Thursday, May 31, 2018

Getting to the Point: Two Angles

What do people mean when they say they want their work-related writing to get to the point? Do they want to state an idea in the fewest possible words while maintaining syntactic control of the sentence (conciseness)? Or do they want their message to start with the central point (purposefulness)? I hope they mean both but with a bias toward the latter. Let's look at examples of each.

Conciseness: Expressing in the Fewest Possible Words
Assume a message starts with the following central point:
Wordy (31 words): In order for us to achieve substantial completion by the due date for Project XYZ, I recommend that the firm consider hiring an additional worksite supervisor no later than June 1.
The 21-word sentence below keeps the meaning of the wordier original. It eliminates the unnecessary or wordy prepositional phrases In order, for us, and by the due date, the weak hedge verb consider, the egocentric I recommend, and the overwrought phrase no later than. Incidentally, we cannot eliminate substantial because substantial completion means something contractually different from total completion. At 43% fewer words, this sentence is preferable: 
Concise (21 words): To achieve on-time substantial completion for Project XYZ, the firm should hire an additional worksite supervisor by June 1.
Purposefulness: Starting with the Central Point
But writing to the point is much more than writing in the fewest possible words. It requires an audience focus. Two ideas emerge in this example:

  • the to, or, reader benefit – To achieve on-time substantial completion for Project XYZ
  • the do, or, writer expectation – the firm should hire an additional worksite supervisor by June 1.
Depending on our audience, we can write the sentence two ways, starting with the more deferential reader benefit or with the more assertive writer expectation:

  • Deferential (16 words): The firm will achieve on-time substantial completion by hiring an additional worksite supervisor by Jane 1.
  • Assertive (13 words): Hiring an additional worksite supervisor by June 1 will achieve on-time substantial completion.

Either way we are writing to the point. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction

So you've been taught not to begin a sentence with a conjunction? Well I just did. Your teachers were wrong. Here are sentences over seven decades from authors who write infinitely better than whoever taught you such nonsense:
And is not this among them? – Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, 1935

Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, 1935
And the reference of modernism brings us back to the question of the past and the present. – Robert Penn Warren, "Cowley's Faulkner", 1946
But the motiveless murder of a man would truly raise the issue of probability. – Robert Penn Warren, "A Poem of Pure Imagination", 1946
So Frederick, by a decision, does what the boy Nick does as the result of the accident of a wound. – Robert Penn Warren, "Hemingway", 1947
But maybe the  worst was something I learned only a few months ago. Joan Didion, Miami, 1987
Nor was the developed 15 percent of the property, Jordan Downs itself, the problem it might have seemed at first glance. – Joan Didion, After Henry, 1992
But many people believed Los Angeles to be different, and in one significant aspect it was: the difference in Los Angeles was that very few of its citizens seemed to notice the small perfect deals, or, if they did notice, to much care. – Joan Didion, After Henry, 1992
And so is Tolstoy. – Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994
But Kafka was not a saint or a mystic; he is rightly not included in Aldous Huxley's beautiful if idealizing anthology, The Perennial Philosophy– Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994
Or does Goethe invest himself in the next philosopher-poet, Nereus, who preaches renunciation yet still employs the accents of Eros. – Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994
And speaking of panics, what do you think are the greatest threats to the human species? – Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
But apocalyptic thinking has serious downsides. – Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
Nor are the computational and neurobiological bases of consciousness obstinately befuddling. Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018 
Case closed.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Beginning a Sentence with a Verb

Start sentences with verbs from time to time. To write well, use various openings. Should you rely on the rules of pseudo-grammarians, your writing will stagnate. Are you understanding me?

The four sentences above all begin with verbs, a perfectly acceptable technique. I raise this point because a student in one of my recent writing classes proclaimed, "You can't begin a sentence with a verb." She was wrong. Writers far greater than you or I have done so. I corrected her with examples like the ones in the first paragraphPen and the Pad expertly discusses this point in detail.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Documentation Help Available at INSTRKTIV

Business and technical writers continually experience the challenge of creating understandable, reliable documentation standards for readers in their organization and across their industry. INSTRKTIV proposes to be a game changer in this endeavor by offering support in developing documents, such as user manuals, help files, procedures, and video instructions.

The advice this global organization renders on its website alone is legion. For instance, INSTRKTIV Director Ferry Vermeulen recently published "Technical Writing Tools: The Ultimate Choice of 83 Experts (2018 Update)". The article and video  provides insights from 80 industry experts responding to a question about their preferred technical writing tools. Hearing and reading about their responses will set newcomers to the field on the right course toward achieving writing proficiency. It will also validate the mindset of seasoned technical writers while offering them a fresh perspective in sharpening their craft.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 20: Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, historian, and critic, among other roles, remains a controversial figure long after his death at age 97 nearly half a century ago. One inarguable point about the 1950 Nobel laureate in literature, however, is his exceptionally exquisite yet accessible style. As a case in point, he begins his brief 1924 essay, "Life in the Middle Ages," with the prelude to his premise:
Our picture of the Middle Ages, perhaps more than that of other periods, has been falsified to suit our own prejudices. Sometimes the picture has been too black, sometimes too rosy.
He continues the paragraph by giving three romanticized historical viewpoints, one of unremitting barbarism, the second of knightly chivalry, and the third of ecclesiastical zeal. Then he starts his second paragraph with a concession:
In all these views there are elements of truth: the Middle Ages were rude, they were knightly, they were pious.
After acknowledging his literary forebears, Russell lays down his premise:
But if we wish to see a period truly, we must not see it contrasted with our own, whether to its advantage or disadvantage: we must try to see it as it was to those who lived in it. Above all, we must remember that, in every epoch, most people are ordinary people, concerned with their daily bread rather than with the great themes of which historians treat.
Russell uses many persuasive devices in this piece. He makes a startling claim in the first sentence, uses sensory language in the second sentence (black and rosy), offers a concession at the top of the second paragraph, makes a proposition in the following sentence, and doubles down on the proposition by issuing an admonishment in the next sentence. 

Writers wanting to write purposefully can count on more of the same in any of Russell's dozens of books, including A History of Western Philosophy, Religion and Science, The Problems of Philosophy, The Conquest of Happiness, and Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects.