Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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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.