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, 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.


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


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


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

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