Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too


How many words to say hello?

I want to say hello but I don’t have time. I have to get onto explaining that this is a place for turning your writing into a tool for success at work. And everything I say has to use smart words because, like me, you won’t have time to waste. You may be reading this post on the way to work or as your last task of the day. Whatever you’re doing now, you’ll soon move on to something else. And that’s what your readers do too: they move on, and fast.

So, this blog is here to help you write faster, smarter and better. It is about you taking control of your writing to achieve things. I will focus on workplace writing (see my Training hub), but you can use many of my ideas for personal writing (even your own blog). Whatever your writing skills, and whatever your goals, I want you to take a step up. Start to think about how words are created, used and manipulated in our small world, and how you need to be part of that writing evolution from your own desk.

And now that’s done, I can say hello and welcome!

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New world, lost words

Where the heck did we leave all those words that our grandparents used to know?

This blog is full of encouragement for taking a new (less structured) approach to writing. I advocate language that acknowledges migration, technology, community and change, so long as it upholds the golden goose: good communication.

But what is the fallout from stepping into a ‘new world’ of English? I guess vocabulary would be the biggest loser. Yes, we are inventing new words all the time (and at an increasingly faster rate). But more words are disappearing from use, without us even noticing.

These words haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth: we still have them in the dictionary. But fewer people can spell them, pronounce them, define them or use them in a sentence.

When was the last time that you dropped ‘piscivorous’, ‘dipsomaniacal’ or ‘uxorious’ into a conversation? I admit, I had to look up two of these words.

But we are not only discarding our traditional vocab. We are tampering with it too.

We are happy to use words that do not have the exact meaning we intend, because we don’t know we’re wrong. We usually make this error with words that sound vaguely alike, or are somewhat connected to the same topic.

Below are some words that I’ve seen used in the wrong sense (the left words in the pairs). Based on the context, I’ve guessed what the writer really means (the words on the right). Do you know the proper meaning of each word in these pairs?

misanthrope, misogynist

perspicacious, perspicuous

specious, spurious

verbose, voluble

loquacious, garrulous

naysayer, iconoclast

taciturn, laconic

circumspect, retrospect

Unless you have a solid (and quite formal) English vocabulary, this test is tricky. You may be confident about some of the words, but unsure about others. I’ve popped all the definitions below, to help you.

But, first, think about the length and breadth of your vocabulary. You’re definitely taking on dinky new words (probably short and tech based). Are they taking up mental space that used to store words of more than one or two syllables? And does it matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The definitions

misanthrope (someone who hates or mistrusts humanity), misogynist (someone who hates or mistrusts women)

perspicacious (able to easily understand, of good insight), perspicuous (clearly expressed, easily understood)

specious (seemingly plausible but actually wrong), spurious (false or fake)

verbose (using more words than needed), voluble (talking fluently and readily)

loquacious (talkative), garrulous (excessively talkative, particularly about trivial matters)

naysayer (a person is expresses themselves pessimistically or negatively), iconoclast (a person who attacks beliefs, institutions, traditions etc. for being wrong or superstitious)

taciturn (reserved in speech, uncommunicative), laconic (in the style of using few words, spare in expression)

circumspect (wary, unwilling to take a risk), retrospect (in light of the past)

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ABC means Always Be Communicating? Really?

We are getting better at cramming longer messages into fewer words. First, the advertising industry boomed mid 19th century (a la Mad Men), and everyone got slogan happy and grab savvy.

Then television and journalism became allies, and we had a new generation of broadcasters and newspaper men and women adept at the 30 second grab and the killer headline.

At the same time, marketing and human resources became dominant in the business world. And they too focused on how the written word could solve problems, sell stuff and persuade people.

Now, mobile devices are the apparent cherry on top. They have prompted a whole new way of writing — a way that takes the writing trends of the past 50 years, along with our opinionated spitballing, and funnels it all into pop-up nuggets of simple text.

We now even write in code, such as IRL (in real life) and ISO (in search of).

Texting, social sites, user driven news … we love writing and reading this stuff. We can do it on the run, and then we comment/reply while hanging out the washing, watching a footy game, walking the dog or even doing our paid work.

For writers, producing online text is not so much a case of write it right, but write it ‘lite’. Our text needs to be like a drive-through coffee vendor: the reader pulls up, collects our ‘message’ and heads off. It’s a 10 second transaction.

But, as we crunch our message into ever smaller take-away containers, we sometimes make it ambiguous or untruthful. Ever read a news headline that has nothing to do with the actual story? Or misinterpreted a colleague’s dashed off email? Or clicked on a web link that doesn’t relate to the content that you expected?

Check out these examples:


Sensationalism: George Bush is accused of ignoring a memo that warned of impending terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.


Poor word choice: Bus passengers need seatbelts, not a beating.


Grammar problem: More correctly, ‘Two Soviet ship collide, one person dies’.


Misuse of data: More correctly, ‘One in four seeking erectile dysfunction treatment is younger than 40′.

I may definitely need your help. (email)

Conflicting message: The ‘maybe/definitely’ combination requires the reader to follow up to clarify.

We need to take on more complex projects. (email)

Ambiguity: Does the writer mean more projects that are complex, or projects that are more complex?

In these cases, the sharp ABC (always be communicating) has become the decidedly uncool NRC (not really communicating).

So, as we increasingly streamline our messages, the real question is whether we’re talking straight, and representing our stories and ourselves honestly, or whether we’re spreading scandal, misdirection or mistruth.

My bottom line? When you’re keeping it short, keep it real.

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Talk about yourself, differently

One of our trickiest writing tasks is writing about ourselves. We don’t want to sound arrogant or pushy. And we usually don’t want to sound off the wall. But not boring either! No, we just want to sound like a great person to know and have on board.

Whether you’re describing yourself in a CV, or in a bio for a tender, conference or company website, you need to craft your ‘persona’. That is, you need to box yourself as a neat package tied with a bow (and by ‘bow’ I mean a cool fact that your reader can mentally file away about you).

Try these three tips.

1. Be engaging but truthful. Don’t cast around words like ‘expert’ and ‘whiz’ and ‘experienced’ unless they do actually apply to you. Instead, make your education journey part of your appeal:

I am learning to use Nuance Dragon Magic, and I love it! I now use this speech recognition program to prepare first drafts of all my writing.

2. Keep it real, paint a picture. Don’t say you’re an ‘avid reader’ or you ‘love travel’. Instead, create an image of you in action:

I have a tower of novels on my bedside table. As I knock off one, I buy another one to replace it. Always surrounded by new books!

I have been around most of Australia, but I also love exploring other countries. For me, the ‘travel’ starts when I get there: new food, new people, new music, even new transport. (I once travelled to an Irish pub by tractor.

3. Be fresh. Don’t use the same old phrases. Filling out an application for a student leadership role, my daughter had to address the criteria of being ‘confident’, ‘flexible’ and ‘passionate’. Blah, blah, blah. I suggested she skip the descriptors and instead talk about situations that implied those characteristics. Look at these examples that I helped a young friend prepare:

I volunteered at a nursing home last year. I learnt how to hold a conversation with dementia patients, how to follow instructions to the letter, and how to deal with days that have both highs (a banjo playing bingo caller) and lows (a grieving relative). (Implies someone who has empathy, and who is patient and adaptable)

I play the violin in the school choir. It is often hard, but the other students are inspiring, and the music can lift me out of an ordinary day. (Implies someone who keeps trying, and who draws energy from creative pursuits and from colleagues)

These last two examples contain a simple fact (the volunteering and violin playing) followed by a statement that nails down something about the person’s manner/style/growth.

You’ll find plenty of other material out there to help you choose good words for your bio, so get started on the best text version of yourself!

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You honestly shouldn’t

In an online video about words that we overuse, three words resonated with me: honestly, literally, absolutely. I used to fling around these words every day, without a second thought. Then my children reflected them back to me, with some clanger comments:

‘Seriously mum?’

‘If I’m being honest, I don’t like this dinner’

‘I have absolutely no idea what you mean mum’.

And I ground my teeth at the tone.

Turns out I like saying these words but not hearing them. And my kids feel the same. Those innocuous sentence fillers that were a daily part of my speech are inappropriate, not just because they are overused but because they patronise the listener. Not good communication.

We don’t often use these three words in our work writing. But we do use them in other workplace dialogue – presentations, meetings, speeches. Just as I encourage you to use fresh language in your writing, let’s aim to knock these oldies (but not goodies) out of our speech.

Often the best approach is to drop such descriptors all together. But sometimes we want a bit of emphasis. In this case, try replacing your go-to adverb with language that better helps achieve your communication goal. A question or an instruction may be your best approach:

Turn ‘I am seriously trying to make a point here’ into ‘Do you understand my point? Do you have any questions?’ (Goal = knowing whether people understand you)

Turn ‘I honestly don’t know where this project is heading’ into ‘Do we know where this project is heading? What can we expect?’ (Goal = getting people’s help to predict an outcome)

Turn ‘This approach is absolutely our best option’ into ‘Let’s take this approach. I recommend it as our best option’ (Goal = getting people to choose a particular approach)

Yep, say it straight. Tell people what you think and what you want them to think or do. And leave out those three words that probably just annoy people.

By the way, while we’re purging words, let’s do away with frankly, genuinely, positively, in point of fact, truly, really, actually

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Where are your manners?

I’ve decided Twitter and other social media are a form of verbal warfare. The current worldwide campaign against online sexual violence agrees: people are not prepared to tolerate the vile online abuse hurled at women.

While we enjoy online text that is informative, inspiring, funny, witty and even trivial, we are learning how it can also be aggressive and criminal.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for a stop to online battles. All forms of text have been used for debate and argument, and I expect that. The written word has always been the mouthpiece of opinion—writing can be deliberate, thought-out, crafted. So it is ideal for planting the flag on an idea.

But we need some manners. We need boundaries for our writing, rather than the open slather that dominates now.

And these boundaries are needed for workplace writing too. So, what are the modern manners of a polite writer? I think we can probably start with the following 7 rules of etiquette:

1. Easily the most important rule: don’t be rude, offensive or untruthful. Ever.

You may write about hard truths, or your disappointment, resentment or anger. But stick to the facts (and maybe your feelings). Don’t slay anyone.

2. Don’t act like a 10 year old girl.

Don’t use kisses and emojis to make friends or soften a hard message. You are a grown person at work, and you should act like one.

3. Don’t text or email sad or serious news.

People deserve to hear upsetting news from you in person or by phone.

But a company can bend this rule in some situations. For a product recall, for example, a company may send letters to alert consumers, but they may also start a Twitter campaign. In this case, circulating the warning far and wide, and quickly, is more important than being polite.

4. Get back to people (or at least say when you’ll be free to chat)

Too often I send work emails or leave work voicemails that I may as well send to space: zip response! I politely follow up, and sometimes I’m ignored again. I understand time pressures and all that jazz. But I also know typing ‘Got it’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ takes 10 seconds.

So please acknowledge people trying to communicate with you (and do it quickly, to show you recognise they are busy too).

5. Stop writing and start talking face to face.

People complain about the tone of messages in their email battles. Whoa! Email is not a weapon. If you have an issue, walk up to the person and bravely discuss it. Or, if you’re not in the same space, arrange a convenient video/call time.

6. Spell check and proofread.

Do you spell check every piece of your writing? It takes 5 minutes, but it’s worth brownie points with your reader. Typos make you look lazy, and your writing look hasty.

Better to run a quick spelling/grammar check. And even better to invest in some proper proofreading, which makes you look truly professional.

7. Don’t write when you’re meant to be listening.

Texting, replying to emails, updating your Facebook page, posting a tweet … but what are you NOT doing during all this writing? Put down your device and listen up. Who’s trying to talk to you? Your colleague, client, manager, supplier, lawyer?

These 7 rules for work writing are not hard. And they definitely keep us more conscious of our ‘rudeness footprint’.

For more about writing manners, check out the thoughts of business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore in The Wall Street Journal last year.

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That’s a strange way to say it, but I know what you mean

I moved to Singapore from Australia in late 2014 (one reason for the rather long gap in my blog posts, sorry!). And language has been one of the biggest changes. With just our English and a smattering of French, my family is the minority here. Singapore has four official languages, and then all the expat workers and visitors speak their home language. Just in my building, the residents speak German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, multiple Chinese languages, Arabic and Swedish. Oh, and English (with Aussie, English and American tweaks).

English is everywhere in Singapore, but only as a tool, not as a socio-cultural construct. In other words, when people in a conversation here speak different languages, they can usually get by if they revert to English. Most people seem to know enough English to make themselves understood, and to understand what someone else is trying to say. Which makes English a bit of a default position when people are struggling to communicate.

So, from thinking about English in terms of expression and technique, I have come to this multilingual country where English has no pure form. Ironically, one of the Singapore Government buildings displays banners that promote correct spelling and define parts of speech—a visible effort to be ‘correct’. But every day I see and hear English being used just to understand and be understood. People don’t uphold the English language here; they hang onto it as a desperate last attempt to communicate. And they entwine it with the words and syntax of their home languages.

What results is the relief that two people feel when they conquer a language barrier and actually communicate. I feel that relief every day when I talk to people in my community, whether they be my Italian neighbours, a Singaporean taxi driver or my children’s Malaysian school bus driver. Believe me, I twist and turn my English into whatever it takes for me to make sense to the other person. And they do the same to talk to me.

So why, in Australia, are we so caught up with making our ESL workers conform to our ‘right’ English? I have a new baseline: so long as what someone says makes sense, the English can be unorthodox. So long as the message is true and clear, the English can sound ‘not right’.

Next time you hesitate about the ESL writing of a colleague or someone you manage at work, first ask yourself whether you easily get what they’re saying. If you do, then think about whether there is benefit from giving feedback on their English. Would it actually help? And definitely check whether the person wants to know more about English before you wade in with a tutorial. As I’ve learned, all we know about English only has value in some places and on some occasions. Elsewhere, and at other times, English is just a last resort.

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Who cares about phrasal verbs?

Not you? You don’t even know what they are? Join the club! Most people could care less about verbs (the action words), let alone complicated ones. But, if you don’t have a basic idea of phrasal verbs, then they can really mess up how your reader understands you.

A phrasal verb is simply a verb plus a particle (which is usually a preposition and sometimes an adverb—please see my 5 minute grammar sheets). So, in addition to using the verb ‘to run’, you may say ‘to run on’ or ‘to run over’, with completely different meanings:

I will run all day.

The words will run onto the next page.

The concert will run over time.

From these examples, you may think phrasal verbs are easy: you understand the three different sentences above, and you correctly use the two phrase verbs (‘run onto’ and ‘run over’) without even thinking. But are they so easy for writers with English as a second language? And do you always know where in the sentence to put the preposition after the verb?

To both questions, the answer is no. ESL writers find phrasal verbs difficult to use because we pick up the difference between ‘pick’ (meaning ‘choose’), ‘pick at’ (meaning ‘gradually consume’ or ‘continue to jab at’), ‘pick on’ (meaning ‘annoy/bully’) and ‘pick up’ (meaning ‘move something upwards), for example, from increasing practice with the English language. The language has hundreds of phrasal verbs. We learn them only from hearing and reading them repetitively, and then knowing how to use them in context.

The other problem is that we understand phrasal verbs only when we know where to put the preposition. Let’s check out the four types of phrasal verb, and where the preposition (bold in the examples below) should sit in each type:

  1. When the phrasal verb isn’t acting on anything (that is, it has no object) AND the preposition must immediately follow the verb

These are called intransitive phrasal verbs—for example:

My grandfather recently passed away. (died)
The truck broke down on the highway. (malfunctioned)
The girls broke down with emotion. (cried)
What time did she get up today? (arise)

2. When the preposition must immediately follow the verb AND an object follows the preposition

These are called nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

You should look into the reasons for his behaviour. (investigate)
He came across the missing folder in the drawer. (discovered)
My friends dropped by my house on the weekend. (visited)
The lodging puts up travelers from all places. (accommodates)

3. When the phrasal verb must have an object AND the preposition can follow the verb or the object

These are called optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

The school will call off the swim carnival due to the weather. (cancel)
The school will call the swim carnival off due to the weather.

Please hand out this card to people you meet. (distribute)
Please hand this card out to people you meet.

My teacher always mixes up the students. (confuse)
My teacher always mixes the students up.

4. When the object is a pronoun (when the order has to be verb, pronoun, preposition), rather than a noun (when the order has to be verb, preposition, noun)

These are called obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

Can you add up the prices? (total)
Can you add the prices up?
Can you add them up?
* Can you add up them? (incorrect)

That woman shouted down the rude man. (yelled at)
That woman shouted the rude man down.
That woman shouted him down.
* That woman shouted down him. (incorrect)

The upshot? Most phrasal verbs are an action phrase of two or three words. They can be challenging for English learners because sometimes they have a literal meaning (such as ‘stand up’) and sometimes they have a figurative meaning (such as ‘give into’).

If you are an ESL writer, or you have a work team with ESL writers, take charge of this area of English. First, prepare a list of phrasal verbs that often pop up (there’s one!) in your workplace writing. Start with 10 to learn, then another 10, and so on.

And use the English speakers around you. It’s simply a matter of saying ‘Does this sound right to you?’. If the person corrects your phrase, then add the correction to your learning list.

Right, time to turn off my laptop, top up my coffee and run over my to-do list. (Did you spot the three phrasal verbs?)

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Lessons from a rug shop

Today I saw a shop called Rug World, with a sign that very helpfully described the business as ‘A world of rugs’. I can assure you that the extra description implies no extra meaning; it is truly useless. Except that it prompted two ideas for me to chat about here.

First, how we order words can shorten/lengthen a sentence and make it more/less readable. So, ‘A world of rugs’ is needlessly longer than the neat ‘Rug World’. In the same way, you may write ‘it is the decision of the group to sign the contract’, but a possessive word cluster works better: ‘the group’s decision is to sign the contract’. Or, remembering my push for more verbs, try ‘the group decided to sign the contract’.

The second lesson from Rug World is how easily we fall into the trap, when trying to be super duper clear, of repeating our message in consecutive sentences. Sometimes the writer signposts the repetition for the reader (for example, ‘In other words’ or ‘What this means is’ or ‘In summary’ or ‘Basically’). And sometimes they don’t even recognise that they’ve doubled up on the same idea. The latter case often occurs when a writer is unsure of the content and still thinking/processing while actually writing.

What to do about such repetition? Cut it. When words or phrases do the same descriptive job or convey the same idea, they add unnecessary wordiness. Think about the following sentence:

The results also reinforce the finding that the magnitude of the effect of demographic and social variables is small.

Repetition arises in the use of both ‘also’ and ‘reinforce’, and again with ‘magnitude’ and ‘small’. In each pair, one word makes the other redundant. So, a better (and shorter) sentence is:

Revised: The results also found the demographic and social variables have a small effect.

Repetition is one form of a broader problem that I call ‘redundancy’. Text is redundant when it adds no value to your meaning. As a writer, you can start to self-edit that problem by looking for and deleting redundant text. See how these two sentences can be improved:

These stakeholders have a different involvement this year, due to the fact that there are more consultation stages this year.
Revised: The stakeholders’ involvement is higher this year because there are more consultation stages.

It is important to remember that the policy in regard to its implications for members of the community is …
Revised: The policy implications for the community are …

Look out for redundancy in the following forms:

tautologies, which merely repeat the message. Examples:
basic and fundamental
each and every

Remedy: delete either one of the paired words.

redundant modifiers, which describe something evident. Examples:
To all intents and purposes, this is similar by its very nature at this particular point in time.
Remedy: delete the empty modifiers (the italicised words).

abstract nouns, which are often made redundant by concrete words in the same sentence. Examples:
the concept of equal opportunity implies
it is a fact that increased workloads cause
in a situation where statistics are not available

Remedy: delete the abstract nouns (the italicised words) or convert them to concrete nouns.

unnecessary repetition of long phrases when you can use a single word or simple phrase. Examples:
the Queensland Fireworks Public Safety Code
the Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS ISO 8124.1:2002 Safety of toys Part 1 Safety aspects related to mechanical and physical properties

Remedy: shorten the subsequent use of these titles to ‘the code’ and ‘the standard.

In other words, don’t repeat yourself at the sentence and paragraph levels. At work, you want skeletal sentences, not porky ones.

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Drumroll please, ta da!

Gosh, I’m really sorry. I have your attention now, but no big news to tell. I just want to see what happens when I use a big hook headline: any spike in readership? Two comments on this blog advised me to write catchier post titles, as a way of attracting readers. I’ll let you know whether this experiment works, but meanwhile I want to talk about the same scenario in workplace writing.

You may not write headlines at work, but you probably create document titles, chapter/section headings, and subject lines on letters and emails. These are all opportunities to catch your reader’s attention and encourage them to read your document, even to read it more thoroughly.

So how do you come up with a title or heading? Do you recycle material written by other staff in your organisation (possibly past staff)? Do you use the same dry material that you used at university, or that you read in a textbook? Most writers use a functional or informative approach. In the first case, the writer bases headings on the function of the material that follows—for example, ‘Background’, ‘Method’, ‘Conclusion’, ‘Recommendations’. The reader knows the purpose of the upcoming section because the heading tells them. For an informative approach, the writer presents facts, data or proper nouns in the heading—for example, ‘Costs and benefits to the community’, ‘Trends in government spending’, ‘The Regional and Rural Change Study—a pilot program’.

Sometimes, a writer can use a combined approach. The heading ‘Case study: Canada’ tells the reader both how the upcoming material functions (to show an idea in action) and what it’s about (Canada). All three approaches—functional, informative, combined—can tell your reader what to expect from your writing. But you want to do much better that that: you want your reader so hooked that they immediately read your document. You don’t want your reader to delay reading, to skim read, or to pass on the document to someone else. In other words, you want their full attention.

So, how can you write a good hook?
1. Keep it short.
2. Avoid a lot of nouns, and try to include a verb.
3. Ask a question.
4. Use familiar pronouns (‘we’ for your organisation, and ‘you’ to mean the reader).
5. Try alliteration (for example, ‘All about animal associations’).
6. Skip the jargon and use plain English.
7. Use minimal capitalisation (save capitals for proper nouns only).
8. Add some punctuation (perhaps a colon or em dash) if you need to break up longish text.

See how I’ve revised the following headings using the above tips:

Title: Insights into Mental Health in Subsets of the Australian Population Everyday ups and downs: how Australians are thinking and feeling
Title: A Report on Packaging Design in the Personal Hygiene Industry 25 creative packaging designs that sell the product for you
Heading: ‘XYZ Finance Company Insurance Schedule’ → ‘Details of your insurances with us’
Heading: ‘Cost and benefits to the community’ → ‘How will the changes affect your community?’
Letter subject line: Re Regulation 345 Part 9x Clause 5(a) → Help for your business to comply with Regulation 345 part 9x clause 5(a)
Letter subject line: Process for disputation over building contract 45869 → Invitation to discuss building contract 45869

Sometimes, the law requires you to use certain wording. You may have to stick with ‘Product disclosure statement’, for example, although you can add a subheading that acts as the reader hook (‘What you need to know about this product’). Like my trick upfront in this post, blogs can give you ideas for how to tweak heading language and punctuation.

Of course, don’t get too crazy with your headings. You want to expand your readership, not narrow it. So stick to language and topics that appeal to your readers, and maintain your authority/brand. While the following title certainly caught my eye, it repelled me rather than engaging me: How green were the Nazis? Nature, environment, and nation in the Third Reich. On the other hand, I love the following title of a box of map cards: Go explore Sydney: themed walks and adventures. The title instructs me (I have to explore more), intrigues me (What themes? What adventure?) and informs me (The cards map out Sydney walking routes).

So don’t just cut and paste your headings. Think about how closely they pull your reader to your text. And my final tip: whatever you say in your heading or subject line, address the matter immediately, in your first paragraph. Don’t waffle through some background material first. In other words, once you catch a reader, keep hold of them!

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Readers can misunderstand you subconsciously (and sometimes on purpose)

This morning I saw a good example of word swapping: that is, when a reader mentally changes written text to match their expectations or focus. The example was prompted by a news story on a university student protest, which described one woman as a protestor. In an online response, a reader of the story then called the woman a ‘professor’. The reader had the context of ‘university’ in mind, and simply swapped one longish ‘p’ word for another that fits that context. We all do this mental word swapping when we read, usually because we’re reading in a hurry and not paying enough attention, or because we’re subconsciously substituting information that is more familiar or more pleasing to us.

The contextual spin is interesting because it can be culturally or event specific. If you see the phrase ‘food and drinks’ on a brochure for school holiday care, I’m sure you imagine sandwiches and juice will be provided. But the same phrase on a work party invitation would prompt you to imagine yourself eating canapés and alcoholic beverages. In these two cases, the writer doesn’t have to explain themselves because the event context does it for them. Unfortunately, sometimes the writer and the reader each have a different context in mind.

A simple example is how staff interpret ‘casual dress’ on an invitation to a workplace planning day: some may still wear a suit and just forget the tie, while others may turn up in shorts and a t-shirt. The context of ‘casual’ at work means different things to different people, and I advise you avoid the problem by always being specific when instructing people about a workplace event or process.

Readers can also twist a word’s meaning to suit their personal agenda. An example is when staff are asked to provide comments on a manager as part of 360 degree feedback for the manager’s performance review. Most staff will understand that the comments must be work related and useful to the person’s development as a manager. But some staff will think they can make personal comments that are irrelevant to a performance review. In this case, their personal context (perhaps a disagreement with the manager) overrides a sensible interpretation of the task.

This writing problem at work can have financial implications too. Imagine you write a quantity of 10 on a stock report, and the reader thinks you mean 10 cartons when you actually mean 10 crates, each of 50 cartons. Or imagine you send out a manufacturing order that is to be triggered by warehouse stock reaching an average of 100 cartons. Your reader may think you mean ‘average’ in the sense of ‘around’ or ‘in the range of’, so around 100 crates at each warehouse. But, what if you actually want the trigger to be the statistical ‘mean average’? In that case, the trigger is when the sum of the crates at all your warehouses, divided by the number of warehouses, is exactly 100: some warehouses may have almost no crates, and some may have a few hundred, but the mean average across warehouses is 100. Two completely different scenarios can occur, depending on the reader’s interpretation of one word.

So, while you can’t preempt the reader who swapped ‘professor’ for ‘protestor’, you can help a reader better understand the context in which they need to understand your words. And you can also help stop a reader from imposing an agenda on your text. In both cases, be clear about the who, what, where, how, why and when of the situation. That is, give enough details to narrow your meaning, to the extent that your reader is less likely to fall into the trap of word swapping.

Postscript: While I’m talking about word swapping, I want to remind you of the different meanings of a statistical ‘average’ too. When using the term, you may need to explain whether you are talking about the mean (as explained above), the mode (the most common occurring value in a data set) or the median (the middle value in a date set arranged in ascending order).