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.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 6: Clipped Sentences

Writing in plain language requires a fluency similar to what we expect to hear in an articulate conversation. The last WORDS ON THE LINE post noted that overlong, convoluted sentences pose fluency problems. So do short, choppy ones. Here is an example of first-draft clipped sentences:

We came to a decision this morning. The decision was about new applicants. The decision applies to the Westchester office only. This is because of the technical skills needed of the Westchester office staff. All applicants for the Westchester office must submit GMAT or GRE quantitative results. In lieu of submitting these results, they may take an internal analytical test. This test will be administered by Quality Assurance.

This draft uses 7 sentences for its 68 words, yet it is stating only 6 ideas:

  1. We made a decision this morning.
  2. The decision concerned new Westchester applicants.
  3. Westchester applicant need technical skills.
  4. These applicants must submit GMAT or GRE quantitative results.
  5. They may substitute these results by taking an analytical test.
  6. The analytical test will be administered by Quality Assurance.
Employing the same method as we used for overlong sentences, we start with the most important point, ordering subordinate points where they best fit. Here is one way of editing the paragraph:

This morning we decided to assess the needed technical skills of Westchester office applicants by requiring them to submit their GMAT or GRE quantitative results or to take an analytical test administered by Quality Assurance.

This 35-word sentence has at least three benefits. First, it eliminates the word count by 33 words, nearly half. Second, it organizes the ideas in an understandable order, thereby increasing readability. Finally, it "sounds" natural, much like the speech pattern of an articulate speaker.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 5: Runaway Sentences


Fluency is a common first-draft problem. Most people think of nonfluent writing as choppy, awkward, disconnected phrasing from people who are unschooled in composing with a graceful style. But fluency can also result from overlong, convoluted constructions written by overeducated people who use a style unfit for the message they are conveying. Here is an example from the middle of an article in the New York Times, which is widely praised for a high-quality writing style:

On Tuesday, three days after the plane disappeared while on an overnight flight to Beijing, General Rodzali was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper as saying the military received signals on Saturday that after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it turned from heading northeast to heading west, lowered its altitude and flew hundreds of miles across Peninsular Malaysia and out of the Strait of Malacca before the tracking went blank. ("Radar Blips Baffle Officials in Malaysian Jet Inquiry" by Thomas Fuller and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, March 12, 2014)

The problem with this sentence is not so much its 71-word length as its packing of at least 16 ideas, depending on how you count:

  1. General Rodzali was quoted on Tuesday.
  2. General Rodzali was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper.
  3. General Rodzali was quoted three days after the plane disappeared.
  4. The plane disappeared while on an overnight flight.
  5. The plane was heading to Beijing.
  6. General Rodzali was quoted as saying the military received signals.
  7. The signals received were on Saturday.
  8. The signals said that tracking of the plane went blank.
  9. The tracking went blank after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers.
  10. The aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers.
  11. The aircraft turned from heading northeast.
  12. The aircraft then headed west.
  13. The aircraft lowered its altitude.
  14. The aircraft flew hundreds of miles.
  15. The aircraft flew across Peninsular Malaysia.
  16. The aircraft flew out of the Strait of Malacca.

Many people cannot recall their mobile phone number, let alone 15 ideas they are reading for the first time. The ways to rewrite this sentence are nearly infinite, but the best way for purposeful writers to edit it is to start with the point that matters most to them. Here is one possibility:

Three days after the incident, a Malaysian newspaper quoted General Rodzali on Tuesday as saying the military received signals when the plane disappeared on a Saturday overnight flight to Beijing. The report states after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it turned from heading northeast to heading west, lowered its altitude and flew hundreds of miles across Peninsular Malaysia and out of the Strait of Malacca before tracking went blank.

The original one 71-word sentence has become two sentences totaling 71 words (30 and 41). The word count is not the big deal. But the revision separates the Malaysian newspaper's quoting of the general from the detailed events of the aircraft, making the reading more understandable.

When editing a  convoluted sentence, separate the ideas you are advancing based on the keys points of your message. Your communication will seem plainer and more digestible. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 4: Thoughtful Transitions

Plain language requires transitions to link ideas in guiding readers across the writer's narrative line or logical path. Transitions can be words, phrases, clauses, sentences, or paragraphs. Here are examples of all five, with the transition in italics. 

Word: They submitted the proposal late; however, it is complete, organized, and concise.

Phrase: The information in the proposal is useful. For this reason, we might make an exception to the deadline date.

Clause: Since the proposal addresses our concerns, we accept it with minor modifications.

Sentence: We will pilot the proposal in our Seattle facility. The Seattle management team is uniquely qualified and positioned to plan, launch, monitor, modify, and assess the performance of this initiative. The project launch meeting is scheduled for July 2.

Paragraph: ... The project launch meeting is scheduled for July 2.

The launch meeting will have two objectives. First, the executive office and Seattle management team will establish the project critical path method, including tasks, disciplines, supervision, timeline, milestones, reporting, and budget. Second, the Firm will determine the necessary staff, vendors, production orders, and organizational processes to complete the project within the budget and by the deadline.    

If the project works well, we will roll it out to our Oakland, Tampa, and New York facilities. ...

Without the italicized transitions, these ideas would fall short of clear communication. Writing in plain language goes far beyond choosing the simpler word and shorter sentence; it demands that we connect one idea to another to provide cogent analyses and focused arguments.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 3: Heading and List Logic


Imagine receiving this excerpt of an audit report: 

Bankers, Inc. reconciliations are neither consistently timely nor accurate. Reconciliations require submission within 24 hours and execution with 100% accurately. Of 2,086 reconciliations, 98 were late (4.7%) and 109 were inaccurate (5.2%). 

Despite implementing a new procedure to safeguard against late and inaccurate reconciliations, the audit revealed internal controls remain poor, and shared responsibilities among different departments make checks difficult. 

These lapses may subject the auditee to IRS penalties, and run the risk of misappropriating receipts, exposing the firm to client lawsuits. 

Therefore, management should centralize reconciliations under the CFO, create greater redundancy in accuracy checks, document daily oversight, submit all reconciliations within 24 hours, submit all reconciliations with 100% accuracy, and resolve inaccurate reconciliations with the Bank within 30 days. Doing so will avoid IRS penalties, ensure proper appropriation of all funds, promote operational efficiency, and retain clients. 

Management should respond within five business days with an action plan on these six recommendations.We will conduct a follow-up audit on bank reconciliations within one month.

The logic of the narrative gets lost in the dense paragraph. Note this second draft, which has not changed an idea of the narrative.

Finding
Bankers, Inc. reconciliations are neither consistently timely nor accurate. Reconciliations require submission within 24 hours and execution with 100% accurately. Of 2,086 reconciliations, 98 were late (4.7%) and 109 were inaccurate (5.2%).

Causes
Despite implementing a new procedure to safeguard against late and inaccurate reconciliations, the audit revealed:
  • Poor internal controls can lead to late or inaccurate reconciliation.
  • Shared responsibilities among different departments make checks difficult. 
Risks
These lapses subject the auditee to the following risks:
  • IRS penalties
  • client lawsuits
  • misappropriated receipts
Recommendations
To avoid IRS penalties, ensure proper appropriation of all funds, promote operational efficiency, and retain clients, management should take these six remedial actions:
  1. Centralize reconciliations under the CFO.
  2. Create greater redundancy in accuracy checks.
  3. Document daily oversight.
  4. Submit all reconciliations within 24 hours.
  5. Submit all reconciliations with 100% accuracy.
  6. Resolve inaccurate reconciliations with the Bank within 30 days.  
Response
Management should respond within five business days with an action plan on these six recommendations. We will conduct a follow-up audit on bank reconciliations within one month.

Although the second draft consumes more space, it is far more readable. Using headings and lists enables easy scanning and greater retention. While the language of either draft may seem identical, the plain language principal of formatting does highlight the narrative better for the reader.