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.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 3: Make Those Nouns Verbs!

I love lawyers, engineers, and lawyers. Really. They are among the most educated, articulate, thoughtful professionals I know. They are also thick-skinned about accepting feedback on their writing, at least in my experience with them. So this writing tip is for them.

Don't hide your verbs!
A writing class never passes with lawyers, engineers, or scientists when I don't find some of them nominalizing, the practice of making precise, concise verbs into unclear, wordy phrases. Examples include come to a conclusion for conclude, conduct an investigation for investigate, make a decision for decide, and reach an agreement for agree.

This writing style adds unnecessary words and causes ambiguity in highly technical disciplines that need no extra help in puzzling the average reader. What's worse, junior writers who look up to these brilliant folks perpetuate this rhetorical malpractice because they think it looks smart.

From Law
When I indicate where they are nominalizing, such writers smile as if they got caught in the act. One young federal government attorney even laughed, saying, "But I love my nouns. Keep those bad, aggressive verbs away." This is what she wrote in a policy briefing:

"This regulation allows Congress to make immediate provision of funding of the program in the event of such an epidemic."

She quickly and cheerfully edited the sentence to:

"This regulation allows Congress to immediately fund the program if such an epidemic occurs."

Not only does she reduce the word count (from 21 to 14 words) by editing to make immediate provision of funding to to immediately fund, but her second look at the sentence helps her to detect more verbiage at the end (in the event of such an epidemic vs. if such an epidemic occurs). Plus, and most important, the rewrite is simply easier to understand.

From Engineering
A civil engineer responsible for the structural integrity of municipal buildings wrote in a project status report:

"The site inspector conducted an analysis of the cement mix and a determination was made that its quality does not meet specifications."

He nominalized twice here (conducted an analysis vs. analyze and determination was made vs. determined), so this is his edited sentence:

"The site inspector analyzed the cement mix and determined that its quality does not meet specifications."

The 22-word original is now 16 words. I then noted my andeating tip, explaining that we often need to write only the action appearing after and in a sentence. For instance, I might say, "Call Cynthia and tell her we'll meet tomorrow," when all I really need to say is "Tell Cynthia we'll meet tomorrow."

The engineer's third draft of the sentence is now a cleaner 15 words:

"The site inspector's analysis of the cement mix determined its quality do not meet specifications."

From Science
Here's a case in point from a scientist who faced the unlikely, and uncomfortable, task of writing a press release. Scientists feel most at ease with empirical data; they abhor subjective commentary. But whether they like it or not, press releases are all about blowing your horn. This sentence was in her first draft:

"With the implementation of the invention during laboratory tests, Dr. Lee has cited positive results."

After seeing the nominalization, she first changed the sentence to:

"In implementing the invention during laboratory tests, Dr. Lee has cited positive results."

But she wasn't happy just to reduce the word count from 15 to 13. She realized that she was writing chronologically (typical for most scientists) and not hierarchically (necessary for her audience), as I had earlier admonished her. This is how she left the sentence:

"Dr. Lee has cited positive results of the invention during laboratory tests."

You go, girl! Not too shabby for a scientist-turned-reporter. 

Transposing clunky, obtuse nouns into verbs will sharpen your writing style to help those 2-page summaries become 1-pagers. And this best practice will engage your reader more.