Whether your written document is a general plan, a research article, a grant application, or a staff report, the fundamental tools of writing remain the same. Understanding writing mechanics means knowing how to make structural choices at each scale of your document: words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole document organization. This section focuses on these basic building blocks of writing.


First and foremost are the words we choose. As demonstrated earlier, single words (e.g., rationality, power) can convey large amounts of information, especially in technical writing for a specialized audience. In these circumstances, it is important to avoid ambiguous terms, loaded language, slang, and colloquialisms (Rubens, 2002). In addition, much of scientific and technical writing relies on writers and readers sharing a common language (id.). Therefore, it is important to use familiar terminology for your audience in an accepted and consistent manner (id.). Writers must realize that many technical terms are not known to everybody, even in a specialized audience (Budinski, 2001). A good technical paper should explain terminology in words that are understandable to the reader and should provide definitions if necessary’. Acronyms are particularly common in planning, and need to be defined when first used.

No matter the audience, word choices determine and are determined by grammar, including punctuation, number (singular or plural), tense (past, present, or future), and perspective (first, second, or third person) (Kolln & Gray, 2009). In general, it is important to keep a consistent, or parallel, tense and perspective throughout a written document (id., p. 84).

Together, tense and perspective also influence whether your writing is in active voice or passive voice. As the name implies, writing in the active voice connects a clear subject with a clear action. The preceding Flyvbjerg quote—“I decided to study how rationality and power shape planning"—is a good active sentence.

Suppose that Flyvbjerg had wished to obscure his role in the research process. In this case, he might have written, “the influence of rationality and power on planning was the subject studied.” In this passive sentence, the active transitive verb phrase (decided to study) has become a past participle combined with the verb “to be" (was studied). The object of the active sentence (how rationality and power shape planning) hasbecome the subject of the passive sentence (the influence of rationality and power on planning). And, most importantly, the subject of the active sentence—Bent Flyvbjerg, the person who will actually conduct the study—has disappeared entirely.

Bern explains that, traditionally, technical writers “used the passive voice almost exclusively” (2002, p. 20). The idea was to make research seem perfectly neutral and objective by eliminating any reference to the subjective role of the researcher. However, as Bern asserts, “this practice produces lifeless prose and is no longer the norm" (id.). As noted previously, JAPA now specifically requests writing in the active voice. Most publishers in most contexts, technical and non-technical, now prefer the same.

Ultimately, word choices will constitute the structure of your sentences, paragraphs, and completed documents. Words are the basic components of rhetorical grammar and the building blocks of sophisticated, precise communication. As Kolln and Gray argue, there is a crucial difference between choosing a word that approximately expresses your thoughts versus choosing a word that conveys your exact meaning. That difference often boils down to whether you get what you want—a scholarship, a job, a published article—or not.

Word choices are quite deliberate in the Research You Can Use column reproduced in Figure 2.0. From the title (“A ‘New’ (250-Year-Old) Way of Thinking about Statistics”) to the body (“promise never again to return to the offending study”) to the final sentence (“Why are planners the last to know"), the words and phrases are meant to convey drama and controversy.

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