Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 2: Clarity

Get a load of this sentence:

If the room is locked at any time outside of usual business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, closed on Sunday), you can call Security at extension 711, or Housekeeping Services can be called during business hours if Security is busy.

Twisted phrasing, useless words, and weak organization occur everywhere in this sentence. Reading the sentence aloud would help you pick up the following six clarity problems:

  • Wasted words – The words at any time, of, usual, closed on Sunday, you can, are unnecessary.
  • Long parenthetical passage – The listing of the business hours interrupts the primary thought, which is whom to call if you find the door locked.
  • Formatting of business hours – Those varied business hours need to be listed vertically for easy reference, not horizontally, which causes muddled thinking.
  • Confusing mix of active and passive voice – Shifting between passive and active voice is not always a bad idea, but in this case breaking from you can call to can be called is arbitrary, puzzling, and awkward.
  • Nonparallel organization of ideas – The organization of ideas is inconsistent and unclear. Starting with the condition if the room is locked, the sentence moves to that clunky definition of the business hours, to the contingency you can call. But then the second situation is reversed, from the contingency, call Housekeeping, to the condition, if Security is busy.
  • Incomplete idea – The idea if Security is busy means if you get a busy signal when calling Security. As written, readers might think the clause means to call Housekeeping if Security answers the call by saying, “We are busy right now.”

A read-aloud of that sentence followed by a simple reinterpretation of the sentence might have led to this improved second draft:

If the room is locked before or after business hours, call Security at X 711. If you get a busy signal from Security during business hours, call Housekeeping at X 739. Our business hours are as follows:

  • 8 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
  • 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday
  • 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Remember: Read your sentences aloud to remedy unclear thinking!

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