapt your writing style.

(And that’s why I love that instruction from my boss: They know very well whom they’re writing to and for what, and they want to use language purposefully.)

So how can you do that and still write clearly?

How to use plain language principles when writing “diplomatically”

When writing diplomatically or formally, you can still use plain-language/clear-writing principles. Let’s take a look at some examples.

☑ Start by identifying who your audience is

You are likely to have some sense of whom you’re writing for. First, be clear whom you’re writing for and identify what style of writing may suit them best.

(But don’t underestimate how much people actually prefer plain language. For example, even lawyers don’t like legalese.)

More on what you need to know before you start writing.

☑ Keep sentences (relatively) short.

Generally, shorter sentences are easier for the reader. But if you’re sure you will be taken more seriously if you write longer, elaborate sentences, then mix things up.

  • Use the flowery language in the greetings and closings—the parts that are more ceremonial and less substantive.
  • Shorten some sentences. Variety in sentence length is a good thing.
  • For long program or conference names: write the name out in full the first time, but use a shorter version for the rest of the letter. You can also use “the programme” or “the conference”.
  • If it’s not a super-formal letter, consider using bulleted lists.

Most importantly: Be careful that your longer sentences don’t get bogged down to the point that the message isn’t understandable. (Remember, you’re more likely to make a grammatical error with long sentences.)

☑ Keep the subject and verb of a sentence close to each other.

Keeping the subject and verb close to each other will help readers because they won’t have to work hard to remember who or what is the subject until they come to the verb (the action).

Here’s an example:

Before: Subject and verb are far apart

GENDER INEQUALITY in its many forms, such as unequal access to education, gender-based occupational segregation, lack of access to healthcare and family support, and disproportionate unpaid care responsibilities, IS an impediment to economic development.

The subject “gender inequality” is far from the verb, “is.”

See if you can move the verb closer to the subject and move the list to another spot in the sentence. Or split the long sentence.

(I also originally wrote “are an impediment”, which is grammatically wrong—the verb doesn’t agree with the subject. When I moved the verb close to the subject, I immediately saw my mistake.)

After: Subject is near the verb

GENDER INEQUALITY IS an impediment to economic development. Such INEQUALITIES CAN take many forms, including unequal access to education, gender-based occupational segregation, lack of access to healthcare and family support, and disproportionate unpaid care responsibilities.

Now, “gender inequality” is together with the verb “is.” And in the second sentence, the subject “inequalities” is right next to the verb “can.”

☑ Cut the clutter words.

We tend to use a lot of “throat-clearing” phrases in formal letters, such as:

  • in this regard
  • to the extent which
  • as pertains to

These phrases may help soften the tone, but overusing them makes the text murkier (unclear). Use these phrases judiciously (that means in very few, select spots), use a simpler word, or delete the phrase.

See more of these throat-clearing phrases.

Also, use grand words (“intensifiers”) sparingly. These are words like:

  • exemplary
  • very
  • important
  • essential/fundamental
  • key (as in “key function” “key role”)

Use such words just once or twice and they are powerful. Use them too much and they lose their impact.

Emphasis can be a useful tool. Overuse blunts it. When we emphasize everything, nothing is emphasized.

W. H. Hindle, A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, 1984, p.12

☑ Avoid redundancy.

Avoid redundant words or repeating messages. For example, here are two lines from a thank you letter:

We would like to express our sincerest gratitude for the wonderful hospitality you extended to us during our visit. We are deeply appreciative of your generous welcome.

You’ve already thanked them in the first sentence; the second sentence is unnecessary. (You can also see the excessive intensifiers: “sincerest”, “wonderful”, “deeply”, and “generous.”)

☑ Use the passive voice with intent.

Sometimes it’s better to use the passive voice. For example, if you want to avoid blaming any specific person or organization (especially if you think the fault is the other party’s!), passive voice is useful 😊

Probably too direct (active voice)

Your coordinator has rejected our suggestions.

Purposefully vague (passive voice)

Some differences in position have emerged.

On the other hand, if you’re giving instructions or setting up the next steps, make sure you are clear who is doing what. Compare the following two sentences:

Unclear who will do what (passive voice)

The final report will be prepared and steps taken to close the project.

Clear who will do what (active voice)

Our project manager will coordinate with your officer to prepare the final report and take the steps to close the project.

If both parties know exactly who is supposed to do what, the first “unclear” sentence may be sufficient. But let’s say the letter is between the higher-level directors who might not immediately remember the details. Then it may be more helpful to spell out who is doing what.

And finally…

☑ Make use of templates … but with a critical eye

Templates and past examples will help you draft your document. The UN has a correspondence manual with examples that you can use as templates. (I find it especially useful for the formal greetings.)

BUT. Keep all the other tips in mind when you use the templates! Templates give you structure and a starting point. But they may also need to be updated. Don’t assume that if it’s a template, it must be the best example.

Also see: How to use Word templates as a plain language teaching tool


I rather enjoy writing formal letters. The challenge is finding a balance between being diplomatic and communicating what needs to be communicated.

Resources

  • UN correspondence manual (PDF). It’s a bit old but still in use in at least some offices. I find the examples of greetings and ways of address helpful.

Do you have other tips for being clear and diplomatic at the same time? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay.

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