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

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 2: Crafting Paragraphs

In this session we turn our attention to paragraphs. They’re the building blocks writers use to present information. A paragraph is a grouping of sentences that relate to an idea, theory, or argument. (Of course, you can have single sentence paragraphs, but here we’re focusing on multi-sentence paragraphs.)

The key to clear paragraphs is making sure each sentence relates to the theme or thesis you’re writing about. If a sentence does not directly support the theme, it doesn’t belong in the paragraph.

To figure out if each sentence supports the theme, first identify the paragraph’s topic sentence. If none of your sentences set out your main thesis, you’ll need to craft one that does. Once you have a topic sentence, make sure each sentence clearly relates to it.

When you find a sentence that doesn’t directly support the topic sentence, remove it from the paragraph. If you take a sentence out of a paragraph that doesn’t mean you must delete it from the document. You may find the sentence includes an idea worthy of being the topic sentence of a new paragraph. Or perhaps the removed sentence supports some other paragraph. If so, move it there.

Though content drives paragraph length, paragraphs with many sentences require special attention. Besides making sure each sentence supports the paragraph’s thesis – ask yourself whether the order of the sentences makes sense. You can order the sentences in a variety of ways: chronologically, by cause/effect, by argument/counter-argument, and so on. When choosing the sentence order, be sure the ordering will make sense to the reader.

And finally, like long sentences, long paragraphs are difficult for readers. Paragraphs should present information in digestible chunks. Most long paragraphs can be easily broken into two paragraphs. Of course, you may have to craft a new topic sentence for the second paragraph. You can usually do this by simply paraphrasing the original topic sentence. Then review the two paragraphs, making sure the order of the sentences in each paragraph makes sense.

Invest the time in critically analyzing every paragraph you write. Your writing will be clearer and your readers will be grateful.

© 2019 Good with Words

Monday, February 04, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short

Have you ever taken a fitness boot camp? If so, you probably noticed that most of the activities are things you did in elementary school. (You probably also noticed those moves are a LOT harder on older knees than they were on 10-year-old knees!) By the end of boot camp you’re stronger because you’ve reconnected with muscles you hadn’t focused on for some time.

In coaching professionals interested in making their business-related writing better, I’ve noticed big payoffs come from focusing on a few basics. So, I’m launching a digital writing boot camp designed to help you whip your writing into better shape. The boot camp will be a series of short blog posts. Each post will cover one basic practice that will improve your writing – if you’re willing to really focus on it.

Ready? Ok, here goes …

Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short

An excellent first principle to focus on is keeping sentences short. Shorter sentences are easier for readers. Long sentences – even when grammatically flawless – require a lot from readers. Business writers seem to forget that readers don’t know the point you’re making until they finish reading the sentence. With long sentences, readers must hold a lot in their head before making sense of the idea you’re presenting.

Another problem with long sentences is that they’re more likely to be grammatically flawed. And, when you write a long sentence, you increase the chance of creating confusion and ambiguity.

How short? My rule of thumb is sentences should be under 25 words. I know, that seems like a lot of words – and it is. But, you’d be surprised at how many sentences in business documents are 30, 40, even 50 or more words long. Professionals often think that long sentences show off their expertise. Instead, it shows their laziness and lack of care about the reader.

So, any time your sentence spills beyond one line of type, take the time to check how many words it is. (It’s easy to check word counts in MS Word. All you do is highlight the sentence and in the lower left corner you’ll see the sentence’s word count.) It’s a bit time consuming to do for every sentence, but don’t skip this necessary step.

Any time you have a sentence that’s over 25 words – shorten it! Start by ruthlessly trimming unnecessary words. If that’s not enough, re-cast the sentence. Sometimes the easiest solution is to chop the sentence into two. Sure, you may have to repeat the subject of the sentence, but that’s a small price for clarity and ease of reading.   

I challenge you to diligently focus on writing shorter sentences for a month. Do it for your readers – and for yourself.

© 2019 Good with Words

Monday, July 21, 2014

Word Crimes?

Being in the business, I’ve always found grammar inherently interesting and fun. Now, thanks to Weird Al Yankovic, I am sure others will find it fun too!

Here it is: Word Crimes – enjoy!