Monday, June 17, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 8: Using Meaningful Headings

Using headings and sub-headings adds useful information and helps make the text less intimidating by breaking it up. So, if you’re in the habit of inserting headings and sub-headings – that’s great!

What we’re focusing on in this session is maximizing the value of headings by making sure they’re meaningful to the reader. 

Role of headings
Headings serve a number of important purposes, including:

·       Serving as aids to navigation – they orient readers, helping them understand where they are in the document and within the author’s argument, explanation, or thesis.

·       Summing up the writer’s thesis – this is one of the most important and overlooked uses for headings and sub-headings. By reading through the headings, the reader should be able to understand the author’s entire argument.

·       Making the page look better – one way they do this is by adding white space. Varying headings’ font style, size, and colour can also add graphic interest to the page.

·       Providing relief for the reader – they’re logical places for readers to pause. They also provide an easy-to-find place for readers to return to.

Misuses of heading
As I mentioned at the start of this session, headings can add useful information. A well-crafted heading distills – or summarizes in a few words – the information that follows. But headings are NOT a substitute for text. In other words, do not use the heading as a lead-in for the text that follows. (Beware: this happens a lot when people use bullet lists. We’ll talk about this again in the session on crafting vertical lists.)

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Honing Your Writing Skills Pays Dividends
Saving time is the biggest dividend. Whose time? Your readers’ time and yours….

In this example, the first sentence doesn’t make sense without reference to the heading. Put another way, the reader needs the information in the heading to make sense of the first sentence of the paragraph. Instead, the first sentence under the heading should read something like: Saving time is one of the biggest dividends from improving your writing.

One of the reasons it’s bad form to use headings as text-substitutes is because reviewers and editors sometimes tinker with headings. If the text below the heading depends on the heading to make sense, you’ll have to revise the text too. Can you say nightmare? Another reason it’s bad form to use headings as text-substitutes is because some readers simply skip headings – imagine their confusion!   

Writing good headings
A good heading is both concise and informative. Many business writers I’ve worked with confuse concise with short. Concise means without unnecessary detail. Ensuring headings are short is not the goal. Indeed, of the two qualities, informative is really key.

Say, for example, you’re writing about your analysis of the pros and cons of a number of aspects of a transaction, including foreign investment. To help the reader easily identify different things you’ve analyzed, you decide to include sub-headings. One sub-heading you might include, therefore, is: “Foreign Investment”. That’s fine – it’s certainly better than no sub-heading. But, something like: “Risks of Foreign Investment” or “Benefits of Foreign Investment” is better. In this case, adding just a few extra words provides the reader with useful information about your conclusion with respect to foreign investments.

Formatting Headings and Sub-headings
Some organizations have strict rules about heading and sub-heading formats. If your company has such rules, you probably don’t have much flexibility. But, if you can set your own heading formats, here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:

·       Add sub-headings too draw the reader’s attention to details and to help readers locate specific ideas under a main heading.

·       Be sure that readers can quickly distinguish between headings and sub-headings. You can do this a number of ways, such as by:
  • using different fonts – perhaps a serif font (like Times New Roman) for headings and a san serif font (like Ariel or Tahoma) for sub-headings;
  • using different font sizes;
  • using different colours;
  • varying the line spacing before and after different heading levels

·       Avoid extreme indenting of sub-headings – some word processing templates indent sub-headings, with each subsequent sub-heading level indented a bit more. This can be awkward because readers’ eyes naturally look for text to start at the left margin. If you indent sub-headings very much from the left margin, the sub-heads get virtually lost.

What’s in it for you?
So far, we’ve talked a lot about how headings are useful to readers. Carefully crafted headings are also a great help to the writer. A quick read through the headings provides you with a great opportunity to consider:
·         whether you’ve organized the information in a logical way, and
·         whether there are any gaps in information that you might want to go back and address.

© 2019 Good with Words

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

Friday, April 26, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 5: Making Things Personal

By now, I hope you’ve realized that the skills you’re honing each session are building on each other. With that in mind, in this session we’re focusing on making things personal. In other words, using pronouns like “I”, “we”, and “our” to refer to your business or the viewpoint you’re presenting in your documents. We’ll also look at why you should refer to the reader as “you”, or their proper name, if appropriate.

Many people were taught that business writing is “supposed to be more formal” than other kinds of writing. As a result, they think that using first person – referring to their business as “we” or “us” – is unacceptably informal. As we noted in Session 4, the argument that writing should be more formal than spoken language is no longer relevant. And, because there’s nothing sacred about business writing, there’s no reason it should be more formal than any other writing.

In fact, there are lots of reasons to use first person in business writing. First person is direct and more authentic because it reminds the reader someone is behind the information. In a business-to-business context, using first person signals to customers that there are people behind the goods or services the business offers. First person is also more authoritative, which is especially important when the document sets out your professional opinion, for example. Using first person reinforces the fact that you stand by your statement.

If you’ve noticed that others in your company or organization use the formal third person, find out why. Chances are people have assumed there was some corporate dictate about avoiding first person because everyone seems to avoid it. It’s also likely that no formal decision to refrain from first person was ever made. If your organization is one of the few that has an actual policy requiring third person, set to work trying to revise it. You can start by using first person and if someone tells you to change it, explain the benefits of first person. You may not win the argument in the short term, but keep at it – it’s a fight worth having.

Writers who are reluctant to use first person also often avoid referring to the reader as “you” – in other words, in the second person. Say, for example, you’re writing a letter offering someone employment. If the person you’re writing takes the job, the offer letter is, in effect, a contract. After the initial greeting (the salutation) – don’t do what many do, which is refer to the person as “the employee” rather than the familiar “you”. How impersonal can you get? Do you want to work for someone who thinks of you simply as “the employee”? I don’t….

Referring to the reader as “you” is more direct and it helps involve the reader. It’s especially important when the purpose for your document is to get the reader to take action

Gaining comfort – and confidence – using I, we, and you will help make your writing more conversational and easier for readers to understand. It will also help you avoid the passive voice, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming session.

© 2019 Good with Words

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 4: Using Plain, Simple Words

This session we look at using ordinary, simple words in business writing. Somewhere early in their career, many business folks get in the habit of using formal words when they write. When I ask why, the most common response is that they learned writing is supposed to be more formal than speaking. Interestingly, they don’t seem to think about where that idea may have originated. It probably goes back to times when folks wrote on parchment or papyrus – or when they literally carved words into stone. But in the twenty-first century, the expectation that people use more formal language in writing is no longer true.

I also think business people use non-ordinary words out of insecurity and a misplaced belief they sound professional or authoritative. Others use formal language because their colleagues do and they think they must do so to fit in. Laziness is also involved. If you’ve picked up work-related vocabulary, it’s easier to go with the flow. Also, translating concepts and ideas into ordinary words can be time consuming. Why bother when no one else in your office does? Mindless acceptance of MS Word’s Spelling & Grammar recommendations can also cause introduction of overly formal word choices. For example, my version always suggests using “therefore” instead of “so”. That’s ridiculous.

Wonder if I’m talking to you? I am if you’ve ever written a client or colleague something like: “the meeting will commence at 10”. Commence? Would you tell your spouse that you daughter’s play date commences at 10? No – you’d say it starts at 10. Or, have you ever written something like this: “When queried, Arlene said I need to furnish the information on or before noon.” Queried? Furnish? On or before? Why not: “I asked Arlene and she said I must give her the information by noon.”

Or maybe you’ve written something like this in a business letter: “Pursuant to our discussion, please furnish us with the aggregate amount per annum that your team spent on securing assistance with payroll.” Why not: “As we discussed, please give us the total amount per year that your team spent for help with payroll.

Here are some words and phrases you can practice making plainer: elect, ameliorate, in the event, subsequent, prior, aggregate, implement, necessitate, sufficient, exhaustive, pursuant to, consensus. If you have trouble coming up with a plain alternative for a word, look up synonyms of the word. (I turn to for this kind of help all the time. Just look up the word and click on the “synonyms and antonyms” link.) 

Using ordinary words isn’t about dumbing down information. It’s about making information understandable to as wide an audience as possible. If that’s not a good enough reason to work at using plain language, there’s something in it for you too. You’ll find that translating concepts into ordinary words tests your understanding of what you’ve written.

In a future session we’ll focus on avoiding jargon – that’s an even trickier issue to deal with. But, you’ll be in better shape for that workout if you practice – and master – using plain words in your business writing.

© 2019 Good with Words

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 3: Using Transitions

Like a fitness boot camp, each week builds on the previous weeks’ work. So, by this point you’re probably good at spotting long sentences and shortening them. You should also be used to crafting solid paragraphs.

This session we turn our attention to using transitions – words and phrases like: “as a result”, “in fact”, “but”, “even so”, and so on. Transitions help readers understand how the ideas set out in the paragraphs are connected. They express relationships between ideas and signal how the author’s ideas flow. Think of them as the mortar between the paragraph building blocks. 

Business writers are sometimes reluctant to use transitions because they think the ideas they’re writing about are obvious. In other words, they believe the reader doesn’t need help making the mental connection. Writers who’ve been working on a document for some time are more likely to come to this mistaken conclusion. They forget the poor reader is new to the information and don’t realize readers appreciate it when connections are clear.

Another excuse writers sometimes give for not including transitions is they want to be concise. While striving to be concise is good, making things easy for readers by adding a few words is just as important. 

Generic transitions are cues that keep readers on track. They signal contrast (“on the other hand”), comparison (“similarly”), emphasis (“in fact”), conclusions (“in short”), cause and effect (“therefore”), and so on. Choose transitions carefully because they carry subtly different meanings. For example, “earlier” and “since” both convey timing, but they mean very different things.

Substantive transitions provide connection and new content. With these, the author usually reiterates or refers to a point previously made and then adds to it. Here’s an example:
The trainer’s methods were complicated and involved a lot of equipment. Though the methods yielded results, no one signed up for the advanced camp.
The italicized transition refers back to an idea in the first sentence but the rest of the sentence then offers a contrast.

Because transitions are cues for readers, the best place to put them is at the point of connection. Here’s an example:
The participants were tired and frustrated. As a result, they all quit.

There’s no reason for not using transitions generously. After all, they help readers follow your line of thinking, which is the goal of all business writing.

© 2019 Good with Words