Friday, June 30, 2023

On being … outlook influenced

 By Ingrid Sapona 

Do you notice your moods? (I’m not asking if you think you’re moody – that’s a WHOLE different can of worms and I’m most definitely not going there!) I think I’m pretty average at identifying my moods. But, I’m definitely better at identifying bad moods and things that trigger them (traffic, politics, injustice, incompetence, etc.). Fortunately, I’ve found some things that are pretty reliable mood improvers, such as baking and turning on one of my favourite playlists. 

What I hadn’t really been aware of until recently is how my outlook can have an impact on my mood. Last week I took the car in for an oil change and checkup. I hadn’t taken it in for about nine months (I’m not driving as much) and the car is old – not “officially” vintage, but close. I was quite nervous about what the bill might be, but I need to keep her running and I trust Gord, my mechanic. 

When I handed him the keys, I gave him the usual marching orders: “Oil change and a check of whatever you feel you need to check Gord, but don’t find anything.” He laughed and went away. When he was done, he came back and said “$96.05”. I was so relieved I let out a little “Yeah, I can afford that” as I tapped my credit card. Later that day a friend who knew I was taking the car in phoned and asked how the checkup went. I enthused: “Great – $96!” adding, “It’s not too often I’m pleased to pay nearly $100 for something, but I sure was this morning!” 

My friend chalked up my glee to having managed my expectations. That’s a topic he and I have talked about many times before. He believes that by consciously keeping expectations low, you’re less likely to be disappointed. I buy into that philosophy to some extent, as I’ve certainly noticed a correlation between high expectations and disappointment. But low expectations aren’t a recipe for actually elevating one’s mood. In any event, that’s not how I’d characterize why I was in such a good mood on learning that the car cost $96. The anxiety I felt about possibly facing a biggish maintenance bill for my car wasn’t an attempt at expectation setting; it was about expenses and cash flow. My happiness was a function of being pleasantly surprised about the cost and the car’s continued reliability. 

The very next day I noticed my mood was also lifted by a letter I received. It was a pension statement from a place I worked at briefly a few years ago. I was only in the pension plan for about 15 months, so the pension is very small. It’s been a few years since I last got a pension statement and I was surprised to see the amount I’ll get on retirement is a bit more than I thought. (The slight increase is because it’s indexed to inflation, which I hadn’t included in my estimates.) 

Mind you, I admit that for a minute I felt a pang of regret when I considered what the payments might be if I’d been at that company for, say, 15 years instead of 15 months. But, I let go of that thought pretty quickly as I remembered how unhappy I was working there. So, as I filed the statement in my retirement folder, I realized I was smiling because it kind of felt like found money. Though I know the amount wouldn’t even count as pocket change to the majority of the pensioners from that company, I was still tickled. 

These two incidents – minor as they were – helped me realize the role my outlook plays in my mood. In a way, these incidents can be characterized as “looking at the up side, rather than the down”. In other words: yes, the car cost me nearly $100 – but it’s better than what it could have been had it needed other repairs. And though I’ll be getting a minuscule amount from that pension – especially by comparison to my former colleagues – “every penny counts” and anything is better than nothing. 

So, since we’re at the mid-point of the year, I’ve decided that for the rest of 2023 I’m going to make a concerted effort to focus on the up side of things. And, as the year progresses, I’m going to monitor whether doing so yields a shift in outlook that produces an overall lighter, brighter, more consistently positive mood. I’m betting it will… 

Care to join me in this challenge?? 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona

Monday, May 29, 2023

Choices you have when writing

I subscribe to a variety of newsletters and blogs, including Dr. Nancy Tuten’s Get It Write blog.

I enjoy Nancy’s blog and always learn something. Her most recent post was called: Bi and Semi as Prefixes. Having scratched my head about whether bimonthly means two times a month or every two months, I was keen to read Nancy’s take on it. I was kind of relieved to see that I’m not the only person confused and that, in fact, there's good reason to be confused.

Nancy explains the differences and concludes with this advice: 

“When we mean twice (“as in “twice a week” or “twice a month”), we can avoid ambiguity by using the prefix semi (as in semiweekly for “twice a week” and semimonthly for “twice a month”)."  

Simple, right?

Well, I smiled when I read Nancy's suggestion because she's a specialist in English grammar, mechanics, and usage and her advice reflects that. But, as a plain language practitioner, I’d argue that for the sake of a few extra words, the best way to avoid confusing the reader is to avoid the prefixes “bi” and “semi” altogether and simply write “two times a month” or “every two months”, depending on what you really mean.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 12: Finishing Touches on Long Documents

Welcome to the LAST session in this boot camp! In this session we’re going to cover what I think of as finishing touches. These are things not all documents necessarily need, but that are especially useful for long documents: Opening (or Executive) Summaries and Tables of Contents.

Opening Summaries
When you have a long document and you know some readers are mainly interested in the conclusions, consider including an opening or “executive” summary. (Executive summaries were originally meant to provide executives with essential information and specific recommendations about business decisions they’d be making.) Executive summaries aren’t just for execs, however. They’re for everyone who wants to understand the issues and conclusions without necessarily reading the entire document.

People often ask me how long an executive summary should be. There’s no definitive answer. Instead of worrying about the ideal length, focus on providing information the reader needs in a clear, concise manner. If you do, you’ll always end up with summaries that are the right length.

Treat Summaries as Stand-Alone Documents
Though executive summaries are usually included as part of the document, you should treat them as stand-alone documents. In other words, you should give the reader enough information to understand the issues without having to read the underlying document. So, for example, if you use jargon or any acronyms in the summary, you must define them in the summary. (You cannot rely on the fact that you defined them in the main document because not all readers will read the full document.) Also, if your summary is longish, the summary should include headings and sub-headings.

At a minimum, the summary should contain a description of the issues and your conclusions related to the issues. As well, the summary should include information that helps the reader decide if they agree with the conclusions you’ve come to.

It’s customary to present the arguments and ideas in the summary in the same order you presented them in the underlying document. Doing so makes it easier for readers to find details in the main document. Similarly, if you included headings in the summary, they should parallel those in the main document so that readers can cross-reference them.

Tables of Contents
A Table of Contents is basically a list of the document’s main headings and sub-headings, along with page numbers showing where to find them. Tables of Content (ToCs for short) are especially important in longer documents because they help readers find specific information quickly. But that’s not the only reason they’re useful.

If you crafted meaningful headings and sub-headings, the Table of Contents will provide a quick overview of the topics and arguments in the document. As the author, review the ToC carefully – considering both whether the headings are helpful AND whether the topics are in a logical order. A critical review of the ToC may also help you spot weaknesses or information that’s missing and that you should further revise.

Closing Thoughts About the Boot Camp…
We covered a lot of ground in the 12 sessions. I imagine you found some topics easy – probably more of a refresher – and others that were more challenging for you. Regardless, just keep at it, consciously focusing on all the things we covered. If you do, I’m sure your writing will continue to improve.

And finally, always remember that the true key to better writing is to write with the reader in mind.

© 2019 Good with Words

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 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.)

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!

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