Friday, February 22, 2013

Style Standards, Part 2: Begin with the Most Important Point

An engineer (let’s call him Ben) for working on a construction project (let’s call it the Main Street Expansion) for a private architectural-engineering firm (say, XYZ Corporation) wrote this 23-word sentence in his first draft: 
The reason that the decision was made by XYZ for the suspension of the Main Street Expansion had to do with safety concerns.

After I told Ben that the sentence was wordy, he edited it to a 16-word second draft: 
The reason that XYZ made the decision to suspend the Main Street Expansion was safety concerns.

Ben surely improved the sentence to a more concise version by eliminating verbiage caused by the passive verb (was made), the double prepositional phrase (for the suspension of the construction project), and the colloquialism (had to do with).

But by being true to his original sentence syntax (word order), he missed a key point, which would have made his sentence even more concise—and far more powerful. I told Ben to forget about his command of language and to look for the most important point of his edited version. He chose the words suspend and safety. Since his client was a municipal agency, I asked him what he thought the agency would see as the most important word.

“Safety,” he answered.

“Then start there,” I said. After some reflection, Ben rewrote the sentence: 
Safety concerns compelled XYZ to suspend the Main Street Expansion.

The third draft is now a more power-packed 10 words. What happened? Draft 2 still spends 7 words drawing attention to the decision-making process rather than the issue of common concern. By beginning the third draft with safety, Ben had to think about a more energetic verb. The extra time he took led to a worthwhile result.

So when reviewing overlong sentences, forget about all the rules of syntax and diction; just start with the most important point. This practice will go a long way toward making your writing more powerful.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Style Standards, Part 1: Know the Two Elements of Style

When speaking of style, we mean either syntax (word order) or diction (word choice). For precise definitions of each, I’ll defer to the Oxford Dictionary:

Syntax:  the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language

Diction: the choice and use of words and phrases in speech or writing

Let’s isolate the syntax problem by looking at well-chosen words but poor arrangement: 
Among women, for death by cancer, a leading cause is breast cancer.

The word arrangement severely tests the reader to understand a simple idea. While the words are clear, their placement is not. Here are the same words in a syntactically better sentence: 
Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer death among women.

Now let’s consider the diction problem by looking at good syntax but poor word choice: 
The US Food and Drug Administration rendered accedence to the first human investigatory analysis of embryonic stem cells in January 2009.

While the basic subject-verb-object order of the sentence makes for easy reading, the word choice causes major distractions. The phrase rendered accidence is far too arcane for the intended meaning, and investigatory analysis is not only bloated but imprecise. Here is the same thought in the same order but with improved diction:

The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first human trial of embryonic stem cells in January 2009.

This final example shows how both syntax and diction get in the way of clear communication: 
If questions, at any time before Friday, arise about the Project Do Now, then reference to Ashley Lashley should be made, to whom is assigned the status of project manager.

Syntax first. Chaos results from the strange placement of at any time before Friday and the distance between the person and her title. As for diction, arise and status are pompous, to whom is awkward, and is assigned is an unnecessary passive verb. Here is a fluent edit: 
If you have questions before Friday about Project Do Now, please contact Ashley Lashley, Project Manager.

I’ll be looking at both of these elements of style over the next three posts.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Number 500!

On January 5, 2005, I wrote the first post for WORDS ON THE LINENow, 2,958 days later, here comes my 500th post. 

I'm not patting myself on the back for persistence—persistent though I am. Rather, as I reflect on these past eight years of blogging, I realize that many questions asked about writing or requests made for resources in my graduate-level courses, seminars, webinars, and coaching sessions have their responses right here. In fact, so much is here that I've "rediscovered" some of it for this post.

Feel free to forward WORDS ON THE LINE posts to anyone who would benefit from reading them. Here's to your writing—and the next 500 posts!  

Friday, February 01, 2013

Going to School!

If you love your work, as I do, it will never get old. One of the great pleasures of my business as a communication consultant is meeting interesting, intelligent, and diligent adults. After many years of working with employees ranging from entry-level associates to CEOs, I still feel that I often learn as much as I teach.

Case in point: Jack Macris, General Superintendent of Bronx Road Operations, West Farms Depot, New York City Transit Department of Buses (DOB). I was completing a four-week business-writing workshop for DOB in the Bronx when Jack, one of the participants, showed me a photograph of himself at the office posing with the course workbooks, including The Art of E-mail Writing. He graciously emailed to me a copy of the picture with the humorous subject line "Going to school."

Jack's dignified pose reminded me that he takes his learning seriously; his active involvement during each session also reinforced my conviction that I always have to bring my A-game into each lesson.

Thanks for the memento, Jack!