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 #172—Editing, Revising, Proofreading

The terms ‘editing’, ‘revising’ and ‘proofreading’ are often used interchangeably these days. But they are actually three distinct processes. Doing each one separately, rather than editing, revising and proofing at the same time, helps me when I’m writing.

What are the differences? The definitions provided in the High Impact Business Writing course, offered as a MOOC by University of California, Irvine, are a good place to start. The following information is adapted from the course material.APM_Proofreading_Marks-748x1024

Editing

  • Done as soon as the draft is completed.
  • Sentence level review.
  • Check and refine spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word choice.
  • It’s one sided: the editor makes corrections.

Revising

  • Consider the document as a whole. Does the writing stay on point? Is it well organized? Does the writing support the point?
  • Judge the voice and tone. Are they appropriate for your audience?
  • Consider the questions raised and observations made. Are they logical? Do they follow?
  • A dialogue between the writer and reviewer.
  • A time to expand and clarify ideas, rather than correct errors.
  • Often involves moving paragraphs, removing weak arguments, or adding supporting data.

Proofreading

  • Done after editing and revision – the final stage.
  • Actively seek spelling, spacing, punctuation and grammar errors, and make corrections.
  • Consider overall appearance of the document.

So three different processes, each with different aims, each requiring a different approach.

By separating them and considering each process separately, you will find that you can tighten your writing, think about your aims and audience, and finish with more successful, error free, work.

Happy writing.

Image source: http://apmgraphics.com.au/index.php/proofreading-marks/

 

Business Writing Tip #171—A useful tool to check your writing: SOAPSTONE

Just a few days ago I discovered a useful text analysis tool. It seems it’s used regularly in education these days, so some of you may already be familiar with it. You can use this tool before you write, to plan your writing, and you can use it at the end to make sure you’ve got everything covered.

The tool is SOAPSTONE.

When we look at the first part of the word, SOAPS, each letter stands for something that we need to think about with our writing.soapstone checklist image

        speaker

O          occasion

A          audience

P          purpose

S          subject

The final part of the word, Tone, refers to the tone of our writing.

To use this tool effectively there are a series of questions to ask yourself.

Speaker

  • Who are you?
  • What is your perspective on what you are writing?
  • What are your values in relation to what you are writing?
  • What details will you reveal?
  • Why is it important that your audience know who you are?

Occasion

  • How does your knowledge of the occasion affect what you are writing about?
  • What are you writing for, and how does it fit into the bigger picture?

Audience

  • What are the characteristics of your audience? And their values?
  • What assumptions are you making about your audience?
  • How are the audience members related to you?
  • Why are you addressing them?

Purpose

  • What to you hope to accomplish with your writing?
  • How would you like your audience to respond?
  • What do you want them to do?
  • What evidence are you going to provide to your audience?

Subject

  • What are you talking about?

Tone

  • What do you want your audience to feel?
  • How will your attitude make the piece of writing more effective?
  • What is your attitude? (Try choosing a few words before you write that accurately reflect the attitude you want to convey)

Try using this tool next time you write. Thinking about, and answering, each of these questions will help you make sure that your writing achieves what you want it to achieve.

I’ve put the questions into a downloadable checklist that you can print and keep on your desk.

Happy writing

 

Business Writing Tip #134—Eat Your Frogs First

Do you procrastinate?

Of course you do. It’s human nature to put things off, especially if they are things that we feel are going to be difficult or unpleasant. Sometimes we even put off doing things we enjoy doing.eastern-gray-tree-frog-Photo-Gary-Yankech-Creative-Commons-license

When it comes to business writing, we are not all naturally good writers. For some of us writing is a chore. We really don’t want to do it. We have much more interesting activities to spend our time on. So we put it off, and put it off, and we wait until the last minute. Then we find we’re up against a deadline. When this happens we don’t have time to think about our writing carefully; sometimes we don’t even have time to give it a cursory edit. The resulting piece of writing might do the job, but with time and planning it could have been so much better.

What can we do about procrastination? How can we create a mindset that gets us tackling the writing we are avoiding?

We procrastinate about things that we’re not comfortable with. We may not like writing in general. We may feel that we’re not good at it. In her book A Mind for Numbers Barbara Oakley explains how scanning the brains of mathphobes using medical imaging techniques has shown us that “the pain centres of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math.” Interestingly she then informs us that this discomfort comes from anticipation of the thing that we don’t like, and that when we stop delaying and get on with the task the pain disappears.

So probably one of the best techniques to use when you are procrastinating is to take a lesson from Nike and “just do it”.

The second thing to remember is to face the things that you find most difficult, most unpleasant, first. This is what writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant means when she uses the expression I’ve used as the title of this post: eat your frogs first. Once you’ve started doing the unpleasant things, the pain of anticipation diminishes and life isn’t so bad after all.

In my next post I will give you another practical tip to help you overcome procrastination.

Image: Eastern gray tree frog (Photo: Gary Yankech, Creative Commons license)

Business Writing Tip #121—Post-Writing

Walk away :)

Walk away!

 

Now to the final stages of the writing process.

If you have followed stages 1 to 4 you have a fairly solid draft. It has all the information in it that you need, and all the information is in the right place in the structure. But, if you’ve followed my instructions, you may have typos and grammar errors. Now is the stage to fix these.

Stage 5—Editing

Up until now I’ve been saying ignore any spelling and grammar errors because I didn’t want you to spend time fixing them if you were going to turf them out in the review stage. (Time is too precious.)

Start by looking at those red and green lines and getting rid of them (but don’t always believe that your spell and grammar checkers are correct). Check your sentence structures. Make sure you have spelt the words correctly. Find suitable transition words and phrases to help you move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. Fix your punctuation.

This process can take some time, but it’s where your draft becomes a piece of writing. Stage 5 is the time to make your writing the best piece you can possibly create. It’s also a good time to recheck that everything is there and in the right place.

Common errors to check for at this stage

  • Verb and subject agreement
  • Overusing particular words or expressions
  • Unclear relationships between sentences and paragraphs
  • Too many ideas in a paragraph
  • Unclear reference words—do you know what they refer to?
  • Overusing vague qualifiers (for example, quite, as in Quite a few people responded. Be specific. Twenty-five people responded.)
  • Using jargon that your audience might not be familiar with
  • Overusing the passive voice

Final Stage—Proofreading

This is it; you’re almost finished. Now it’s time to polish away those last few greasy fingerprints.

First take a break. You will have read your writing so many times by now that your brain thinks it knows what is on the page, so it may be difficult to see your errors unless you create some distance. At least 15 minutes, but an hour, or even a day or week is better if you have the time.

Read your work out loud. Word by word. This will help you hear if you have used any words too often, or if you’ve missed out a word. It will also help you see your mistakes.

Watch out for:

  • Common homonyms (words that sound the same) and typos. You know the ones. Should it be:
    • Too, to or two
    • For or four
    • It’s or its
    • Piece or peace
    • There, their or they’re
    • Hear or here
    • Who’s or whose
    • He or the
    • Affect or effect
    • Advise or advice
    • License or licence
  • Make sure that you have both opening and closing parentheses and quote marks.
  • Delete words you don’t need.
  • If you have used UK English, make sure everything is UK English. Same for US English. Check for consistency.

And then . . .

When you’re happy that everything is correct, walk away and start your next project.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #120—Writing

It’s time to move on with our writing process.

In my last post I talked about pre-writing—two stages of the writing process that involve thinking up your ideas and deciding on the structure. Spending time on these steps will help you write. You won’t need to worry about thinking up ideas at the same time as you are worrying about whether something should be in a new paragraph. Your idea thinking is done.writing tips cover image

On to stages 3 and 4 of this writing process.

Drafting

The next step is to put your ideas into the structure—drafting.

Don’t worry about grammar and spelling. The important thing to remember is that you are merely going to write sentences, as they come to you, that put your ideas into the structure.

Resist all temptation to take any notice of red and green lines in your word-processing program that suggest you need to fix something. Please ignore those lines. Just write.

Reviewing

Once you’ve put your ideas into the structure you have a first draft. It is rough and probably full of errors. But that’s okay. Just keep ignoring the errors for the moment. Instead focus only on the content.

  • Do you have enough information for each section or do you need to find some more?
  • Is there something there that really isn’t relevant that you should cut out?
  • Does it seem as though all the ideas are in the correct place in the structure or do they need to be moved?

After answering these questions, go and find the extra information, delete the things you don’t want, move the things that are in the wrong place.

The reason I suggest you ignore errors in the review stage is because there is no point spending time perfecting a sentence that you are going to throw away. You will have a chance to fix everything in the post-writing stages. I’ll tell you about those in my next post.

Business Writing Tip #119—Pre-writing

Today I was reminded about the importance of pre-writing. Most of my tips have been about the words on the page, how they are joined, and the like. But the most important thing to remember in business is that your words are there to convey a message.writing tips cover image

If you’re not clear about your message, no amount of good writing is going to make it easy for your reader to understand. This is where pre-writing is important. For me, pre-writing has two stages:

  1. Invention
  2. Structure

Invention In the invention stage I note down all my ideas about the topic. I think about the audience. I jot down anything that comes into my brain about the topic. I don’t censor myself; I don’t edit ideas out as ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’. I give my mind free rein to wander where it will. At this stage I use mind maps because I can easily draw lines to show links between ideas. Some people like lists. Use whatever works for you.

Structure Once I’ve finished inventing I look at my notes and, in most cases, the notes fall naturally into groups which form a clear structure. It might be as simple as intro, body, conclusion for a short text. For a report it could be summary, intro, idea one, supporting arguments, idea two, supporting arguments . . . recommendation. It really depends on what I’m writing.

Only when I have completed these two steps do I actually start writing. And when I do start writing, I’ve already made decisions about who I am writing for, what I am writing, and the main structure of my piece. This leaves my mind free to think of how best to express my message.

Business Writing Tip 74—The Writing Process

Photo: Sherry Almas

Photo: Sherry Almas

Often when I write I just park myself in front of the keyboard and start typing. And this is fine when I want to capture an immediate thought, or have an idea that’s already formed in my head.

But it’s not always the best way to approach writing for business. What I’ve typed without thinking deeply or planning is not my final work. It is part of my process. If I’m writing a report or a sales letter, website copy or a brochure, I need to plan my writing rather more carefully. Sure, I’ll probably open a word processing document and jot down ideas and notes, but only as a resource for my larger writing project.

What is the writing process?

One version, and a version I find useful and quite like, is a 3 stage process.

Stage 1—Prewriting

Use this stage to:

  • Collect, synthesise and organise information (including information about the purpose of your writing and your intended audience)
  • Brainstorm your take-home messages (what do you want your audience to remember?)
  • Work out ideas away from the computer (I often use Post-It Notes. One idea per note. They’re easy to shuffle around to help you with the next step.)
  • Develop a road map/outline (move the Post-Its around until they’re in a logical sequence and add extras if necessary.)

Stage 2—Writing Your First Draft

  • Put your facts and ideas together in organised prose, following your road map and writing up the ideas that you identified in stage 1.

Stage 3—Revision

  • Read your writing out loud. Think about sentence length, paragraphs, style.
  • Get rid of any clutter. Look at the verbs. Have you used adverbs? Is there a stronger verb you can use that doesn’t need an adverb? What about jargon? Is your writing in Plain English? Have you used the same word or expression repeatedly?
  • Do a verb check and make sure that your tenses are consistent.
  • Get feedback from others, assess its validity and incorporate it if it’s useful.
  • Do a final check of grammar and spelling.

Good writing reads well. Every word is in its correct place and means what it should mean. But good writing is not easy to achieve. Very few people are able to create their final draft at their first attempt. I often listen to interviews with published authors and they all mention the time they spend revising. They don’t say, “I just sat down, wrote one draft and then sent it to the publisher.” When you have a writing assignment to complete, avoid leaving it to the last minute. Give yourself plenty of time for revision and write the best piece you can.