Sunday, November 26, 2017

Make Every Word Matter

Work-related documents requires concision; we should remove verbiage. This truism is easier said than done if one loves classical literature. I dare not change John Donne's final lines from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII (1624). The repetition of tolls is, well, poetic:
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 
I harbor no ill feeling toward Charles Dickens's opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which paints a picture of discord and chaos through its repetition:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
And I dare not argue about the repetition in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech (1963). In the final 5 minutes of that legendary address at the Lincoln Memorial, King uses dream 10 times, followed by a paragraph about faith 3 times, followed by freedom 9 times, and ending with free 3 times. The repetition is what makes his speech as memorable as the spirituals and anthems he borrows from.

But business and technical writers rarely need such repetition. Here is an example of adding useless words: 
The company is currently monitoring the situation in order to work out a solution. (14 words)
The present continuous tense, is monitoring, eliminates the need for currently. The prepositional phrase, in order, is unnecessary since a clearer, though weak, infinitive phrase, to work outfollows it. That infinitive phrase is weak, and it is followed by a noun phrase, a solution, when a verb phrase, to resolve it, would have been stronger. So a 9-word rewrite would look like this:
The company is monitoring the situation to resolve it.
This 36% reduction in word count is not as rare as you might think. We tend to read business messages just to get information, not to assess the writer's style. But the next time you run through a boring, ambiguous message, don't be surprised if the writer didn't edit out verbiage. Writers should take a second look at their emails and reports before pressing send to make sure that every word matters and their readers get the point. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The New Number 1 Question About Email

Consider whether email is the best way to reply. This is the most frequent comment I hear from the CEO level of organizations where I conduct training. Corporate presidents typically tell me to make sure I admonish their staff not to use email as a way of "assigning blame" and "avoiding responsibility," or as "a weapon of mass destruction." They say, "Tell them to get off their butts and develop relationships with people by walking down the hallway or picking up the phone."

While I mentioned this point in an earlier WORDS ON THE LINE post, I reiterate it because it is the most frequently asked question in my many webinars on email. Using alternatives to email at key times is not only the more considerate choice, it is also the more time efficient one.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tense Tricks, Part 4: Useless Appendages

The present continuous, or present progressive, tense indicates an action or state that is happening now:
She is working hard. (action)She is being diligent. (state)
Since the continuous action or state is obvious to us, we never need to write, "She is going to go to work." I often hear people speak like this, which may not be a problem in the context of a conversation. But I occasionally see people write the sentence, which is excessive at best and ambiguous at worst, especially since it confuses the present continuous with the future continuous tense. So we have two choices in such a case:

  • If we mean a present continuous action, we can write, "She is going to work. 
  • If we mean a future continuous action, we can write, "She will be going to work."

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Tense Tricks, Part 3: Present Continuous or Future?

We know we will meet with our friend Kim tomorrow, so which sentence is correct?
1. I am meeting Kim tomorrow. (present continuous tense)
2. I will meet Kim tomorrow. (future tense)
Credible sources, such as British CouncilCapital Community College, and Education First, say we use the present continuous if we have clear plans for the future. Therefore, since we do know that Kim agrees to meet with us, we can use option 1. However, option 2 in no way causes confusion, so that choice is acceptable too.