Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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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!