Sunday, October 02, 2016

Focus Your Purpose, Part 2: Make It One Sentence

Regardless of its length, a business message should have only one purpose. This means we do not want to split our purpose among different sentences. Here is an example of an unfocused purpose:
This document describes the protocol for Procedure X. It also ensure operational safety and efficiency.
The writer seems to believe the messages has a dual purpose, to describe a protocol and to achieve two operational benefits. But the benefits are actually the result of following the protocol. The purpose would have been more focused if he had written one of these sentences:
This protocol for Procedure X ensures operational safety and efficiency.
To ensure operational safety and efficiency, follow this protocol for Procedure X.
Follow this protocol for Procedure X to ensure operational safety and efficiency. 
Building on the previous WORDS ON THE LINE post, the idea is start the message with the purpose, and to assert it in one sentence.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Focus Your Purpose, Part 1: Start with the Most Important Point

Look at this typical inspection report from a project manager to a contractor:
Our inspection of the construction site detected three performance deficiencies:
  • The work area was not secured from public access.
  • The workers are not wearing proper personal protective equipment.
  • The supervisor was not on site during the work.
Please correct these problems by tomorrow morning. 
When I ask experts in this field to highlight the most important word in the message, they unanimously agree it is correct. Then why not start there:
Please correct three performance deficiencies at the construction site that our inspection detected:
  • securing the work area from public access
  • requiring workers to wear proper personal protective equipment
  • deploying an on-site supervisor during the work

We will reinspect the premises tomorrow morning to ensure your compliance.
I explain that their standard method (the first draft) is perfectly logicalchronological. But the contractor's job is to correct deficiencies, so inspectors should think hierarchically, beginning with the most important point. That's what we mean by getting to the point: starting not what we think, but our reader's think, is the most important point.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Overusing "I"? Think Again

It is recommended that the compressor be replaced for production to be increased and maintenance reduced.
That kind of sentence is a good example of bad writing: 4 passive verbs (is recommended, be replaced, to be increased, and reduced) in 16 words where an active voice sentence of 10 words will do: 

We recommend compressor replacement to increase production and reduce maintenance.
This blog has reflected plenty on voice: in a ten-part series, in a general discussion of style, and in a post about plain language, so I won't repeat those points here, other than to say active is usually more clear, concise, and fluent than passive. 

Technical writers often object to this point, arguing that they need to use passive voice to avoid using personal pronouns like I, we, you, he, and she, and they

I will counter this lame excuse by recommending they rewrite the sentence in one of these two ways:
  1. Quality Assurance recommends compressor replacement to increase production and reduce maintenance.
  2. Replacing the compressor will increase production and reduce maintenance.  
The 11-word first draft credits the group making the recommendation without drawing attention to one individual; the 9-word second draft completely depersonalizes the message while still making the point. Both sentences use active voice.

So, yes, consider whether you're overusing personal pronouns, but don't necessarily revert to passive voice.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

700th Post for WORDS ON THE LINE: Thank you, Mr. Edison

On January 4, 2005, I posted my first blog entry. Now, 700 posts and 4,268 days later, WORDS ON THE LINE continues as a resource for effective writing at home, school, or work. 

After 11-plus years of reporting new ideas while maintaining a writing consulting business, developing my own creative work, and loving my family, I must agree with the Thomas Edison aphorism, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration." I do not pretend that this blog is a work of genius, but I do say that it's all about the work. 

Three other Edison quotes come to mind:

  • "We don't know a millionth of 1 percent about anything." True, and the quicker we believe that, the harder we will work.
  • "Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits." Indeed, don't just sit there; keep learning and applying what you've learned. The benefits will surely follow.
  • "I never did a day's work in my life; it was all fun." With a mindset that writing is playing with words, writers will never work a day in their life. I admit I struggle with writing, but it's a struggle I enjoy.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Concept Mapping: Another Way to Get Started

In an earlier post, I mentioned mind mapping as a way to jumpstart the writing process. A related technique is the concept map, a technique for visualizing the relationship among concepts. Writers can use it as means of structuring the ideas of their message.

When I ask students to use either a mind map or a concept map as a planning technique for a writing assignment, they use one of three things: a mind map, a concept map, or a hybrid of both. So whatever works for you, use or adapt the technique to generate ideas for your next complicated writing project.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Quotable and Inspirational Einstein

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was, among many other things, a master of the aphorism. Here are three of them that hold true for writers. 

  • "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Is it any wonder that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein by age 20, and Carson McCullers wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by 23? They could not have been so full of wisdom by their age, but they were surely full of imagination. Writers need to start from this premise.  
  • "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them." Writers need to know what they don't know and then get it, if they are to expand to points of reference, depth of insight, and command of language.
  • "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." Pete Rose had more base hits than anyone in baseball history, but he also made more outs. Thomas Edison failed in inventing electric light more than a hundred times before he succeeded. Writers need this reminder: create fearless of failing, transform those failures into successes, and expect failures again. At least you're trying. Enjoy the experience.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

One Quote,Two Tips from Ruskin


English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) once wrote, "Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them." Ruskin renders two suggestions: make every word count and keep it simple--great advice from a prolific writer who speaks from experience.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tips for Aspiring Writers

Here are some quotes from great writers collected by Thought Catalog that will either make aspiring writers laugh or crush their spirit. My favorites are from Paul Theroux ("My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home"), Harper Lee ("I would advise anyone who aspires to writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide"), W. Somerset Maugham ("There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one know what they are"), and the best, Stephen King ("If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time--or the tools--to write").

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Plain Language a Standard NYC Government Course

I am honored to have designed and delivered for the City of New York a Writing on Plain Language workshop, which is now available to all City government agencies. 

In past WORDS ON THE LINE posts, I discussed Plain Language principles at length: the need, paragraph focus, heading and list logic, thoughtful transitions, managing runaway sentences and clipped sentences, active voice, parallel structure, and word choice. So it's great to know that an organization as large as the New York Citywide Training Center  has moved ahead with my program. 

The initial response from the hundreds of employees who have taken Writing in Plain Language has been exceptional. The highly customized nature of the course and its focus on individualized feedback have made it the most popular writing course for the City.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Try Mind Mapping

I recommend mind mapping not because I often use this planning technique. In fact, when generating content for my drafts, I tend to just create vertical lists on my computer by first brainstorming ideas quickly and then organizing them into manageable groups, which eventually become my paragraphs or headings. But when I introduce mind mapping to my students, many of them get playful with process, inventing their adaptations, feverishly capturing thoughts bursting from their fertile brains, and rapidly jumping into their drafts with gusto.

Many videos describing and illustrating mind mapping are available on YouTube. (Click on the image to view one.) See if this method works for you the next time you find yourself stuck on an important writing assignment.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reading Scripts to Achieve Clarity

Reading plays is an excellent way to get a feel for the dialogue of life in general, and the questions of businesspeople  in particular. Few people read plays, yet we write at work based on imagined dialogues with our readers.

Imagine opening an internal proposal to your manager with this sentence: 
Splitting the Northeast Region into two sales territories will double our coverage, leading to 25% additional revenue after the first year.
You are assuming the following dialogue:
Manager: What do you want?
You: We should split the Northeast Region into two sales territories.
Manager: Why?
Writer: It would double our coverage. 
Manager: What would that do?
Writer: We would increase revenue by 25 percent after the first year.
Reading dramatic pieces not only entertains, it also gives insight into how people react, reply, retract, and repeat. Read some plays with this thought in mind and see how your ear for your audience improves.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The To and the Do, or the Do and the To?

A helpful tip I give to people in my writing classes is to start proposals or time-sensitive requests with a sentence that includes a to and a do. The to is the reader benefit; the do is the writer expectation.

Here are some examples of the to and the do:

  1. To improve our chances of winning the account (to), please include an analysis of options in the proposal (do).
  2. We can reduce rental costs, increase our labor pool, and facilitate the production process (to) by relocating the plant to Memphis (do).
  3. I recommend including an analysis of options in the proposal (do) to improve our chances of winning the account (to). 
  4. Relocating the plant to Memphis (do) will reduce rental costs, increase our labor pool, and facilitate the production process (to).

Examples 1 and 2 appear in the order of to and do, a more deferential style; Examples 3 and 4 are in the order of do and to, a more assertive style. Choosing the right approach depends on the situation and your relationship with the readers.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Template for Meeting Summaries

In an earlier Words on the Line post, I noted why meeting summaries are so challenging to many employees who need to write them. For this reason, I provide a template to jumpstart the composition process. Keep in mind that this template works well for the results-driven business world better than it does for the process-driven government style, which uses the Robert's Rules of Order.  


Sunday, July 03, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation" by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard

Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard dedicate much of their book to the applications of Dialogue. As consultants on Dialogue theory, they begin with an actual transcript of a dialogue among several experts on the subject, which they arranged not only to ground the reader on the principles of Dialogue, but also to model how an actual dialogue might unfold. The authors’ in-depth focus on the necessity of appreciating silence and releasing certainty for a successful dialogue offers revelatory potential to these ideas.

Those searching for literary relationships to Dialogue need look no further than Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation. Poetry is generously scattered throughout the pages, and apt quotes abound from philosophers like Buber, poets like Rilke, and painters like Matisse.

Most valuable are the authors’ strategies for bringing value to Dialogue, complementing Daniel Yankelovich’s strategies for successful Dialogue. Most enjoyable is the enthusiasm that the authors infuse in their personal encounters with people in Dialogue. And most appreciated is the timeless advice they provide for those stifled in their attempts at Dialogue: "When you get stuck and frustrated, there are three keys to learning and moving beyond: 1. the willingness to stick around; 2. suspending judgment; and 3. refocusing attention to engage at a different level."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation" by Daniel Yankelovich

Daniel Yankelovich looks at Dialogue from the perspective of a political scientist and sociologist. The book’s subtitle points to Yankelovich’s passion for understanding the world order through public opinion. (He is a founder and president of Public Agenda, a leading American public policy research organization.) He is concerned mainly with what David Bohm refers to as the collective dimension of the human being, and he unfolds it by combining his penchant for distinguishing between popular belief and empirical data with an optimistic vision of society at large:

The public, I have learned over the years, forms its judgments mainly through interactions with other people, through dialogues and discussion.  People weigh what they hear from other against their own convictions.  They compare notes with one another, they assess the views of others in terms of what makes sense to them, and, above all, they consult their feelings and their values.  The public doesn’t distinguish sharply between facts and values, as journalists and social scientists do.

Yankelovich draws his illustrations from foreign and domestic political affairs with a watchful eye on three critical moments of Dialogue: an acceptance of equality between the parties, an attempt at listening with empathy, and a willingness to surface any assumptions. Furthermore, he reinforces William Isaacs’ distinction between debate and dialogue by underscoring debate’s combative nature and dialogue’s collaborative spirit. 

Among the highlights of this highly readable volume are sections which form the core a cogent instruction manual for Dialogue: The 15 strategies of successful dialogues, which include tips for gaining and maintaining trust and for clarifying communication barriers, and the 10 potholes of the mind, which identify egocentric, prejudicial, or unfocused behaviors that negatively affect Dialogue.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together" by William Isaacs

In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs extends Dialogue theory to its practical applications. Identifying pathologies of thought (abstraction, idolatry, certainty, and violence), Isaacs unearths counterbalancing principles of Dialogue (participation, coherence, awareness, and unfolding,) and their corresponding practices (listening, respecting, suspending, and voicing). Like his mentor David Bohm, Isaacs carefully defines key terms and outdoes the master when reaching into his seemingly endless reserve of rich illustrations from history, popular culture, other cultures, literature, music, philosophy, management, and organized labor to sharpen his focus on the clear distinction between Dialogue and other forms of human communication.

Isaacs also freely draws parallels with other ideas, such as David Kantor’s four-player system (mover, follower, opposer, and bystander), to press a case for the value of each personality type in the communication continuum. His new capacities for behavior diagrams crystallize the roles of each player in Dialogue, and his prose elaborates on each player’s intents and potential communication shortcomings.

To Isaacs’s credit, he never shies from admitting that attempts at Dialogue can lead to painfully protracted and frustrating impasses. However, he depicts the rewards of communication breakthroughs as virtual miracles:

Hours go by and it seems only minutes have lapsed.  It is very difficult to interrupt dialogues that are in space when the pressure of kronos (real time) arises.

That kind of writing will sell readers on trying to experience Dialogue for themselves. Isaacs’s accessible style makes for the perfect companion piece to Bohm's On Dialogue. In fact, his exhaustive associations between theory and technique render Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together the ultimate handbook on the subject.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "On Dialogue" by David Bohm

David Bohm’s legacy crosses the worlds of science and language. His championing of a causal interpretation of quantum physics led to lengthy conversations with Einstein, but it won him little respect among most scientists, who preferred the orthodox indeterminate approach espoused by Niels Bohring and Werner Heisenberg, the Copenhagen School theorists (and subjects of Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen). In the early 1950s, Bohm stood fast against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Americanism inquiries, which seriously damaged his professional standing in the United States and caused him to live and work abroad until his retirement in 1987 and his death five years later.

Perhaps it was his insistence on seeing order in the universe or his deep principles in the face of McCarthyism that inspired Bohm to fashion his paradigm about the implicate order and undivided wholeness, through which he cogitates with remarkable lucidity about humanity’s transcendence beyond individual and collective domains to an immersion in a cosmic dimension. This unique fusion of science and society resides at the center of Dialogue, and Bohm devotes substantial space to it in On Dialogue, a slim and engaging treatise.

Dialogue is unlike discussion or debate, where demonstrating one’s acumen, outwitting an adversary, or winning a political advantage is paramount. It requires a different sort of reflection that strikes at the heart of self-awareness and empathetic discourse. As Bohm observes,
Thought should be able to perceive its own movement, be aware of its own movement. In the processes of thought, there should be the awareness of that movement, of the intention to think, and of the result which that thinking produces.

A seminal manifesto on communication breakthroughs, Bohm's book provides just the theoretical grounding that a Dialogue neophyte would need to venture into this provocative terrain of how we mean—a question general semanticists pose assiduously.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "The Essential Pinter: Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter"



I remember reading one of my favorite writers, Harold Pinter, on the eve of my wedding at age 22. As tomorrow marks my fortieth wedding anniversary, I remain struck by how Pinter's method and themes, if anyone has ever adequately described them, reflected my life and mindset then, and still does. The ideas he expresses have always been rooted in my pathos, and they surface for the first time when his characters utter them.

Forty years ago today, I was living in a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom basement apartment in the Bronx, just a four-block walk from the noisy 180th Street train station, whose tracks ran behind a high concrete wall topped with barbed wire to the noisy 180th Street train station. In one semester, I would graduate with a B.A. in English from the City University of New York. My earnings as a part-time taxicab driver and homework tutor for a social services agency were not much more than $100 a week, which was not bad considering my rent was only $100 a month and the subway was 50 cents a ride. But my prospects of becoming a high school English teacher were dimming at a time when the New York City Board of Education was not hiring because of budget problems. The new responsibilities of becoming a husband, college graduate, and licensed teacher were weighing on me.

Yet without any good reason, I thought somehow everything would turn out all right. Even back then I knew that life was inexplicable. Just six years earlier, at 16, my ambitions as a denizen of the James Monroe housing projects were like those of many of my friends: to drop out of high school, find a job for six months, and figure out a way to get fired so that I could collect unemployment. I certainly had no idea that I would find a job with a nonprofit organization, where I would stay for 19 years before running my own communication consulting business for the past 20 years.


I saw my first Harold Pinter play at the Classic Stage Company's 1973 production of The Homecoming. I was 19, in my second year of college, liberated by having changed majors from business to English. I believed that since New York City was in its worst fiscal crisis ever, I had nothing to lose by focusing on what I loved. Sure I might not find a job right away. But why chase after a career I would later regret?

What I saw on stage that evening hypnotized me. I had no idea what these characters were talking about, but I knew every word was meaningful. Without seeing any overt act of violence or hearing one subversive statement, I was certain I had witnessed the most disturbing sort of subversive violence, the kind we either don't recognize or dare not acknowledge as violence. Without completely understanding the dialogue, I believed that the actors' words could not be more real. I walked away from that theatrical experience transcendent, realizing the limitless potential of drama to depict the human condition. I have measured every other play I've seen since The Homecoming against that standard.


Is this a review of Pinter's work? You bet. I cannot separate the very details of my life from The CaretakerThe HomecomingOld TimesNo Man's LandBetrayalFamily VoicesMoonlight, and many of Pinter's other plays and sketches. His dramas unfold as my life has, does, and likely will.  


The Essential Pinter: Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter 
offers a good starting point if for those new to this playwright's playwright. It includes a sufficient sampling of his plays to make readers want to discover more of them. The poetry does not reach the same level as the drama, but this volume also includes Pinter's defiant 2005 Nobel Prize controversial and underappreciated acceptance speech.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: James Baldwin's Collected and Uncollected Essays.


I would recommend any nonfiction work of James Baldwin. He is masterful in his reasoning and elegant, and at times surprisingly abrupt, in his prose. Years ago when Baldwin was still alive, I read his magnum opus, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, marveling at how adept he was whether reflecting on race, jazz, language, politics, sexuality, literature, economics, or urban life.
The Library of America edition, pictured below, collects that volume along with nine more essays. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings includes speeches, letters, and book reviews, among other pieces, which did not appear in Baldwin's earlier books. 
Collectively these books offer a deep look into the American psyche during Baldwin's half-century of remarkable composition, a key examination of a writer's unique style, and a powerful testament to his enduring influence on world literature. 
Image result for james baldwin library of america
Image result for cross of redemption amazon

Sunday, May 22, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose"

Constance Hale's second book on writing, Sin and Syntax, offers a simple structure for looking at sentences: the parts of speech, followed by the parts of a sentencejust as most of us learned in elementary school. And she does so with excellent results. Her love of authors' inventiveness and trenchant commentary about what make bad writing bad make this a useful reference book for writing students.

After Parts 1 (Words) and 2 (Sentences), Hale concludes with a third part she titles "Music," an apt name for a study in how the writers who employ the rhythm and lyricism of language engage readers. The eclectic examples will keep you reading.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Email Tips from the E-Universe, Part 2

The Inc. website generally offers useful tips on productivity. Since time management is critical component on productivity, you can find some practical email time management suggestions in Inc's "12 Email Tips to Increase Your Productivity" by David Finkel. 

Two of Finkel's gems you've got to like: 

  1. Understand that every time you do that one "quick" email, that interruption radically diminishes your concentration and flow on the other, higher value work you were doing.
  2. To get less email, send less. 
The other standard suggestions are also good reminders: 

  • Turn off your auto send-and-receive function.
  • If you're involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by email due to hazy understanding on either side, just pick up the phone or speak in person.
  • In replying to a long conversation thread, pull up the key information to the top of the email.
If we took such advice, Inc. wouldn't be giving it.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Email Tips from the E-Universe, Part 1

A lot of email advice is readily available on the internet just by typing "email tips" in your favorite search engine. Brittney Helmrich's "15 Ways to Make Your Emails More Professional" offers such tidbits, some of them obvious (be clear and thorough, don't forget to proofread, use the right email address), some helpful reminders (remember that anyone can read it once it's sent, put the recipient's email in last, know when to avoid email altogether), and some smart novelties (take it one point at a time, create templates for frequently used responses, timing is everything). What make her counsel so valuable are her sources: career consultants. Worth a read ...

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.