Ten Writing Tips for Creating an Effective Code of Conduct

December 31, 2003
Document

2003
Jerry Brown

You have been given the task of writing an effective code of conduct for your organization. A blank pad of paper rests in front of you along with a freshly sharpened number two pencil and a mint fresh copy of Roget's Thesaurus. Ten minutes pass. Twenty minutes slip away.

You've held meetings, sought and received input, looked at samples, identified provisions you want in your code of conduct and yet nothing springs out of your mind and onto the page. Why not? You're a good writer. You were chosen for this project because your reports are fact filled and precise; you are a champ at describing processes in concrete terms. What's wrong with you?

Nothing.

You are simply faced with the reality of writing about abstract concepts rather than the physical world. To start writing a code of conduct, think in terms of values, beliefs and expectations rather than facts.

Tip 1: Think in terms of values, beliefs and expectations rather than facts

People within an organization are inclined to feel that their situation in life is unique and that no other organization is faced with the same challenges, constraints and operational realities that they have to deal with on a daily basis. The sense of individual uniqueness is countered somewhat by a sense of group unity. The group is unified behind a core of shared beliefs that may be informally recognized within the organization or may codified in the form of an organizational values statement.

The organization's values are the foundation upon which the code of conduct will grow. They express what a group of people drawn together as an organization believes in the words of Frank Navran, "… to be right, good and fair."

Once you recognize that you are not writing a report and that you may be called on to use language you usually avoid in formal reports because it may imply that you are judgmental or are assigning values to actions, you'll be able to start writing.



Tip 2: Put your thesaurus back on the bookshelf.

In most hands a thesaurus is a dangerous weapon. Lock it away and resist the temptation to use it. Your code will benefit from common language usually employed in your organization and understood readily by employees at all levels. This doesn't mean you should become immersed in jargon. "Keep it simple," is the best advice for codes. In the words of a former professor of mine, "Eschew pomposity and verbosity assiduously."

Tip 3: Choose to be concise…within reason.

Conciseness can be a virtue. It can also be boring and choppy. To find a happy medium, avoid long sentences with linked phrases. Instead write sentences that express one thought and vary in length. A mix of short and medium-length sentences tend to hold your readers' attention better than will long, complex sentences.

Tip 4: Use active voice rather than passive.

While there is a place in writing for passive voice, active voice tends to convey ideas more clearly and with fewer words. In sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. Overuse of passive voice tends to make prose flat and uninteresting and passive voice sentences tend to be awkward. For example, "The code is required annual reading." [PASSIVE] "You are required to read the code annually." [ACTIVE]

Tip 5: Give examples when it is appropriate to do so.

If there is any doubt about the meaning of a code provision, an example may help provide clarity. Codes may vary in length and content. Those that are more compliance-oriented than value-centered may be better understood if you provide good, generic examples of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable conduct.

Tip 6: Remember to write for your reader.

By this point in the process, you have become your organization's expert on the code of conduct. Don't lose sight of your readers. Something obvious to you may not be obvious to them. Think about what you are writing in terms of readers who have NOT had your experience with the code.

Tip 7: Don't attempt to write polished prose when drafting.

DREP - Draft; review; edit; and, polish. Draft the entire code without being overly concerned about grammatical errors, punctuation and word choice. Once you have a draft on paper, review it carefully for clarity, content, conciseness, grammar, spelling and punctuation and clean it up. Edit the cleaned copy paying special attention to word choices and meaning. Finally, polish your final draft with the understanding that the next tip may just bring you back to this tip one more time.

Tip 8: Read your work aloud to yourself.

When you read your written work aloud, you will find errors and points of confusion because you have involved another of your senses. After all, you have thought about the code, written at least two drafts, edited a draft, and polished the text. Hearing the words may detect problems that your eyes, which are use to seeing the copy, have missed. If you find errors, repeat tips 7 and 8 until it sounds right as well as looks right.

Tip 9: Make your writing look easy to read.

Take a look at your final draft and ask the critical question, "How does this look to me?" You want this final draft to look professional because the reviewers you will pass it to next will judge what you have done based on its appearance as well as what you have written. Avoid using words and phrases written all in capital letters unless they are acronyms or unless they are specialized terms that are always written in fully capitalized form. Avoid presenting material in lengthy stretches of italics. They are hard to read. Avoid odd type fonts, especially those that mimic handwriting.

Tip 10: Have others, especially your harshest critics, read what you have written.

Once you are satisfied that what you have written makes sense and looks good, obtain the opinion of others. Sure, you can have some of your friends read what you have written. They may give you good feedback or they may sugarcoat their comments to you. I like to choose the critics who are the harshest judges of my work for a final review. If I can get what I have written past them, I have succeeded.

Good luck with your code.