Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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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).


When being innovative is actually old hat

I recently read that the term ‘innovation’ is now passé. Everyone has been using it for long enough for the word to have lost its meaningfulness, or its descriptive power—that is, you would actually be perceived as quite uninventive, perhaps even dull or try-hard, to describe yourself (or something else) as innovative. In my reading about this word overuse problem, a commentator noted they now use ‘courage’ in place of ‘innovation’. And I imagine plenty of businesses are trying to come up with similar descriptors of themselves and their product/service, now ‘innovative’ has followed ‘cutting edge’ and ‘modern’ to the sad pile of overused language.

The trick is to find a replacement term that somewhat conveys the original idea yet takes on the priorities, concerns and ambience of the ‘now’, even of the possible future. A user of ‘courage’ is suggesting their operating environment or marketplace requires a brave stance, perhaps the ‘courage of conviction’. The word certainly implies there are hurdles to be overcome, battles to be fought. In that sense, it is an agenda setting word. And it is also a visionary word. An organisation that calls itself courageous is saying ‘we see challenges and we want to take them on’.

So, from relying on the habitual words that we all use without much thought, you can power up your vocabulary to say so much more about you and your organisation. Can you think of another way of saying ‘blue sky thinking’ (which replaced the awful ‘thinking outside the box’), ‘results driven’, outcomes oriented’, ‘customer centric’, ‘quality focused’, ‘transparency’ and ‘forward thinking’?

The key is to choose words that stand out because they are not commonly used in your writing context. But you also have to be sure your new words are relevant to that context: don’t be fancy just for the sake of it (no ‘soothfast’ for ‘truthful’). And don’t borrow too much terminology from other forums. Even if you love sport, for example, I’m not sure the world is ready for you to start talking about ‘game changers’, ‘play makers’ and ‘red cards’. But ‘certainty’, ‘clear thinking’, ‘questioning’, ‘frank discussions’, ‘adventurous’, ‘controlled’ and ‘exploring‘ may be great words for reaching out to readers.

I also like to move away from descriptive nouns and adjectives, and think about verbs instead (which I think are our best tool for connecting to readers). So, try to explain an idea as an action, with expressions such as:
‘To tackle this problem, we are working on x and y.’
‘The evaluation will compare how we market our product with how customers actually use our product.’
‘Our team understands you require x and y, and we will use ABC to show how well we provide those services.’

I wish you good luck in updating your business speak. Just remember to test words on a ‘courageous’ person before you launch them on the world.

Postscript: see the Word Spy website (in my Out and about links) for new words entering our language. I love some and hate others, but they may inspire you!

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Working with words that you (or your readers) don’t like

Do you have language that you must use at work? Perhaps words or phrases from legislation, from industry guidelines or regulations, or from an internal code of conduct? Or maybe you are trying to respond to wording in a job advertisement? When you must use words that are not your own, what do you do if those words are not clear or concise? Or if something about them is not reader friendly?

Imagine you have to use any of these statements:
the options must not be unclear or unambiguous—will your reader muddle through the double negative to understand you mean the options must be clear?
your response must sufficiently address the selection criteria—other than calling the employer to ask for guidance on the meaning of ‘sufficient’, how will you know if your job application gives enough information?
the project must have a significant impact on community outcomes—are you going to explain to readers what you mean by ‘significant’, even if you are quoting from a guideline that doesn’t define or measure that descriptor?
the contract requires the allocation to cover relevant exigencies—assuming your readers understand the term ‘exigency’, how are you going to explain what a relevant one looks like?
the organisation values ethical behaviours—do your stakeholders share your assumptions about how an ethical framework can underpin business operations? Should you define ‘ethical’ or give examples?

As in these five cases, your document may be based on, or refer to, another text that contains an innate bias, nonsensical assumption, ambiguous meaning or redundant parameter. You thus have a writing challenge to solve, which you can approach in three ways:

1. Quote the problematic material rather than trying to turn it into your own writing. That way, the reader knows you are not the source of the dodgy words! And you can then follow up by explaining the material, perhaps by saying ‘That is,’ or ‘In other words’ or ‘This means’.

Example: The terms of reference provided by the department required the review to determine the extent to which a significant cut to current funding would have an impact on the reliability and quality of the sector’s services to end users.
Revised: The department provided terms of reference for the review. They require the review to determine ‘the extent to which a significant cut to current funding would have an impact on the reliability and quality of the sector’s services to end users’. In other words, the review must evaluate how funding cuts would affect end users.

2. Insert the problematic material in a short, simple sentence. If your industry forces you to use jargon or business speak that distances readers rather than engaging them, surround that language with plain English and park it in a short, neat sentence. That way, nothing distracts the reader from the task of interpreting the harder phrases.

Example: If your nondisclosure if fraudulent, the insurer may avoid the contract at any time. An insurer who is entitled to avoid a contract of life insurance may within three years of entering into it, elect not to avoid it, but to reduce the sum that you have been insured for in accordance with a formula that takes in to account the premium that would have been payable if you had disclosed all relevant matters to the insurer.
Revised: An insurer is entitled to avoid a contract of life insurance if you do not disclose required information to the insurer. Or, within three years of entering the contract, the insurer may elect not to avoid it, but to reduce the sum for which you have been insured. In this case, the insurer uses a formula that accounts for the premium that you would have paid if you had disclosed all relevant matters.

3. Paraphrase the problematic material in a more sensible or logical way. Ignore the original wording and get to the point in a fashion that better suits your readers. Of course, your work’s legal team may not be happy that you’re tinkering with text crafted by a government, an industry body or your organisation’s board. So you may need to negotiate changes on which you and the lawyers can agree.

Example: NSW Maritime’s compliance framework was developed to enable the community to be informed of NSW Maritime’s approach to managing compliance with the legislation it administered, and the processes it employed to ensure compliance actions were implemented in a fair and equitable manner.
Revised: NSW Maritime is responsible for ensuring the community complies with certain legislation. It has a compliance framework that explains how it undertakes that role in a fair and equitable way.

So, you can be true to a reference text’s intent without necessarily repeating it word for word. Whatever you do, just don’t assume you can use a reference text without moulding its awkward or convoluted bits to suit your writing objective and your reader.

This writing hurdle pops up when we use jargon. Check out http://agentsofgood.org/2013/05/jargon-the-good-and-the-bad/ for a lovely summation of the pros and cons of jargon.

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Tortured words or the new way

Some Americans now say ‘I am ashamed by my behaviour’ rather than ‘I am ashamed of’, confusing it with the different expression ‘shamed by’. Is this an absolute wrong, or can we accommodate such a change? For the bigger grammatical picture, the curly question is whether to adhere to a ‘correct’ grammatical expression when most of us don’t even know why it is correct.

The choice of a preposition such as ‘of’ or ‘by’ to accompany a particular verb was determined way back, at a time we can’t pinpoint. And while the choice was probably that of an Englishman, we can’t be sure of that either. So, as people around us come up with new wording options, can we ignore them? Or do we want to stick to the decisions of time and people past?

The trick is that I will have one answer and you may have another. There is no path that will suit everyone. The Americans saying ‘ashamed by’ will continue to do so, and that wording will spread across a generation and geographically too. But I’m too self-conscious to say something that sounds so wrong to me. I’ll edit it out of my clients’ writing, and I’ll correct my children if I hear them say it. In other words, two opposing forces are at work: the nay sayers (my hand is up) and the early adopters of invented language. I know who will triumph, and it won’t be my side. That’s because all language is invented; it is a social construct. It has to change to suit its users. If you belong to the largest user group (which may be a group with less education, or a group that listens to new music by young songwriters), then you necessarily have the deciding vote.

Let’s face it. Not being bound by a grammar construct (perhaps because you didn’t learn it, or you don’t see it consistently in action) frees you to use language how you please. Even to switch prepositions. As young people enter the workforce and bring new language to their writing, their managers will struggle to accept it. And their readers may too. But the young writer’s open mindedness about language will prevail. So, while I’m ashamed ‘of’ saying I won’t yet discard the old ways, I sadly realise my vote doesn’t count anyway.

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Can you write a perfect paragraph?

I found a flash fiction blog (http://sixsentences.blogspot.com.au/) based on the six sentence paragraph. The contributors show real skill in crafting a mini story in one paragraph. Many used the classic writing ABC, with A being a starting point or premise, B being a divergence from that point, and C being a climax (which can resolve A or leave it up in the air). Can we use that skill at work? Absolutely.

Most people don’t even know what makes up a perfect paragraph. They certainly aren’t conscious of trying to write one. No, most of us just type away and insert random paragraph breaks; some insert the break too early, and some not early enough. In my editing work, I used to find that many workplace writers would produce paragraphs of one quarter to half a page. Too long! Now, I find the opposite problem. Too many writers have what I call ‘a statement style’: they make one statement, possibly two, then insert a break. This style mirrors news writing. But trained journalists can maintain the flow and cohesiveness of their story across a string of one-sentence paragraphs; other writers are less capable.

So, for most text types at work, we want to write more than two sentences per paragraph. Ideally, we want to write five or six sentences. The trick of a perfect paragraph is that it is long enough to explore one idea in enough detail to satisfy the reader. To get back to fiction’s ABC approach, we need to pose an idea or question, then examine it in some way, and conclude what we think about it (a punchline, if you will). Sound easy? This three tiered structure is simple, but the implementation is harder.

For tips on putting the three tiers into practice, check out my Words a waiting training module on paragraphs. It covers options for starting and finishing a paragraph, and examples of the ‘flesh’ in the middle. Then, why don’t you test yourself? Choose a topic close to your heart (not work related), and write six sentences that explain that topic to someone who knows nothing about it. And, at work, take charge of every paragraph break. Aside from the odd paragraph that needs to be short (perhaps one that helps the reader navigate the document), ask yourself whether you have written enough in each paragraph.

Finally, don’t forget that each paragraph needs to link to the ones either side of it. Again, my training module on paragraphs can help you achieve this connectivity. You’re not firing paragraphs like pellets from a gun; you’re sending flowing waves of information to the reader, in an ebb and flow that you control with the simple act of hitting ‘Enter’.