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, April 02, 2019

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!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reflecting on Reflexive Pronouns

I’ll admit it up front: misusing reflexive pronouns (which are pronouns that end in –self or –selves) is a pet peeve of mine, so when I read this sentence from a letter written by Toronto’s mayor, I cringed:

“Mr. [X] has demonstrated to myself that he has a great work ethic and has always shown tact and diplomacy.”

As the name implies, reflexive pronouns reflect back on the subject of the sentence. Here’s a simple example: She bathes herself. I like this example because the mental image it presents makes it easy to envision the subject of the sentence doing something to herself.

Another way of describing when it’s ok to use a reflexive pronoun is when the subject and object are the same entity. In the mayor’s sentence, the subject (Mr. X) and the object (the author of the sentence – in this case, the mayor) are not the same entity, so “myself” is clearly wrong. The proper pronoun in that sentence is “me”: “Mr. X demonstrated to me that he has a great work ethic…”

If these explanations don’t make use of reflexive pronouns clear enough, here’s how MS Word’s grammar help explains why “myself” is incorrect in a sentence like the one the mayor wrote:

Reflexive Pronoun Use: It is incorrect to use "myself" alone as a subject, as in "Jake and myself went to town," or alone as an object, as in "You will talk only to myself."

Pronouns ending in –self (or –selves) can also be used to emphasize something, in which case grammarians call them intensive pronouns (rather than reflexive pronouns). As the name “intensive pronouns” implies, such pronouns are inserted for emphasis – to make you take notice of the noun or pronoun they go with.  Here’s an example: Tom himself did the laundry.

Given how simple the rules for using reflexive pronouns are (or, looked at it another way, the relatively few situations when using reflexive pronouns makes sense), I wonder why they are so often misused. In Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to punctuation, spelling, style, usage and grammar, Anne Stilman suggested that one reason writers might insert reflexive pronouns where they don’t belong is because they may think that “it sounds more important or genteel to say myself than plain I or me would do”.  That may be the case, but it certainly backfires because doing so only makes the writer seem illiterate.

So, next time you’re tempted to tack a “–self” or “–selves” onto a pronoun, stop and be sure to consider whether doing so is correct.