The Harmful Effects of Rambling Prose

Adapted from Writing to Get Things Done® (WGTD) Seminar

The gap between knowing and doing is greater than knowing and not knowing.

Ken & Margie Blanchard

Do What You Know To Do In Your Life

This gap is real in much of what we do. We know to stretch our muscles before playing sports. We know to buckle up beforestarting a car. We know to wash our hands before eating. We know to eat healthy foods and get daily exercise. We know doing these things prevents injuries and promotes a long, vital life. Yet, we often don’t do them.

Do What You Know To Do In Your Writing

This gap is also real when business professionals write. We know that clear writing is clear thinking, framed for the reader, using plain language. To persuade our readers, we know to list key ideas and supporting facts before writing the draft. We learned how to outline ideas and write a paragraph in elementary school. But 99% of business professionals—from corporate presidents to interns—do not do it.  They all know to do it—they just don’t.

The Rambling Prose Process

Instead, most people use what we can the Rambling Prose writing process. They type as they think through the content. For writers, the process generally looks like this, as they:

  • sit down and bang out the draft
  • read it
  • rewrite it
  • read it
  • rewrite it
  • close with,” If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
  • send it off in the hope that the reader will figure it out

Process Drives Outcome

In everything we do, the process we use determines the outcome. For example, well-trained motorcyclists know that when they look at an object in the road, they are more likely to hit it, because a motorcycle goes where the rider is looking. The same process-drives-outcome experience is true in writing. When people type as they think, there are predictable outcomes for the writer, the draft and the reader.

Outcome for the Writer

People often procrastinate, so they bang out the draft as they think it through. Rambling Prose causes an endless string of emails—the tag-you’re-it syndrome—where busy people fire off emails in the hope that something gets done. The problem is that our documents are difficult to read and are easily misinterpreted.

Outcome for the Draft

Drafts written with the Rambling Prose writing process look the same. They usually begin with background information, bury the purpose in the most difficult-to-find place, hide lists of key points, and lack transitions that tie ideas together into a cogent, memorable message.

Outcome for the Reader

Inadvertently, and unintentionally, the game Rambling Prose plays is Let the readers figure it out. The reader must quickly figure out the answers to three compelling questions:

  • How does this affect me?  What do you want me to do?
  • What are your key points?
  • What is the urgency?

An Example of Rambling Prose

You can see these outcomes in almost all emails of 100 words or longer. You can see these outcomes for the draft and reader in this example.

Subject: SNA and Bulk Data Training

As we are approaching the scheduled time for installing SNA and Bulk Data capabilities on our CP2000, I’ve been examining the need for training in these areas. We can send one person from Seattle to an SNA class put on by a training company such as the American Banking Institute. The cost of these classes is about $1,000 plus another $1,000 for travel and expenses. We could have no formal training on either SNA or Bulk Data. In other words, it would be hands on and learn as we go. We could bring John Dorn to Seattle for about 3 days. He could cover SNA basics, Bulk Data, and even get into banknet. This would require us to pay his travel and expenses for the trip which might run up to $1,000, depending on whether or not he would stay over a weekend. Bringing John here for the class is the best in my view. I am recommending we proceed. I’ve already run the idea by Jane and have her OK. I have budgeted for an SNA class for this year. With your approval, I will proceed with the arrangements.

A Rewrite Using a Model from Writing to Get Things Done® (WGTD)

Subject: Request for Approval of SNA Bulk Data Training

Please approve bringing John Dorn to Seattle in the last quarter of this year. He would teach SNA and Bulk Data concepts to our technical staff. I’ve already run the idea by Jane and have her ok.

Here are three options we considered to meet our immediate training needs:

  • Send one person to a training class put on by the American Banking Institute. The total cost would be about $2,000.
  • Have no formal training. It would be hands on and learn as we go.
  • Bring John Dorn here. The total cost would be about $2,500. I have this amount budgeted for this training.

I would appreciate receiving your approval by Friday. This will give ample time to effectively plan our training sessions.

Shorten the Gap between Knowing and Doing—Do What You Know

In your personal life, remember to do those things that you know will prevent unnecessary injuries and promote a long, vital life. And in your writing, remember to do those things that you know will produce an easy-to-read document that gets things done.


  1. Use a Forecasting Subject Line
  2. Put What You Want to Get Done in Paragraph One
  3. Five Ways to Make It Easy for Your Readers
  4. Avoid Worn-out Clichés in Your Opening Sentence
  5. Avoid Worn-out Clichés in Your Closing Sentence
  6. Follow Basic Email Etiquette for Greater Productivity
  7. The Harmful Effects of Rambling Prose
  8. A Strategic Advantage that Begins at the Keyboard
  9. Use Plain Language
  10. Use Short Sentences
  11. Use Short, Simple Words
  12. Write in Active Voice
  13. Avoid Hidden Verbs
  14. Finesse With Tone
  15. Find Your Hidden List
  16. The Productivity Checklist
  17. How to be Read in Government and Corporate America—Use the Models of Writing to Get Things Done® (WGTD)
  18. Clear Communication Drives Productivity
  19. With Procedure Writing, Point of View is Everything
  20. In the Heat of the Moment—If It Feels Good, Don’t Do It
  21. Make Your Procedure a Thing of Beauty—Use an Appropriate Format
  22. Make Your Procedure a Thing of Beauty—Use an Appropriate Format (Example 2)
  23. A Tribute to the Gregg Reference Manual—the gatekeeper of business grammar since the 1950s
  24. The Benefits of Writing—Supported by a Phone Call


Stan Berry has devoted over 35 years to improving the writing skills of over 100,000 business and government professionals. After completing his Master’s degree from Yale University, he co-authored five books on writing that he uses in his seminars. He’s been a member of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) since 1975 when he served as the newsletter editor and on the Board of Directors for the Twin Cities Chapter. Stan can be reached at or 612-578-1487.