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.