Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too


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’.

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Testing English with native speakers

My family follows AFL footy, so the mention of swans immediately brings to mind the Sydney Swans footy team (and, of course, the feathered variety). But I recently read about a whole new use of the word for testing language: SWANS, meaning Sounds Wrong to A Native (see the Inkyfool blog post in ‘Out and about’). In other words, the best test for whether a word or expression is acceptable is whether it sounds okay to a native English speaker. Anything that sounds wrong probably is wrong. The idea is not to be hung up on grammar guides; rather, aim for natural sounding text.

A premise of this idea is that spoken English is an acceptable guide to sorting out good written English. And I mostly agree: I often ask my clients to say something aloud to check its tone and sense. This is a basically sound test, but we mustn’t rely on speech as our benchmark. Such reliance does not recognise the intrinsic differences between conversation and formal workplace writing. While our speech is taking on new words and phrases, and rapidly becoming less formal, our writing at work is more stagnant. We want clear, plain English, and we don’t want to bury our key messages, but we do want to set up our text as knowledgeable, trustworthy and true. So our text must show some hallmarks of established English grammar. And that is the point at which we return to SWANS: we want to use syntax and description that other people ‘hear’ as familiar and right.

But who are native speakers of English? In my other post dated 2 March 2014, I noted how different population groups can use English to circle the wagons, separating themselves from a mainstream. And many migrant groups and Indigenous Australians value a different syntax, and use pronouns and verbs quite differently from British English. Yet all these speakers, some native and some not, are entitled to contribute to the evolution of English. As our world grows in population but shrinks in accessibility, we may not be able to look to native English speakers to sign off on our language. So, for a workplace writer, perhaps a more reliable test than SWANS is SWMR: Sounds Wrong to My Readers. After all, your readers are whom you need to tap on the shoulder and say ‘hey, please listen to me’.

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Is there a standard English for work?

TRAINING UPDATE: I have uploaded some grammar modules to the Words a waiting section of the training hub. And I will add more grammar modules over the next few weeks, along with modules on expression and sentence structure. The Words at work workbooks are under development.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking at other commentary on English grammar. I recently read a blog post (see the GrammarBook.com link in ‘Out and about’) that questioned what modern writing style—particularly the idiosyncrasies of literature—means for ‘a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies’ who try to uphold standard English. It talks about authors opting for the colloquial and not losing sleep over ‘erudite technicalities’. The discussion ends by describing the trend as a nightmare for ‘language watchdogs’.

Of course, the notion of ‘standard English’ is debatable. And I’m not sure anyone can claim to be its watchdog. Any such guard of the king’s English a hundred years ago would today be considered an utter bore, and pompous too. We simply don’t speak with the same formality, and certainly not with the same number of rules. As the strictures of society have softened, English has morphed into a much less certain creature.

What does this evolution mean for authors? In some ways, it is a ‘get out of jail free’ card; often, you may use whatever expression takes your fancy, so long as your readers understand it in the same way (and share the fancy rather than feel distaste at your bold wordsmithery). As an editor, I don’t always love grammar being strewn by the wayside of some more inventive language. But, as a reader, I rejoice at the visions and feelings that writers create with their word juggling. So, for literature in particular, the fall of grammar is far from a ‘nightmare’. Indeed, it has nurtured new forms of writing, such as postmodernism.

But what about workplace writing? I have less definite views on how to treat grammar at work, for two reasons. First, a worker writes on behalf of their employer, so the text is really the voice of the organisation. That is, the authorship is two-fold. So, alongside the worker’s writing technique, a workplace text must account for the branding, assumptions, preferences and demeanor of the organisation. While this duality is not always easily handled, it exists more easily when all the writers in a workplace use a common grammatical approach. And that approach sits more comfortably with readers when it is common to them too. In this case, our more traditional grammar is an obvious fit.

My second point is that language, being a social construct, will necessarily change at the margins of society first, before those changes drift towards our social institutions. For this reason, youth and other population sub-groups distinguish their status as the minority, outcast, newbie, young Turk or ‘other’, or however else they may see themselves, by speaking differently from ‘the rest of us’. And government and business stay well clear of those language identifiers. Eventually, however, some of the lingo ends up in general speech, and from there it finds its way into dictionaries and, finally, workplace writing. In other words, as a society, we are always succumbing to some changes in our grammar, but workplaces usually succumb last.

The upshot? Workplace writing is easier when you stick to the grammar rules of your organisation’s style guide. But be prepared to pull at the leash when you know breaking a rule will enhance your text and be accepted by your readers.

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5 reasons to work on your writing

ALERT: this is an essay, so longer than the usual blog post. But stick with it, and you’ll better understand the ideas in my other (much shorter) posts.

The big question is why you must become a better writer at work. And I can think of five good reasons:

  1. English has many faces. As more people move more often around the globe, their culture, politics and speech patterns change how they use English. And as more people deploy English in their own way, the rest of us start to adapt. The term ‘Englishes’ describes three types of English speaker: those who speak English as a native language; those who speak it as a first language in addition to their native language, often for business (for example, Germany and Japan); and those who speak it as a second language, often as a legacy of colonial days (for example, Nigeria and India). As these three speaker types interact more, both through migration and online, English edges closer to becoming a language of acceptable variation. That is, it is increasingly not one language, but a series of pidgon voices.
  2. Increasing migration also means more workers have English as their second language (ESL). This pattern affects you at work in two ways. First, you may have ESL colleagues who write with different styles and syntax. How do you make your team writing efforts sound cohesive and clear? Second, you may have to convey a message to an ESL audience. How do you write an English that your readers understand and act on?
  3. As I said, you have limited time. And so does everyone, particularly for reading for work. You may think you write material that decision makers will read and use. But, if they don’t have the time, what happens to your document? Often, managers and other decision makers will pass it on to an intermediary (possibly a junior colleague) to read and recommend a response. In other words, someone sits between you and the person to whom you think you are writing. And that someone is interpreting your message for the intended message receiver.
  4. Technology allows me to talk to you here. It has completely changed how we send and receive workplace messages. Handheld devices mean we can check and send our work emails while travelling on the bus or queuing at the supermarket. We don’t conduct all our work correspondence at a desk anymore. Technology has also changed how we absorb information: from the traditional view that English speakers best deal with information by reading left to right, top to bottom (that is, how we write our alphabet), younger generations are savvy online readers who easily find information anywhere on a screen. What does this mean for the report format? Do we need to find new ways of engaging readers used to different layouts?
  5. Lastly, literacy levels are not what we hope for. In Australia, we assume high literacy because we value education. Yet our less esoteric newspapers pitch at the literacy level of a 9-11 year old, because they know the average adult reader can read and comprehend material at only this level. Further, our literacy is affected by our literary tastes. We are reading more online material and fewer hard copy publications. So, our reading is skewed to chunks of information, not detail. And it tends to include more opinion and colour, and less proven fact (as opposed to any unreferenced material that we find on Wikipedia and via Google searches). What we read is one of the main influences on how we write. So, these new information sources are changing our writing styles and habits. What’s the upshot? We’re getting better at finding information and entertainment, and reading different text types. But we’re not necessarily good at understanding what we find. And we’re certainly not good at adapting our writing for the many different forums in which we want to be heard.

What do these changes mean for work writers?

The above 5 influences mean you have a new writing environment:

  1. Arbitrary style. The idea of one language style is unworkable. Grammar, punctuation use and style preferences are more arbitrary. But you do need everyone in your writing team at work to share a writing approach. A reader must feel a ‘sameness’ about all the text in a document, so that means all writers on one document should follow the same rules.
  2. Abbreviated expression. We are using fewer words to convey a message. And we’re dropping some grammar rules, to allow us to write faster. Abbreviations and shortened words are everywhere, but seen at their most extreme in text messaging. Do you use short style in texts to a work colleague, or only to friends?
  3. Ambiguous meaning. Writing quickly, using abbreviated style and worrying less about grammar rules can muddy our meaning. This problem is very common in workplace writing, particularly correspondence.
  4. Authority shift. While we once valued fact and data, we now bow to the loudest voices in a field. We seek attitude, opinion, quick analysis and recommendation. We want to know what to think and how to act. A document no longer develops its authority with readers by giving them information (which they can probably find themselves online), but by packaging that information to help readers solve a problem or improve a situation.
  5. Animated tone. The days of the bureaucracy are over. No-one wants to read turgid text that buries its messages in multisyllabic guff. Readers want a text voice that is alive, genuine, engaging and authoritive. They want to hear the person behind the text.

So, that’s our writing space. Can you write well in this space? I invite you to keep reading this blog to become more of a wordsmith. Find new skills here for how you want or need to write, and check out the training modules that I will include in the coming weeks.


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!