Monday, July 22, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 11: Revising, Copy Editing, and Proofreading


Welcome to Session 11 of the Better Writing Boot Camp. This is the second-last session, so we’re in the home stretch. But, don’t let your energy or focus relax just yet – the remaining couple of topics are also important.

Today we’re looking at the differences between revising, copy editing, and proofreading. I find that when writers understand the differences – and approach each as a separate task – their writing is much clearer.

Many writers talk about “editing” their work. Usually they’re talking about basically the second last step they take before giving the document to the end reader. In other words, it’s a step that can include everything from revising, to clarifying, to tidying up the document. Because the skills, techniques, and attention involved in revising, copy editing, and proofreading are different, you should treat them as separate steps.

Revising
Revising involves reading the document from the perspective of the reader. In other words, when revising, you should ask yourself whether:
·         you’ve included all the information the reader needs – if not, now’s the time to fill in the gaps in the analysis
·         all the information is clear to the reader
·         the information is in an order that makes sense to the reader – if not, take time to rearrange the information
·         the information is sufficiently detailed but concise – if not, focus the information by trimming out anything that is unimportant

Writers sometimes gloss over this important step. They may do so because they feel they’ve been paying attention to these things as they were writing. Or, if they took time to create an outline before they started, they feel they considered these things at that point. But, regardless of how careful and thoughtful you were when writing, of necessity, your focus was from the storyteller’s perspective. Revising is about analysing the information from the reader’s perspective so you must approach revising as a distinct task.

Sometimes writers are not able to objectively review their writing from the reader’s perspective. This can happen, for example, if you’ve been working on a document for some time or have written many preliminary drafts. If this is the case, you should find someone who can read it and provide honest, objective feedback. (In the world of professional editing, what you’d be looking for is someone skilled at “substantive” or “content” editing.)

After you’ve finished revising the document and have a more-or-less final draft, it’s time for copy editing. 

Copy Editing versus Proofreading
Many folks use copy editing and proof reading interchangeably. Strictly speaking, they are not the same. Copy editing is editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and checking for formatting inconsistencies, repetition, and so on. Copy editing also includes fact checking and verifying references and citations.

Proofreading is a separate step that’s done after you’ve revised the document and after it’s been copy edited. Strictly speaking, proofreading happens after a manuscript is printed but before it is distributed. It is basically a final read to catch typos, inconsistent spellings, bad line or page breaks, missing pages, and so on.

That said, a skilled copy editor will often be sufficient to catch proofreading-type errors in standard business documents.

Closing thoughts…
Revising and copy editing are important steps in creating a document. Don’t skip either of them. Revising helps ensure your writing is clear, with all the sentences, paragraphs, and ideas working together to make the reader’s trip toward understanding effortless. Copy editing helps uphold your reputation as a skilled, knowledgeable professional.

© 2019 Good with Words

Friday, July 05, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 10: How to Craft Bullet Lists


In the last Boot Camp session we looked at why you should use bullet lists in your business writing. In this session, we’ll focus on how to craft a good bullet list. I’ll also give you my quick-and-dirty “rules of thumb” related to bullet lists – including my suggestions for punctuating them.

Structuring a Vertical List
There are two parts to a bullet list: the preamble and the bullet points themselves. As I mentioned in the last Boot Camp session, the preamble introduces each item on the list. The preamble can be a single word, a phrase, or a full sentence. Here’s a bullet list from the beginning of Session 9:

I’m a big fan of vertical lists. A well-crafted list is a terrific way to:
  • provide visual appeal
  • draw attention to particular information
  • reinforce relationships among ideas/items
  • limit repetitious wording

“A well-crafted list is a terrific way to:” is the preamble of that list.

Crafting the Preamble
The most important thing to remember about the preamble is that it must work for EVERY item on the list. So, when you read the preamble’s words together with the words in an item on the list, you have a grammatically correct, complete idea. When crafting a list, it’s important to test each bullet with the preamble. By doing this, you will be able to tell right away if an item doesn’t work. And, if an item doesn’t work, it’s up to you to:
  • omit the item from the list, or
  • modify the preamble.

Here’s what the preamble test for the two-item bullet list above looks like:

… it’s up to you to omit the item
… it’s up to you to modify the preamble

Whew, both items work with the preamble.

Crafting the Items in the List
Regarding the bulleted items themselves, every item must be:
  1. structured the same grammatically, and
  2. related to the other items listed (in terms of content).

In terms of grammatical structure, the two items in the number list above are similarly structured (for example, both initial adjectives end in “ed”). In the numbered list under the heading: Crafting the Preamble, on the other hand, both items started with an infinitive form of the verbs.

Both items on the numbered list are contextually related because both are criteria that each bulleted item must satisfy. Of course, when the list is short, there’s less of a chance you’ll include something that doesn’t relate to the other item(s). If you find items that don’t belong, don’t include them in the list. (If many items don’t work with the preamble or don’t seem to relate to the other items, consider ditching the list.)

Exercise
Here’s an example of a poorly crafted bullet list from a bank’s Human Resources manual. Can you tell what’s wrong with it? How would you fix it?
A personal banking officer (PBO):
  • Provides customers with one-stop shopping for all retail product sales;
  • Responsible for identifying, understanding and meeting customers’ financial needs;
  • Follows a disciplined approach to proactive sales activities;
  • Generally located in a private cubical.

The Problems
The list has two problems:
  1. The structure of the items is not the same.
  2. The last item isn’t directly related to the others – three are responsibilities of a PBO but the last is about where the PBO sits!

Solution
Here’s how I would fix the list:

A personal banking officer’s (PBO’s) responsibilities include:
  • providing customers with one-stop shopping for all retail product sales;
  • identifying, understanding, and meeting customers’ financial needs; and
  • following a disciplined approach to proactive sales activities.

PBOs are generally located in a private cubical.

Rules of Thumb
Since bullet lists aren’t grammatical constructs, there are no strict rules related to punctuating them. But, there are some “best practices” that I can share with you. These rules of thumb fall into two categories: some I believe you must follow and some that are strong suggestions.

When creating a Bullet List, you must follow these rules:
  • The preamble must make sense for every item in the list.
  • The end punctuation of the preamble must be a colon.
  • The items in the list must be structured the same.
  • The items must be contextually related.

When creating a Bullet List, I recommend you also follow these rules:
  • If every item in the list is short (fewer than three words), you don’t need any punctuation. Alternatively, if you want to, you can use a comma at the end of each item and a period on the last item.
  • If the items are long but none are complete sentences, use a semicolon at the end of each and a period on the last item.
  • If any of the items contain punctuation within them, use semicolons at the end of each and a period on the last item.
  • If the items are full sentences, begin each with initial caps and end each with a period.
  • If items are not complete sentences, you can use initial lower case letters.
  • Don’t use numbers or letters (instead of bullets) unless you have a reason to. For example, if you want to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that there are four rules, by all means, number them.

A last word on formatting
Many word processing programs indent bullets. Such formatting is terrific because it adds to the visual appeal and so on. If your program isn’t set up to automatically indent bullets, see if you can change the default settings.

© 2019 Good with Words

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 9: Using Bullet Lists to Your Advantage

Bullet lists – also called vertical lists – are a useful, popular writing tool. Indeed, wide-spread adoption of PowerPoint in the business world is probably one of the reasons bullet lists are so widely used. (The default setting for many PowerPoint templates is a title and then a bullet list.)

I’m a big fan of vertical lists. A well-crafted list is a terrific way to:
  • provide visual appeal
  • draw attention to particular information
  • reinforce relationships among ideas/items
  • limit repetitious wording
I’ll talk a bit about each of these pluses in a minute. But, before I do, did you notice that I specifically said a “well-crafted” list? I draw your attention to this because a poorly crafted bullet lists can be confusing and frustrating for readers. (They also make the writer seem lazy or careless.) Here’s an example of a poorly crafted bullet list:

Here are some of the actions developers use that can be beneficial to the developer and community members:
  • Showing a commitment to two-way communication
  • Straightforward, timely, accurate information about the proposed project
  • Public information meetings to explain proposed projects 
Visual Appeal
The visual appeal I’m talking about isn’t because you’ve chosen nice looking symbols to mark the list items. The visual appeal comes from the fact that with a vertical list there is more white space on the page. More white space makes the document look more welcoming to readers, which is very important.

Drawing Attention to Information
The added white space provided by a vertical list also helps draw the reader’s attention to the information contained in the list. Bullet lists are a visual cue that readers remember – even if they don’t remember the specific information provided in a vertical list. So, if they go back and look for information, it’s more likely they’ll find it by looking for a list.

Think about a list of items you’re enclosing or attaching. By listing them vertically – instead of in a sentence with a commas between items – readers immediately sense how many (or few) items there are. As well, readers can quickly scan the list for an idea of what’s included. And, if they go back to find the list, it’ll jump out at them because of the vertical formatting.

Reinforcing Relationships
When a reader sees a bullet list, they automatically assume the items are related. This helps increase their understanding and can help them make connections and remember the points listed.

Limiting repetition
Because the items in a vertical list are related, they have something in common. So, the list’s introduction – the “preamble” – should contain the words/ideas each item has in common. As a result, the preamble replaces words you’d otherwise write with respect to each item. The result: no repetition.

Why Folks Struggle with Crafting Bullet Lists
Many business writers have trouble crafting bullet lists. This is probably because they were never taught how to. One reason no one taught you how to structure – or punctuate – a bullet list is because such lists aren’t – strictly speaking – a grammatical construct. As a result, there are no universal rules about how to craft them. (Unlike, for example, the rule about ending sentences with something that demonstrates a full stop, like a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.)

In the next Boot Camp session – which I’ll post later this week – we’ll talk about how to craft a good bullet list.

© 2019 Good with Words

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Stretch Break


We’re over half way through the boot camp – good job! How are you feeling about your progress so far?

While you’re taking a bit of a stretch break, I thought I’d make a couple general comments. These might be obvious, but I think they’re worth specifically pointing out.

It’s all about the reader
First and foremost, I’m hoping you’ve realized that the real secret to being a better writer is to focus on your reader’s needs. What we’re doing with each session is focusing on one thing that – if done well – will help your readers. In each Session I try explaining how or why improving in that one way will help make the reader’s job easier. For example, using transitions (Session 3) is a way to help guide the reader through your argument or idea. They help ensure the reader doesn’t veer off course – or miss any important points. Using active voice (Session 5) isn’t just about making things livelier – it makes clear to readers who’s responsible for actions or decisions.

Indeed, helping readers get through your document and understand the points you’re making is good for business. At a minimum, it shows you care and respect your readers. It also empowers them to make reasoned decisions and to take action. And, it makes you look smart – smart enough to share your knowledge and expertise in a way that they understand.

Don’t be a slave to old rules
The other point you may have noticed is that it’s ok to break some of the “rules”. Indeed, after the very first Session I got an email from a reader chiding me for splitting an infinitive. (If you missed it, the last sentence of Session 1 had the split infinitive that didn’t sit right with the reader.) You probably noticed in Session 2 that I ended a sentence with a preposition – another alleged grammar no-no. (Here’s the sentence: “The key to clear paragraphs is making sure each sentence relates to the theme or thesis you’re writing about.”)

There’s evidence that these “rules” were created by folks who were trying to make English grammar conform to Latin grammar. But, we’re living in the 21st century so there’s a strong argument these rules are irrelevant. Furthermore, applying them can result in awkward – or clumsy – sentences. For example, to ensure the correct emphasis, it’s often absolutely necessary to split an infinitive. Similarly, if it’s more natural to end a sentence with a preposition, feel free to. 

Another rule I routinely break relates to starting sentences with conjunctions like “and” or “but”. Many folks learned it’s incorrect to do so. I’ll bet you learned this “rule” in elementary school. There’s no basis in English grammar for this supposed rule, however. Teachers made this rule up to prevent you from making another grammatical mistake. Teachers thought that that by starting with “and” or “but”, students were more likely to write a sentence fragment. To prevent that possibility, they created the “rule” about not starting with those words. As long as you’re careful about crafting a sentence that includes a full thought, feel free to disregard what your elementary school teacher said.

Don’t be shy about sending feedback
And finally, I want to thank the readers who have dropped me a line. The feedback is great. It helps me understand what you’re finding useful, and what you might appreciate my help with. So, keep the feedback coming!

Until next session, keep up the terrific work!

© 2019 Good with Words

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 7: Reducing Jargon


Jargon is a word or phrase that has a special meaning when used in a particular technical field, industry, group, or situation. Jargon can be useful shorthand, so long as you’re sure everyone you’re talking to or writing knows and understands the precise meaning.

People often think jargon must sound technical or exotic. Legal maxims spouted in Latin are often what folks point to when asked to define jargon. The Latin phrase res ipsa loquitur, for example, is exotic-sounding jargon a lawyer might use when talking about evidence. (The phrase basically means something speaks for itself.)

But, what many folks don’t realize is that common words can be jargon too. Take a simple word like “sheet” – depending on the context, it can be jargon. How, you ask? If someone says, “pass me that sheet”, they might be referring to one of (at least) four different things:
  •  a piece of paper
  •  a bed covering 
  • a piece of glass
  •  a rope
The last example comes from the sailing world, where certain ropes are “sheets”. Indeed, learning to sail isn’t just about learning to handle a boat – it’s also about learning a new language. So long as everyone on board speaks sailing, using sailing jargon saves time and reduces the chance something might go wrong!

Why do people use jargon?
As noted, jargon can function as shorthand that can save time, which can be crucial in emergency situations. Some professionals use jargon specifically to differentiate themselves or to exclude others. And yes, that often means professionals judge peers and colleagues based on whether they’re fluent with the jargon of their field.
 
Problems with Jargon
Using jargon can create a variety of problems, however. The most obvious problem is when you use jargon and the person hearing it (or reading it) doesn’t understand it. (Using res ipsa loquitur in a non-legal document is an example.) Of course, by taking the time to define the jargon for your audience you can solve part of the communication problem. But, simply defining the term doesn’t address another problem: using jargon often alienates folks, which is never a good communication outcome.

Another problem with using jargon is that the same word or phrase can mean different things to different people. Of course, in many situations, there are other clues that help minimize the confusion. If you’re standing near a photocopy machine when someone says “pass me the sheet”, you’d realize they’re not talking about a rope. But making assumptions based on circumstances is always dangerous.

A separate, but related problem can occur with jargon when someone doesn’t appreciate the technical sense the speaker/writer intends. This is more likely to happen when the jargon you are using involves common words.

Another problem with jargon that many fail to appreciate is that jargon can be confusing even among members of the same profession. Take, for example, a situation where a tax attorney was making a presentation at a tax conference. One of her key arguments was that a particular transaction was favourable because of the capital gains treatment. She didn’t realize, however, that some lawyers in the audience were from countries where the capital gains treatment was very different. It never occurred to her to explain how she calculated the capital gain because she assumed all the lawyers were on the same page. The end result was that some considered her analysis flawed because they were mentally applying their country’s capital gains calculation.

Dealing with Jargon
Given the name of today’s boot camp session, I believe the best way to avoid confusion is to not use jargon. Of course, in certain situations and at certain times, you may decide using jargon is fine, or even preferred. In those situations, ask yourself the following:

  • Will everyone understand the term is jargon?
  • Will everyone understand the meaning I intend?
If the answer to either question is no – or even “maybe not” – then take the time to define for the audience what you mean. (If you don’t want to break up the flow, consider providing the definition in a footnote or glossary.) I promise you, no one will object to you setting out your meaning and you’ll enhance your reputation as a clear communicator.

© 2019 Good with Words

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 6: Passive Resistance

Have you ever read a sentence in a business communication and thought to yourself: “Who says?” or “Who did that?” or “Who made that decision?”

Here are a few examples:
Sentence A: A mistake in processing your order was made.
Sentence B: Your application has been reviewed and it is denied.

Both these sentences are in passive voice and so they leave the reader not knowing who took the actions. In Sentence A we don’t know who made the mistake and in Sentence B we don’t know who reviewed the application or who denied it.

Why use active voice?
Sentences written in active voice are more interesting. Consider these sentences:
Sentence C: Gretzky scored the game winning goal.
Sentence D: The game winning goal was scored by Gretzky.

Both provide the same information. But, Sentence C, which is in active voice, is livelier. Why? The subject of the sentence – Gretzky – took the action – he scored the goal. With passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not the actor. In Sentence D, the subject is the goal.

Here’s another pair of sentences:
Sentence E: A pail of water from atop the hill was fetched by Jack and Jill.
Sentence F: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Sentence E is passive: the subject of the sentence is the pail – and a pail can’t take an action. Instead, the pail was acted on – it was fetched – by Jack and Jill. In Sentence F – the one in active voice – Jack and Jill are the subject and they took the action.

Some business writers think that by writing in passive voice, a statement seems less personal or less pointed. That argument doesn’t necessarily hold up. If I were on the receiving end of a processing mistake, I would rather be told: “We made a mistake in processing your order.” Though I don’t know specifically who the “we” is – active voice at least tells me the company is claiming responsibility for the mistake.

Another plus with sentences written in active voice is they are shorter, which, as you remember from anther Boot Camp Session, is better. 

Recognizing passives
To recognize passive voice, look for the following two things in the sentence:


  •         Some form of “to be” – for example:  “as”, “are”, “is”, “was”, “were”, and so on
  •         A past participle – usually a verb ending in “ed” or “en”

In Sentence E, for example, “was” is the “to be” verb and “fetched” is the participle.

You can also enable Word’s grammar function to spot passives. Whenever Word flags a passive, I take a moment to review the sentence and figure out what makes it passive. Then, unless I have a good reason to leave it in passive voice, I re-cast it in active voice.

Fixing passive sentences
I’ll admit that writing in active voice doesn’t always come natural to me. As a result, I put a lot of effort into spotting my passive sentences and correcting them.

If you use active voice as much as possible, you’ll be a better writer. Your writing will be more concise and you’ll leave readers with fewer questions.

© 2019 Good with Words