Professional Writing for Geoscience Careers:  The Writing Perspective from a State Regulator

Professional Writing for Geoscience Careers: The Writing Perspective from a State Regulator

Good afternoon everyone. The title of my
talk is The Writing Perspective from a State Regulator. From the very beginning
with the interview process, we look at the candidate’s writing. So what we do is
when the candidate arrives, we sit them down in front of a computer and we give
them a technical question. They have 15 minutes to type it out. After that, they
go into the interview process. After we have interviewed all the candidates, if
we come down to one or two candidates that are very good, but one has a better
writing than the other, then the writing example may be the critical issue as to
who gets hired. So you can see from the very beginning, we take writing very
seriously at the state agencies. Once we’ve hired a new employee, it’s typical that
their direct manager and one of the staff members will train the new
employee for a period of time and then once they start working on their own,
even after that the manager will review all their correspondence. Most of the
time these are letters that we’re talking about. Obviously as a new
employee besides the manager, they should reach
out to the staff personnel for help. I come from the underground storage tank
program which has a very large volume of communication, both letters and emails
that are go out between the state agencies and the responsible party or
third parties. Because of this, you need to be very careful in both formal
letters and emails. Most of the agencies have been around for a long time so now
the different types of letters that we have are templates. The basic information
that goes into a template are obviously is the date of the letter, who
you’re writing to, the responsible party, typically their mailing address, you may
have the address of the facility that you’re reviewing, and most letters are in
response to a document that has come to the regulatory agency for review, so you
reference that report in your letter. Then also in the letter who is copied
both internal and external, so internal may be your
program manager, may be the Commissioner, may be other personnel on the staff. Externally it may be, it will probably be the consultant that wrote the report, but it
may be also third parties such as attorneys, property owners, other real
estate owners that may have a voice in the information. And then also who
officially signs the letters. There may be letters that whoever writes letter gets
to decide, but it as as more letters are important, other program managers or
other people on staff may have to be able to authorize to sign those letters. Besides the template there are other letters that are more complex that
do not fit into a template. These are typically what we call either they’re
comments and suggestions to the report that’s been reviewed, or actual
deficiencies in the report. So when you’re writing these type of letters, you
need to be very precise in what you’re asking for so the consultant of the
written report understands what you are asking for as to problems that you find
or suggestions that you request from the report, and make sure you do not
contradict something in the letter. So the cover letter which would be the
template letter may say please submit the report within 30 days, but then you
have a comment letter which may have a whole list of things you want them to do
and maybe realistically 30 days it isn’t practical,
so you need to make sure you don’t contradict yourself in your request. The
good thing about most letters from state agencies is there is sufficient time
after letters being written that you can set the letter down, pick it up again and
really sit down in check spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Besides letters and emails are really the most common communications that
state regulatory agency has, there are other documents including guidance
documents, memos and standard operating procedures. The guidance document
typically are written procedures on how to conduct an investigation. In
our guidance documents, we actually had a template on the actual report that
would be submitted as part of that guidance document. Typically the people
that write these are more your senior level staff members. Memos are
usually used internally to update upper management as to progress on
different types of projects. This is something that I did when I was a
program manager. And typically your more senior level staff members that may be
working on special projects will also be writing memos. And then you have standard
operating procedures. These can be both internal or external. A couple examples are
how to install a monitoring well, how to collect a groundwater sample,
sampling rivers and streams – these all would be external. The internal would be
the proper routing of a report. So maybe internally you’ve changed the
procedure and so you update the SOP. Common errors that we see is that each
time you write a letter you should use the template and cut and paste is a very
bad practice to get into. Spell check can be very helpful, but even that can cause
errors. You may spell a word that’s very is the correct word grammically, but it
may not be the word you were looking for. So really check and just don’t rely on
spellcheck. Also review your noun verb combination. One of the things I do not like is
real short choppy sentences, and then also if you’re writing a long letter, be
careful of repeating something over and over that uses the same phrase over and
over again. Try to change it up in your writing. And then if you’re some sites
have obviously multiple years of reports coming in and then the agency reviewing
it. Use the chronological order and make sure you keep things in order. This may
be a legal document in the future so be very careful in
laying these out. And then after you’re done, please read everything after you
think you are complete because it’s not unusual that you’ll still find some little error.
Some of the common problems. One of the things I did in this, preparing for this
talk, is I contacted one of my former staff members to see what he said about
some problems that he had seen and one of the things he said – do not use the
word recommend when you really want the consultant to do the work. It can be
confusing that it really is a recommendation and not a requirement. You
also you need to use precise language. What I mean by this if you’re asking the
consultant to install a new monitoring well 20 feet northwest of the MW1,
say it that way but at the same time include a map in with your letter. That
way they can see exactly where you want them to install an additional well or
additional sampling. It’s not unusual after you’ve been with a program for a
while, you do a lot of verbal communication with consultants on a
daily basis. If you’re making agreements on work that needs to be done, obviously
follow up with a letter or if the consultant will take an email, follow up
with an email as to what’s been agreed to. If the consultant goes back to his office
and tells his boss that yes we’ve got approval to do that, obviously his boss
is gonna say show me something in writing, so it’s very important that you follow up with
verbal communications in writing. Then what I have is informational comments,
and what I mean here is that you may have a report that comes in that’s
perfect. You reviewed it and you’re you’re writing letters saying please
continue with the next report and but for some reason the consultant, maybe the
report should have been signed by the responsible party or maybe once he
forgot he or she forgot to seal the report by a professional engineer
professional geologists, you may write at the bottom of the approval letter, please
correct this next time. And always saying show acronyms after words are written
out. So I came from the underground storage tank program, so you put UST in
parenthesis. This is very important because you do have a lot
of people that will review this letter besides the RP and the consultant, that
would include lawyers that may not be familiar with environmental issues or
property owners or real estate owners, so it’s real important to explain it to
them. Email issues, obviously they have the same issues that you have with letters.
Again you need to be careful and write precise sentences. I say don’t use slang
because it may mean different things to different people. And if you reply to a
question, answer the question and then end it. Don’t jump around different
subjects. You don’t know who when you reply to this email who they may pass on
to, so just answer the question. Again I wrote don’t try to be cute or funny
because these can be, these are considered legal documents. Many years
ago, I was in federal court and they blew up one of my letters to 6 feet tall for
the jury to see. This could happen to an email also, so take these very seriously.
I’ve got a couple different examples of letters and I know these are small, a little
hard to read, but on the left side would be the template part of the letter and
you can see that it has the date at the top then the address goes to the RP, followed
by under subject the location of the facility and you can see in the first
paragraph it says that the consultant’s letter dated February 17 2017, they
submitted a monitor only report. Then I replied, please submit the next
semiannual monitoring report by September 1st 2017.
I signed the letter, then at the very bottom it has that I copied, I cc’d the
professional geologist that sealed this report. On the right hand side is just an
example of what I consider just where there is no template and I’m asking the
recurrence of free product needs to be evaluated. It goes on further. So that’s
an example of just being very clear as to what you’re asking for.
Here’s another example of a template. This is a no further action template. Again it has the day at the top because the responsible party of who I’m writing to,
the location of facility and they submitted a report dated March 28th 2017
and it was a progress report and then the second paragraph has that I’m giving no
further actions required for the reference release. The third paragraph is
standard writing that we have an all no further action letters. Then the last
paragraph, I say please submit a completion report and by June 15th of 2017. He and I signed it, and at the very bottom again I cc’d the professional geologist
that sealed the report to me. And how do you improve it? So if you work for a
regulatory agency, obviously reach out to your manager and staff. They’ve
written and reviewed literally hundreds of letters. They can help you. You can
also ask for letters. These are typically on your on your server where you can
pull up other people’s letters or go to the file room to review letters. There’s
lots of books and online help when it comes to writing. The one book that I
used was The Elements of Style. This is very helpful for me. For students still
in college, I recommend take a technical writing class. I did this when I was an
undergraduate. Also more and more of the classes in geology require written
reports, so really take these seriously. The more writing you do, the better
you’ll become. Do a senior thesis project that does require written report. This is very
helpful, and also reach out to your professors for help. If you’re really
having problems they will help you. Thank you very much.

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