Sunday, May 01, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 7: Watch You But!

The tone we set in writing business messages goes a long way in getting our audience to read them. Since we do not benefit from body language and vocal intonation when writing,  we need to choose words carefully to set the right mood.  Choosing positive expressions will help.

For sure, we sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news. But many writers are either unconsciously negative or unable to turn a negative into a positive, so this simple tip may be useful in coming across as a more supportive businessperson.

Watching Your Buts
Just writing but can cause a tone problem. Imagine receiving this message: The quality of your project report is excellent, but you submitted it late. The compliment before but seems disingenuous, as if the writer really wants to focus only on the disappointingly late submission, not at all on the report quality. Imagine if the ideas in the sentence were reversed: You submitted the project report late, but its quality is excellent. Now the message seems more positive, especially because it ends on a positive note. 

Balancing Your Observations
Even more disingenuous would be a paragraph that read something like this: The quality of your project report is excellent, but you submitted it late. As a result, I had to request a waiver of the deadline, which took a considerable amount of time and effort. While you told me you'd be a day late, you were unavailable to help me with the waiver request, so I had to rearrange my work schedule.

In this example, only 8 words (13%) are positive and 53 words (87%) are negative. In this positive rewrite we strike a better balance by removing the but mentality altogether.

The quality of your project report is excellent. Your focus on our mission, comprehensive assessment of data, organization of ideas, and command of language are impressive. It reflects well on how you manage your department and exemplifies how we want our staff to communicate.

Fortunately, your fine work was saved from being rejected for missing the deadline. Your request to extend the deadline without being available to submit a deadline waiver caused considerable time and effort for me to submit it and made me rearrange my work schedule.

To avoid a similar situation, please give me at least a week's notice that you'll be late and submit the deadline waiver on time. These steps will ensure that your work rises to the highest communication standard and reinforces management's positive impression of you.

This 132-word rewrite has 3 paragraphs, one for the positive (44 words), one for the negative (44 words), and one for the recommendation (44 words). It still gives the needed bad news but begins and ends on a positive note. Sure it increases the word count of the original by 149%, yet sometimes the situation calls for us to add ideas to sound supportive of a worthy employee. So get off your but. 




  



Sunday, April 24, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 6: Let Sentences Be Sentences!

Email tempts us to break language conventions when we shouldn't. Generally, standard sentences are easier to quickly grasp than run-on sentences and comma splices for educated Americans because proper syntax is ingrained in their reading method.

Most people have no problem with these sentence fragments in a business email:

  • Thanks.
  • OK.
  • Done.
  • See you then.
  • Looking forward to it.

These are common expressions we've all grown accustomed to. But these recently received sentences made do a double-take:

  1. Do you teach presentation skills, I have a salesperson who needs to sharpen his openings and closings.
  2. Please call me at my cellphone I'm having trouble getting incoming calls I just want to see if I can get them.
  3. Chris said he'd be there by 9 but got stuck in traffic, if you give him some more time I'm sure he'll get there.

The first example, a comma splice, joins a question (interrogative sentence) and a statement (declarative sentence). A question mark should replace the comma.

The second example joins three complete sentences without appropriate punctuation or transitions. Admittedly, inserting periods after cellphone and calls would result in a collection of choppy sentences. But if the writer kept only the important information, he would have written something like Please call me at my cellphone because I want to check if I can get incoming calls.

The third example is a perfect illustration of not starting with what matters, which I discussed in an earlier post. The problem isn't so much the comma after traffic but not thinking hierarchically. The writer could have simply wrote Please give Chris more time because he'll be in after 9, or, Please give Chris more time because he's stuck in traffic.

Clear writing requires clear thinking; let sentences do their job of being sentences.     

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 5: Start with What Matters!

Consider this sentence:

If the inspector confirms a structural flaw in the building, she should immediately contact the project manager to solve the problem with the contractor.

This 24-word sentence seems simple enough to understand for an inspector, project manager, or contractor. It is logical, actually chronological: first the inspector confirms a structural flaw, then she contacts the project manager, and then the project manager solves the problem with the contractor. Writers need to know the importance of chronological order in certain types of business messages, such as narratives, processes, instructions, histories, incident descriptions, and root-cause analyses.

But chronology is not the only way to convey ideas. Business writing is about action. We need people to do things that move the business forward. For instance, your manager might want you to report on an industrywide conference. At that event, you attend four sessions, in this order: 

  1. New Reporting Requirements for the Industry Regulator 
  2. Industry Trends in Staff Recruiting 
  3. Breaking Communication Protocols for Social Networking 
  4. Transferring Technology from the Laboratory to Your Business
Your likely organizational pattern in this situation would not be chronological but hierarchical—what matters most to your manager. She would not care when you attended what but what you learned that can affect the business.

We can apply this same principle to writing sentences. In the opening sentence, three actions are explicit (the inspector confirms a structural flaw, she immediately contacts the project manager, and the project manager and contractor solve the problem), and one action is implicit, (the project manager and contractor collaborate). Some writers might think the collaboration is as obvious as the fact that the inspector had to perform an inspection to confirm the structural flaw. They may be right, but they would not be if collaboration has been a problem in the contract management. If we start with what matters, we have numerous options, depending on our mindset. Here are some, starting with the original:
  1. If the inspector confirms a structural flaw in the building, she should immediately contact the project manager to solve the problem with the contractor. (The inspector confirmation seems most important.)
  2. The inspector should immediately contact the project manager about confirmed structural flaws in the building for resolution with the contractor. (The immediate contact seems most important.)
  3. The project manager and the contractor should solve building structural flaws confirmed by the inspector. (The problem-solving seems most important.)
  4. The project manager should collaborate with the contractor on solving building structural flaws confirmed by the inspector. (The collaboration seems most important.)
My preference would be number 3, but I am not an inspector, project manager, or building contractor, so you make the choice by starting with what matters. I would not be surprised if you created a fifth, sixth, or twentieth option.     

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 4: Loose Those Noun Chains!

The previous WORDS ON THE LINE post about nominalizing showed how business and technical writers tend to eschew verbs in favor of nouns. This post shows just how enamored of nouns they some of them really are.

When nouns join forces uninterrupted by verbs or even prepositional phrases, expect clarity issues. Three nouns in a row are easy enough to understand, especially in job titles such as Assistant Marketing Director or Case Management Supervisor, and even in technical applications like wound dressing technique or sound wave mechanism. But things get trickier once we get carried away with nouns. Here are four examples:
  • 4-Noun Chain — epoxy coating life expectancy. Technical writers might think they're more concise in writing the noun chain than in writing life expectancy of the epoxy coating, but the prepositional phrase in the six-word rewrite is just a tad easier to understand.
  • 5-Noun Chain — undersea pipeline intrusion detection system. We might get it. A system exists for detecting intrusions in pipelines under a sea bed. But admit it: you had to read it twice, right? Maybe intrusion detection system for undersea pipelines would be an improvement.
  • 6-Noun Chain — data communication network efficiency inspection report. Whoever made up this one is either an automaton or someone with a cruel sense of humor. Actually, all six words are not necessary in this phrase. Reasonable readers would prefer any of these three because the deleted words can be inferred in the context: report on data network efficiency, or report on communication network efficiency, or efficiency report on the communication network.
  • 7-Noun Chain  standard M1 brake erosion acceleration rate analysis. Gimme a break! In this case, we should create a verb to anchor some of those runaway nouns. Perhaps analyze the acceleration rate of the standard M1 brake erosion would do, though it isn't much better. Maybe analyze the standard M1 brakes for the acceleration rate of their erosion would work better—but not the original, please.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 3: Make Those Nouns Verbs!

I love lawyers, engineers, and lawyers. Really. They are among the most educated, articulate, thoughtful professionals I know. They are also thick-skinned about accepting feedback on their writing, at least in my experience with them. So this writing tip is for them.

Don't hide your verbs!
A writing class never passes with lawyers, engineers, or scientists when I don't find some of them nominalizing, the practice of making precise, concise verbs into unclear, wordy phrases. Examples include come to a conclusion for conclude, conduct an investigation for investigate, make a decision for decide, and reach an agreement for agree.

This writing style adds unnecessary words and causes ambiguity in highly technical disciplines that need no extra help in puzzling the average reader. What's worse, junior writers who look up to these brilliant folks perpetuate this rhetorical malpractice because they think it looks smart.

From Law
When I indicate where they are nominalizing, such writers smile as if they got caught in the act. One young federal government attorney even laughed, saying, "But I love my nouns. Keep those bad, aggressive verbs away." This is what she wrote in a policy briefing:

"This regulation allows Congress to make immediate provision of funding of the program in the event of such an epidemic."

She quickly and cheerfully edited the sentence to:

"This regulation allows Congress to immediately fund the program if such an epidemic occurs."

Not only does she reduce the word count (from 21 to 14 words) by editing to make immediate provision of funding to to immediately fund, but her second look at the sentence helps her to detect more verbiage at the end (in the event of such an epidemic vs. if such an epidemic occurs). Plus, and most important, the rewrite is simply easier to understand.

From Engineering
A civil engineer responsible for the structural integrity of municipal buildings wrote in a project status report:

"The site inspector conducted an analysis of the cement mix and a determination was made that its quality does not meet specifications."

He nominalized twice here (conducted an analysis vs. analyze and determination was made vs. determined), so this is his edited sentence:

"The site inspector analyzed the cement mix and determined that its quality does not meet specifications."

The 22-word original is now 16 words. I then noted my andeating tip, explaining that we often need to write only the action appearing after and in a sentence. For instance, I might say, "Call Cynthia and tell her we'll meet tomorrow," when all I really need to say is "Tell Cynthia we'll meet tomorrow."

The engineer's third draft of the sentence is now a cleaner 15 words:

"The site inspector's analysis of the cement mix determined its quality do not meet specifications."

From Science
Here's a case in point from a scientist who faced the unlikely, and uncomfortable, task of writing a press release. Scientists feel most at ease with empirical data; they abhor subjective commentary. But whether they like it or not, press releases are all about blowing your horn. This sentence was in her first draft:

"With the implementation of the invention during laboratory tests, Dr. Lee has cited positive results."

After seeing the nominalization, she first changed the sentence to:

"In implementing the invention during laboratory tests, Dr. Lee has cited positive results."

But she wasn't happy just to reduce the word count from 15 to 13. She realized that she was writing chronologically (typical for most scientists) and not hierarchically (necessary for her audience), as I had earlier admonished her. This is how she left the sentence:

"Dr. Lee has cited positive results of the invention during laboratory tests."

You go, girl! Not too shabby for a scientist-turned-reporter. 

Transposing clunky, obtuse nouns into verbs will sharpen your writing style to help those 2-page summaries become 1-pagers. And this best practice will engage your reader more. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 2: Eat Those Ands!

A playful tip that I give learners in my writing seminars is to become andeaters. Just as anteaters shovel ants into their waiting stomachs through their elongated snouts, we should use our equally remarkable eyes to capture our missteps with and, which often adds unnecessary words at best and causes confusion at worst. Here are some examples.


Example 1 

Sentence: The partnership with the firm will benefit and advance our mission.

Problem: The word and joins benefit and advance. If the company advances its mission through the partnership, then it surely benefits. Using both words is unnecessary unless the writer wants to show a cause-effect relationship.

Solutions: The partnership with the firm will advance our mission, or, The partnership will benefit our company by advancing our mission.


Example 2

Sentence: Quality Assurance provides information about a recurring technical error in our payroll system, seeks management's approval to remedy it, and requests $16,000 to purchase a superior software package that will eliminate the problem.

Problem: O my goodness! In this opening sentence of a proposal, Quality Assurance claims to take three actions, joined by and: provides, seeksrequests. By definition, proposals offer suggestions for solving problems, so we can cut provides information; in addition, we don't need to remedy and eliminate a problem when one of those will do. We can reduce this 33-word sentence to 16 words.

Solution: Quality Assurance requests $16,000 for software to eliminate a recurring technical error in our payroll system.

Example 3

Sentence: This project aims to raise awareness and understanding of this issue affecting the community.

Problem: In this case, and joins awareness and understanding. This one is not as easy as it might look, because we can be aware of a problem without understanding it. For instance, we are all aware that gun violence is a problem, but opposing factions believe their rivals don't understand why it's a problem. Alternatively, we can understand a problem, say a deadly virus, without being immediately aware that it has afflicted our community. But when I asked the writer whether understanding implied awareness in this situation, she agreed, as I thought she would. Below is how she changed the sentence.

Solution: This project aims to help the affected community in understanding this issue.

Moral of the story: Be an andeater!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 1: Preview Your Abbreviations!

Whenever using abbreviations, think of whether the intended readers will understand your shortcut. But how should you know what they know? Here's a test to help you reflect on the answer to this question. How many of the abbreviations in the list below can you identify?



  1. USA
  2. FBI
  3. MoMA
  4. WTP

I would bet my house that 90% of earthlings over 18 who can read English would correctly identify the answer to number 1 as the United States of America.

I would lower the stakes by betting only my best suit, and lower the percentage and narrow the population to only 50% of US English-reading citizens over 18 who could identify number 2 as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I feel confident that more than 50% of this group recognize FBI, but fewer would correctly term the spelled-out version. Therefore, I would introduce the term as follows: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), if I were writing to a non-US government  audience, but I would not spell out the agency if I were writing for the popular US press.

I would further cut the stakes to merely my favorite book, and lower the percentage population to no more than 20% of English-reading New Yorkers over 18 who could identify number 3 as the Museum of Modern Art—even though MoMA is in New York City. My experience tells me that more out-of-towners than locals go to this museum. Thus, I would spell out MoMA anywhere outside the fine arts world.

Finally, I would hike the stakes to my car but reduce the numbers to 33% of employees of New York City Department of Environmental Protection who could identify the fourth abbreviation as wastewater treatment plant. Why that low when the Department of Environment Protection is responsible for operating wastewater treatment plans? Because  the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment is only one of nine operating divisions in a bureaucracy of 6,000 specialized employees. So I would spell out WTP for virtually anyone but American environmental engineers.

Of course, I could be wrong about my estimates, but you get my point. Think about who gets the message before you abbreviate.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 9: Word Choice

"Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946.

Commercial, government, and political offices would do well to take George Orwell's advice if they want their clients, stakeholders, and constituents to understand their messages.

Here is a story to illustrate Orwell's point. An employee of a major municipality wrote to a concerned citizen this sentence:
We will ameliorate the condition on your street within one week.   
I had a hunch that the problem in question would be eliminated completely, which is not what ameliorate means. So I gave the writer a list of six words in this order:
  1. remedy
  2. fix
  3. ameliorate
  4. rectify
  5. restore
  6. correct


I asked her to organize them from most to least understandable to the average reader. This is how and why she ordered them:
  1. fix, because it's a small word that beginning readers learn.
  2. correct, because first graders hear the words correct and incorrect when responding to their teacher's questions.
  3. remedy, because children hear the word in relation to medication given to them.
  4. restore, because it's used more often than the remaining two words.
  5. rectify, because it's used more often than the remaining word.
  6. ameliorate, because it is used the least.

I said I agreed with her order and then asked her if the six words are synonyms. After she said yes, I looked up ameliorate at oxforddictionaries.com, which defined it as:
Make (something bad or unsatisfactory) better.

My point was to make her see that simpler words are not only more understandable, they are often more accurate. Ameliorate might be a fancy word, but it did not say what she meant. Better to heed Orwell's tip about choosing an everyday word.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 8: Parallel Structure

Writing in plain language requires not only clarity and conciseness, but consistency too. Parallel structure, the expression of like ideas in grammatically and conceptually consistent terms, is a key for keeping words, phrases, clauses, and lists accurate, clear, and concise. The examples below show how using parallel structure improves messages.

Word

Nonparallel: Amy studies, plays, and likes socializing.
Parallel Amy studies, plays, and socializes.

Phrase

NonparallelBjartur analyzed the data, was writing the report, and presented the results.
ParallelBjartur analyzed the data, wrote the report, and presented the results.

Clause

Nonparallel: Carol is designing the project, and it is being managed by Delano.
Parallel: Carol designs the project, and Delano manages it.

List
Nonparallel: The inspection team identified the following performance deficiencies:

  • Insufficient security staff
  • The quality of the materials is poor
  • Production staff need to be trained
  • Are the deadlines being met?


Parallel: The inspection team identified the following performance deficiencies:

  • insufficient security staff
  • poor material quality
  • ineffective production staff
  • missed deadlines



Monday, February 29, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 7: Active Voice

I have said plenty about active and passive voice in this blog, explaining that active is not necessarily passive, when active is preferable, and when passive is. I have even referred to Shakespeare to illustrate how effective passive voice can be.


But it's safe to say that active voice is more transparent to readers who are unfamiliar with the workings of a bureaucracy communicating with them. Here is an example of employment application instructions from a federal agency:

Passive: Once the application is received, it will be reviewed, and notification will be made of the decision.

Active: Human Resources will notify you of our decision on your application.

The passive voice sentence has three passive verbs: is received, will be reviewed, and will be made. It focuses more on process than results. Once the application is received is too obvious to mention. The same goes for it will be reviewed. If they will inform someone of the decision, then they must have reviewed the application. Then comes the problem of unknown doers and receivers. Who will review the application and who will they notify of the decision? The verb will be made makes those points unclear.

The active voice sentence focuses on results, which is what the reader wants to know. It also clarifies who are the doers (Human Resources) and receiver (you). For these reasons, active voice preferable.

Most businesses are by nature technical, convoluted, and confusing. Our job is to protect our readers from those ambiguities. That's why active voice helps writers to express their business in plain language.