Business Writing Tip #201—Four Quick Fixes to Make Your Business Documents Clearer

fix-to-make-clearThe English language has a rich vocabulary and we can use it to express anything we want to express. Business English, though, needs to be clear, and easy to read. You don’t want your readers to be running off to check the dictionary all the time, or to struggle working out the meaning of complex sentence structures.

I have written previous tips about using Plain English, and I always recommend it for business writing.

There are, however, other ways that you can help your reader understand what you are saying.

Fix 1 – Use Images

You can use graphs and charts to describe trends. Pictures can highlight aspects of your text, or illustrate points.

  • Images are particularly useful in technical documents. A diagram of a component will usually be much easier to understand than a written description.
  • Or perhaps you are writing a report comparing different conference venues. To make it easy to compare different venues you can include floor plans which show information such as:
    • room size,
    • shape,
    • possible seating arrangements.

Fix 2 – Use Tables

Tables can organise information and make it easy for readers to find specific details. For example, a table is a practical way to present a budget, making debits and credits clear. You can use tables to present sales information, client details (names, addresses, contact numbers, special requirements, etc). Columns can be highlighted to indicate what information is most important, and your reader can then choose whether to delve deeper in the data. You can also use tables to model what-if scenarios and the like.

Fix 3 – Use Lists

You can see from the paragraphs above, the lists in Fix 1 are easier to read than the full block of text in Fix 2. Lists can show a hierarchy of information. They also add white space which helps a reader scan the text quickly and find the information that is most relevant to them.

Fix 4 – Use Examples

If you look at the three fixes above, you will see that I have given the general fix (for example, tables can organise information), and then I’ve made it clear what I mean by giving examples. People often find it easier to understand concrete examples, rather than abstract concepts.

 

If you’re wondering how best to make your information clear, always look beyond using words alone. Think of using images and your layout to help make things clear. Remember that in most cases your readers won’t know as much as you do about the topic and you want them to understand your messages easily.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #184—Decluttering Tips

The world seems full of tips about decluttering. There are books, websites and TV shows devoted to giving us advice on how to declutter our homes, our desks, our bookshelves, even our lives. They all suggest we will be much happier once we have got rid of the clutter.keep-calm-and-declutter-17

Decluttering is something we can usefully apply to our business writing too, and it will make our readers much happier.

Many of the long words we use in business are no better than their shorter alternatives. Here’s a list of examples, taken from William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well, to help you declutter.

Long word/phraseShorter equivalent
assistancehelp
numerousmany
facilitateease
remainderrest
initialfirst
implementdo
sufficientenough
attempttry
referred to ascalled
With the possible exception ofExcept
Due to the fact thatBecause
He totally lacked the ability toHe couldn’t
Until such time asUntil
For the purpose ofFor

Other phrases to watch out for are:

  • It should be pointed out …
  • I might add …
  • It is interesting to note …

Think about the meaning of your sentence with and without such phrases and words, and see if the meaning remains clear once you’ve deleted the clutter.

By cutting out the clutter, and paring your work back to the basics, you will be able to see your essential message clearly.

‘But what about style?’ I hear you ask.

Style is important, particularly in sales and marketing copy where you want to engage your readers in a specific way.

Once you’ve decluttered, once you’ve defined the essential message, then you can start to add words. But you will be adding them deliberately, thoughtfully, not just tossing them into the mix from your subconscious.

So when you’re writing:

  • First give your subconscious free rein and get the words on the page, or the screen.
  • Then strip it back. Be ruthless with it until your words convey the essential message.
  • Then, thinking of your audience and your purpose, dress the text up with words that you have thought about, that you have considered carefully, that help achieve the purpose of the piece, and that will appeal to your readers.

Happy writing.

 

Business Writing Tip #177—Keep it simple

I just spent a week enjoying some sun and beach time, staying in a holiday unit. A notice in the apartment reminded of the need to keep it simple.

In the kitchen a notice was displayed asking us to leave the apartment neat and clean when we left. It included a small amount of information about the recycling bin and then told us that ‘More information can be found in your compendium.’lone gull

I laughed out loud. ‘Compendium’ is hardly a word one expects to see in a beachfront holiday apartment. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw the word. What’s wrong with ‘information pack’ or ‘apartment guide’?

When I got back to Canberra I picked up the notes of a business writing course written by a fabulous trainer, who is also a good friend of mine, Anne McDougall. She included a great example. This is a sign that she saw in London.

Soliciting of gratuities by refuse collectors is expressly forbidden.

That is, ‘Dustmen mustn’t ask for tips.’

Big words don’t make us seem more intelligent. They have their place, but it’s not in notices that are designed for the general public. Some of the audience will have no trouble understanding, but think about the people with literacy issues, people who speak English as a foreign language, young children . . . All that these long words do is make it harder for the audience to understand. (Multisyllabic expressions obfuscate the meaning of the utterance for the person who is perusing your written musings to determine a course of action.)

Keep it simple.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #166—It’s like writing to your Mum

some booksI’ve recently returned to Australia after many years abroad and one of the great joys, apart from watching the birds in the back yard, has been digging through my boxes of books that have been packed away for 18 years. My sister’s greatest joy is probably reclaiming space in her attic and spare room as I move my books out!

In amongst the books I discovered a gem by Dr George Stern called Spot on! Correspondence and report writing, with guidelines on plain English. As I rediscovered this little book I found a tip that I really like. Stern calls it the “Dear Mum” principle. He states that we use respectful, but normal, language when we write to our mothers, and that this is the kind of language which we should use when writing for business.

Here’s the list of examples he provides:

Officialese'Dear Mum' language
I refer to your letter of 1 May.Dear Mum, Thank you for your letter of 1 May.
I would appreciate an early response. Dear Mum, Please answer soon.
I appreciate your assistance. Dear Mum, Thank you for your help.
I will proceed providing you agree. Dear Mum, I will go ahead if you agree.
You wrote to me concerning the grant. Dear Mum, You wrote to me about the grant.
You wrote to me relating to the grant.Dear Mum, You wrote to me about the grant.
This is further to my last letter. Dear Mum, I am writing to you again.
It is my view that they are right.Dear Mum, I think that they are write.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #165—More Plain English

I’ve written a few posts about plain English and gave you some expressions back in Tip #77. Remember KISS – Keep it Simple and Straightforward.Kiss - Rodin - Paris

Here are 25 more cumbersome expressions and useful replacements for them. Sometimes the replacements are complete omissions.

Examples

  • While I was in the process of writing this blog post, I drank two cups of coffee.
  • While I was writing this blog post . . .
  • During the month of February, sales figures increased by 3 percent.
  • During February . . .
is responsible forhandles
by means of by, with
comply with follow
has a requirement for needs, requires
have an adverse effect on hurt, set back
in accordance with by, following, per, under
in an effort to to
in order for for
in the process of (omit without replacement)
in view of because, since
is in consonance with agrees with follows
it is essential that [one] [one] must
it is incumbent upon [one] to [one] should, [one] must
it is requested that you please
pertaining to about, of, on
provide guidance for/to guide
relative to about, on
set forth in in
similar to like
successfully accomplish/complete accomplish/complete
take action to (omit without replacement)
the month (or year) of (omit without replacement)
the use of (omit without replacement)
under the provisions of Under
as prescribed by in, under

Business Writing Tip #150—Reducing Wordiness (Revisited)

Those of you who are regular readers may remember that I’ve discussed the issue of sense of stylewordiness in previous texts. I’m currently reading a fabulous book about writing style, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to English, by Steven Pinker. He refers to this issue and has a useful list of phrases with ‘leaner alternatives’.

Here’s his list:

make an appearance withappear with
is capable of beingcan be
is dedicated to providingprovides
in the event thatif
it is imperative that wewe must
brought about the organisation oforganised
significantly expedite the process ofspeed up
on a daily basisdaily
for the purpose ofto
in the matter ofabout
in view of the fact thatsince
owing to the fact thatbecause
relating to the subject ofregarding
have a facilitative impacthelp
were in great need ofneeded
at such time aswhen
Is is widely observed that xx

If you love English and want to know more about style, I recommend Pinker’s book.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #146—The Long and the Short of It

absalom - longest sentence

This book contains a sentence which, at 1,288 words, is believed to be the longest sentence in English literature.

Variety is the spice of life. This proverb may seem clichéd, but as with all clichés there is an element of truth in it, particularly when we talk about sentence length. If you want your writing to be boring and to send people to sleep, use the same sentence length and structure for each sentence.

What is a sentence?

A sentence is a group of words and marks that includes a subject, which may be implied, a verb, and a final punctuation mark. Sentences can be short, or longer, or somewhere in between.

Here are some short sentences:

  • You went.

The word ‘You’ is the subject, ‘went’ is the verb, and then there’s a full stop (period).

  • Go!

Again ‘you’ are the subject, but this time it’s implied. ‘Go’ is the verb, and then, because it’s an imperative, there’s an exclamation mark.

In previous posts I’ve claimed that it is good to write shorter sentences rather than longer ones in business writing. We do this to make sure that our meaning is clear, and so that we don’t confuse our readers. But, that said, we don’t want all of our sentences to be the same length. If they are all short our writing can seem very choppy.

The key is variety. Humans like variety in most things, and sentence length is no exception.

Look at this paragraph.

  • The photocopier needs replacing. It is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. Three new models were assessed. We recommend buying the XYZ model.

See what I mean? Definitely choppy.

How to fix writing with too many short sentences

  • The photocopier needs replacing because it is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. We assessed three new models and recommend that we buy the XYZ model.

This is the same content, but it’s far more interesting to read. In this version I’ve joined short sentences with the conjunctions ‘because’ and ‘and’.

Another way to join short sentences is to change one of them, if appropriate, to a subordinate clause.

  • The photocopier, which is not producing clear copies any more, needs replacing.

Why write short sentences?

Short sentences are not always wrong. Use a short sentences if you want to

  • Capture your readers’ attention.
  • Emphasise an important point.
  • Help your readers read the text quickly.

But what about long sentences?

We come up against some common problems when they’re not written carefully. One of the main ones is that writers use pronouns to replace other words and to avoid repetition, but in long sentences, it is not always clear which noun the pronoun is replacing.

  • The chairperson and the meeting attendees agreed on the proposal that the students, faculty and general public should have access to the resources, but they were not sure how to do this.

In this sentence, it is not completely clear who was not sure—is it the chairperson and the meeting attendees? Probably. But it might have been the students, faculty and general public. With sentences like this our readers have to work hard to try and find out what we meant to write.

Another challenge when we have a number of long sentences, one after the other, is that our writing can seem dull. Sometimes business writers are tempted to turn verbs into nouns, and to use the passive voice. Both of these practices tend to result in longer sentences which are more difficult to read.

But, how much variety is enough?

I hate to admit it, but there’s no definitive answer to this question. I suggest that, when you’ve finished drafting, you take a good, hard look at your sentences lengths. Is there variety? Read your writing aloud and listen to how it sounds. The more you do this, the more you will be able to ‘hear’ when you have a problem.

 

Business Writing Tip #144—Four Fixes to Increase Clarity

In past tips I’ve mentioned clarity. You want your business writing to be clear and easily understandable. You don’t want to make your reader work hard to interpret what it is that you are trying to say. Past posts in this series suggest that you can improve clarity by:

  • Selecting the right words4 Fixes for CLARITY
  • Writing short to medium length sentences
  • Making sure that your subjects and verbs are close together
  • Checking that it is clear who or what pronouns are referring to

But there are other ways to communicate your meaning.

 

 

Here are my top Four Fixes to Increase Clarity

  1. Use images
Use graphs and charts to describe trends, pictures to highlight or illustrate aspects of your text. For example, if you’re referring to a particular component in a technical document, include an image of the component rather than just naming it.
  1. Use tables
Tables help organise the information and highlight important points. They help the reader choose what they want to read. For example, in the table, the title in the left column gives basic information. The reader can then choose if they want further information and read or ignore the right column.
  1. Use lists
I’ve covered this in a previous tip. To write a list you need to focus on the main points, and then your list helps people quickly skim through information.
  1. Use examples
Illustrate your point with a concrete example. Often people find it easier to understand an example, rather than an abstract concept.

Business Writing Tip #138—Make Your Writing Easy to Read

The debate about using Plain English continues. The latest episode started with an essay by English author Will Self, “A Point of View: Why Orwell was a literary mediocrity”.

Yet, the point is not about whether we should all write, or avoid, Plain English. It is about using the appropriate language for the situation. When relaxing, there’s nothing more enjoyable than plunging into a literary novel and discovering new, and often obscure, words. Words that allow the imagination to roam free and create its own version of the story.

But this blog is about Business English.easy to read

Business English needs to focus on clarity.

It needs to be to-the-point.

It needs to be understandable by all of the people who need to understand it. Many of these people are non-native speakers of English, often with a more restricted vocabulary that native speakers.

So against that background, I offer three short pieces of advice (there will probably be more to come in future posts):

  1. Your first draft will rarely be good enough. Make sure you reread it before you submit, or send, it. Three useful questions to ask yourself:
    1. Is the meaning clear?
    2. Will the recipient know what to do?
    3. Will they know when to do it by?
  2. Avoid long sentences. It’s easy to get lost in long sentences. It’s easy to lose track of the subject. And it’s easy for reader’s to lose interest. Cut long sentences into two.
  3. Watch out for ‘very’ and ‘really’. In most cases these words can be cut without any change to the meaning. I mean, it’s very obvious, isn’t it? It’s really difficult to remember. Surely you are making the same point with: It’s difficult to remember.

Happy writing.