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A good chunk of my business over the past seven years has been with financial services organizations. As expected, in a highly regulated environment, people often tend toward a highly formal style of writing.
And it makes sense that people will believe that they need to use a more formal tone to align with the culture of the organization. Even when employees receive a lot of info and training to help them adopt a clearer, fresher tone as part of re-branding, it still takes awhile for the new behaviours – including using clear language – to fully sink in.
One tip that I always give to help people use a more direct, easier-to-understand tone is to strip your nouns.
Start stripping, baby!
If you want to give your documents a leg up in being clear, I suggest you strip your nouns – have ’em let it all hang out. You’ll shake off a lot of clutter that weighs down your sentences, throws a ball and chain ’round the neck of your paragraphs.
What do I mean by ‘clutter’? I mean all the suffixes that get added to verbs, such as -ment, -ation (or -ization); and I mean verbs that have evolved into nouns over time.
I think we are drawn to them because we think that they make words sound more important or authoritative. When you were younger, do you recall having your teacher say you needed to turn in an 800-word essay, and worrying that you would never be able to fill up all that space with something intelligent?
If you do, then you probably used the following type of language to make your writing sound smarter:
- “This enables the achievement of our monthly objectives.”
- “We will assist in the attainment of those funds for the project.”
- “This team was key to the successful initiation and implementation of the new system.”
These words aren’t wrong in and of themselves. It’s only when people use nouns like achievement, attainment, initiation and implementation where the verb at the root of those words would have done just fine.
Why are verbs better? They engage readers more because they give a more concrete sense that some action is taking place, painting a clearer picture in someone’s mind.
Note as well that the above examples often need support from their two buddies, ‘of’ and ‘the’ – words that help you round out those word counts, but also make it take longer to express your thought. Not good when you’re trying to reach busy people who may still be trying to decide if they should continue to read your piece in the first place.
Witness a few ‘loaded’ examples typical of the financial services industry, along with how I would ‘strip’ them down to more direct, easy-to-grasp language:
Loaded: Any amount payable to a minor beneficiary during his/her minority
Stripped: Any amount a minor beneficiary receives during the time they are a minor.
Loaded: We will assure the retention of the funds in the above-named account.
Stripped: We will hold the funds in the above account.
Loaded: Payment of dividends to policyholders is made monthly.
Stripped: We pay dividends to policyholders monthly.
Noun clutter is everywhere
To be fair, writing in other businesses besides financial services has seen this noun-based language creep in, too. Here are more examples typical of information documents from other industries, along with my ‘stripped’ versions:
Loaded: Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
Stripped: You can resolve these issues by following Human Resources’ Policy for Resolving Disputes.
Loaded: Nominees must demonstrate active advocacy to ensure the full and proper implementation and evaluation of identified solutions.
Stripped: Nominees must demonstrate that they will actively advocate to ensure that those responsible to implement and evaluate the solutions will fulfill their roles fully and properly.
Loaded: The statement outlines recommendations for the safe discharge of patients.
Stripped: The statement outlines recommendations to professionals to help them safely discharge patients. (Note that this word does not need anything added to turn it into a noun!)
Loaded: The committee is active in the identification, assessment and treatment of mental disorders.
Stripped: The committee works to identify, assess and treat mental disorders.
So next time you’re creating a communication, and aren’t sure why it doesn’t jump off the page, look for verbs that have been loaded up to create nouns – and see if you can strip ’em down. You’ll be helping your reader grasp your message more quickly and easily.
On Mondays, as I’ve written, I usually spend an hour or more putting things in order, including a tour of the yard: doing a general tidy-up of any plants looking droopy or dead, and of any garbage that might have wandered in.
This week I zeroed in on all the extra growth that’s gathered around the edges of my front garden. I put in bordering stones a couple years back, but you wouldn’t have known it. So I’m yanking out handfuls of grass, weeds, spent blooms and other junk that’s been hiding them.
I’m also meditating on the workshops I have to plan starting a week from now. In helping the group sharpen up their writing, I’m working from the excellent book by Paul Brown and Alison Davis, Your Attention Please, which I just ate up before going on holidays (As I tweeted back then, it’s so good, I wish I’d written it).
But first, some thoughts on weeds.
I used to have a problem with removing weeds. When I first began to garden, I quickly learned to recognize what was one of my plants, and what was a weed: If it grew terribly fast and seemed to appear far beyond where I’d planted it, it was probably a weed. But I still had trouble with the idea of killing them. Especially anything that produced pretty flowers, as many do.
But as things started to evolve, I realized the garden can take on more of a jungle-like character, with the larger, windier roots choking out the meeker, more delicate ones. Even our desired perennials can cause this problem from time to time, once they’ve grown too large or spread too widely. A prolific peppermint I purchased for 99 cents has cost me several dollars worth of other plants, as their shallow talons wound round and strangled out everything else.
So I’ve learned to shut my eyes tight and just start hacking and yanking. After about a decade of summers, it’s even become somewhat therapeutic to reap destruction on certain parts of the plot in order to promote the overall greater good of the whole.
Uncovering the thicket in my document – and giving it some edge, too!
So this morning, as I’m yanking blooms, I’m thinking about the thicket of information – as Brown and Davis put it – that we all have to navigate through. One of their key points here is that even if what you write is admirable – all grammar correct, tone on-target, concise and informative, engaging and educational – you may still have produced something that no-one will use.
Why? Because we all have so many types of information constantly coming at us. And with all the new ways it’s transmitted, much of the info that comes to us we didn’t seek out ourselves. So now, more than ever, most people will not pay attention to information that forces them to wade through the forest to find the trees. It may be that you’ve selected an attractive range of trees and arranged them elegantly – but the problem is there are just too many of them.
Who among us in the course of our demanding days is going to sally their merry way through the scenic countryside when they can just hop on the bridge and get somewhere right away? We usually save those scenic drives for our holidays, when we have the time to savour the journey. (It’s not for nothing that Summer Fiction is known for being light, unchallenging reading). And with so much info now packaged to be as instant as mashed potato flakes, your lovely boxwoods just can’t compete.
So I see it as my job in my garden to help people looking at it appreciate its contents as a grouping – but also to pick out individual colours, shapes and textures that all say something important. Similarly, rather than creating a ‘dense thicket of impenetrable information,’ Brown and Davis remind us to be ruthless in doing away with a lot of padding – and sometimes even some really good stuff – and arranging things visually so that the person who sees it can readily appreciate what’s key.
And if it’s both focused and well-organized, chances are better that people will take the time to stop and look at everything you’ve put in front of them.
Recently two people have approached me to ask for my tips on independent consulting. Having quickly dashed off my list of do’s and don’ts to them, it occurred to me that I could re-purpose that list here in case it’s useful to you.
I’ll start by sharing that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, which will be obvious from my post history: it’s very hard to stay disciplined about regularly posting to a blog, even with more control over my work hours. (This could be due to my still having my one-year-old son home part-time, but that’s surely not the only reason.)
I’m loving many aspects of the freelance life, since I have learned that I work best when my time and working conditions are less tightly controlled. But, I have been learning some hard lessons since I threw my lot in completely (i.e., quit the day job and exited the 9-5 contractor’s life) in late 2008.
What’s below therefore reflects my experience – and the weaknesses I’ve uncovered – but if you recognize yourself in any of them, then the advice might be useful.
- Give out business cards, post on LinkedIn, guest-write articles – heck, sponsor events if you can afford it: whatever you can do to be in people’s face about what you do, you should do (without being obnoxious, of course).
- Budget for those weeks when you know things will be slow, or for when you’ll be on holiday, so you don’t end up with cashflow problems. Having another source of predictable income in the family really helps (Not having that income can sap your schedule due to much juggling and time spent robbing Pete to pay Paul)
- Take breaks when you feel the need for them (and even sometimes when you don’t); it’s one thing to be disciplined, but doing some exercise, having a good cup of tea or taking a walk can all help open up parts of your brain that were dormant while you drilled away. It might help you come up with good solutions to work issues you’ve been grappling with.
- Keep good books and records (or hire someone else to do it if you’re not inclined). You should be able to put your hands on any document related to your business finances quickly. Otherwise, at tax time and other points throughout the year, you’ll take away time from your paid work as you ransack the office looking for the receipt from that expensive new laptop you can’t wait to write off.
- Find out what you can write off and keep receipts for everything (and if you’ve followed the previous DO, you’ll have logged them somewhere and know where they are).
- – Give some stuff away for free – volunteer to write some stuff for people to show them what you can do, but ONLY if you think they’ll come through with work or a referral to work (as you get more well-known, you’ll want that freebie to be more of a ‘sample’).
- Join professional associations and newsgroups, and be open to the idea of partnering with other small businesses who offer a complementary service to yours (you may, for example, pool your resources to bid on a job through a request for proposal).
- Don’t wait until tax time to pull your financials together.
- Don’t spend any tax money you collect, assuming you’ll pay it back later. Later may not come soon as you think.
- Don’t get discouraged on those days where it seems the phone isn’t ringing.
- Don’t be afraid to charge what you think you’re worth. Remember that while 9-5ers are sitting in boring meetings, they’re still being paid; your non-productive time isn’t being paid for.
- Don’t leave marketing and client follow-up to the last item on your list…it won’t get done once you get busy with paid hours.
There – the fifteen-minute ‘brain dump’.
And remember, do as I SAY, not as I DO. These are lessons I’m still very much in the process of learning =;->
Recently I edited a few information pieces destined for an audience that included people with developmental disabilities. Among the several things I learned from this work – or was reminded of – was that it sometimes takes more words, not fewer to rewrite information in plain language.
It’s common for organizations seeking to clarify their info to assume that plain language writing will shorten a piece of text. And it’s easy to see why; people who are a bit familiar with how readability tests measure texts know that the length of a sentence is one of the factors that determines the Grade level score.
So to extend that logic, one assumes there should also be much less to read in the plainer version. Indeed, a big part of helping motivate people to read our information is to make the reading task manageable.
I referred to this in a previous post about the difference between plain language and clear, effective communication; as an editor you do often have to make decisions about what gets to stay and what has to go. Or you risk losing readers who are intimidated or put off by a longer document.
It’s all well and good to argue that the writer break up the information into smaller bits and stagger its release over a longer time period, or that they find other ways besides the printed page to get their info out. Some people may implement other approaches, when they have the time later. But right now, they may have a legal or other requirement to get all of their info out at one time.
But when your client says that most of it has to stay, and must be sent out in its entirety, you may end up writing more words to accomplish plain language – not fewer.
Why? A key reason is the need to get the same message across to someone who is unfamiliar with, or cannot process the word length of, the words you would otherwise use to explain a concept. The lower the Grade level you are aiming for in your text, the more words you often end up with:
Before: We must review your eligibility criteria.
After: We must review the list of criteria for who can receive services or direct funding from us.
Similarly, you may need to add more words when you add a definition to help readers understand a complex concept that affects them (sometimes this is done in a separate text box).
You may also add helpers in the form of headings or introductory text to set information apart visually. This, too, means more words:
Before: This information is a guide to implementing the residential model intended for persons with a disability, their family members or staff of agencies that serve this population.
After: This guide explains the steps you will follow to set up this residential model. It is divided into four main sections, or parts. The Guide also includes detailed information and key things to think about during each step.
Who this guide is for
Many of these ideas are arranged in lists, depending on whether you are:
- A person with a developmental disability
- The family member of a person seeking their own home
- An agency that works with people seeking their own home
Despite your need to use more words, you still stand a better chance of reaching more of your readers and calling your work ‘plain language.’ Just make sure you pay overall attention to keeping sentences short and using fewer syllables, along with attending to other factors that make your work interesting and inviting (subscribe to this blog to read future discussions on these…).
For two intensive works on how writers measure readability, see US Plain Language expert William DuBay’s recent release Smart Language: Readers, Readability and the Grading of Text (available on Amazon or – in the true spirit of accessibility – as a no-charge PDF).
If you followed the previous post on this, you might have imagined why I (and my poor husband) would be annoyed: almost $500 of traffic fines, and they can’t even bother to make the process clearer. And my husband’s cavalier attitude toward the ticket didn’t help.
It was further frustrating because one of those fines was due to our not having attached our blue license-plate cover properly. Apparently, it slightly obscured the view of our renewal sticker – but it was our mechanic who had put it on!
But wait until you hear what happened next…
So we pay the bleeping fine, including the extra $150 levied against my husband for not paying sooner. Only problem was, my husband went to our local municipal offices to pay it, since the most recent correspondence we received said that if he didn’t do it right away, his driver’s license would be suspended.
Great. So now my husband thinks he’d better go to one of the original addresses provided somewhere in the last information he received where they’d threatened to suspend his license. And he goes and does this. Again, after yet another process hiccup, we think we’re done.
But that would be too easy. Within a similar time period, yet another envelope arrives from the Ontario Court. Guess what?!?! My husband’s license has indeed been suspended! Why? Because according to their records, he has not yet paid the administrative fee. It’s only at this point that he gets paperwork specifically telling him where to go make that payment…the same place he went to the first time ’round, five minutes from our house!
So I ask again, can we ticket the Ontario Court? This time for the time, gas and pain and suffering caused by their nebulous process? What if he’d been pulled over during the period he didn’t know his license was under suspension? Well, then we’d still likely be getting threatening letters, and clocking even more mileage (with me driving, of course) as we toured the GTA looking for the magical correct payment office.
A key underpinning of clear communication is a clear process, which can also lead to cost savings. Clearly, that did not exist here.
There…I feel a bit better now.
Has your life been similarly complicated by ridiculous processes to which you have no choice but to be subject? Let us know by submitting your comment.
As I’m on holidays this week, here’s an anecdote about learning a clear communication lesson ‘in vivo’ during a summer road trip in ’06
Often as a plain language writer/editor, I have paused during editing to wonder if the audience for something I was writing would get the same meaning from something I was writing, as I had intended while writing it. As much as I knew I was choosing words or concepts that were simple at face value, I could not truly know what meaning someone was gathering without being in their brain as they read it.
That is why field tests, focus groups and usability or user acceptance tests are often built into a project to develop any kind of info that is destined for the public – to ensure that the meaning we are trying to transmit is the same as, or at least similar to, the meaning the reader gets. These testing modes aim to rule out any specific messages that readers get that we were not in fact trying to send.
It is often only through finding out how badly you can misunderstand something or give the wrong impression, that we learn what the clearer option might be.
Witness my example…
A few summers ago I, my husband and then-one-and-a-half-year-old daughter vacationed in Nova Scotia, with the plan to rent a car so that we might make the rounds of my aunts, grandmother and cousins who had yet to meet our new daughter.
One of these trips involved driving about three hours south of Wolfville — my cousin’s, and then home base — to see my aunt and uncle in Meteghan, which is a few hours’ drive south. My cousin had kindly left us written, numbered directions to her parents’ place.
A neat and articulate writing hand, has my cousin – even when hastily scrawling notes first thing that morning. So giving a quick scan while prepping our still-nursing bairn for the drive, I think, “No prob. We might even make it in LESS then three hours!”
Famous last words…
Our daughter is NOT having the long Family Car Trip thing at all, so many are the stops to top her up with some “comfort nursing” along the way.
Almost four hours later, we know we’re close. And after four hours, we also know we are crrrranky! So it’s at this point that I yank the directions out again, counting down to the last few steps that I assume will take just moments more.
And it’s at this point that I realize that I’m unsure of few very important details. Turns out, my cousin has described their house by colour — not by number! So number one, I realize I am now looking for “a brown house”. Oh dear.
Ok, I think, this is a tiny town, how hard can it be? I just have to look for the Frenchy’s (a popular Maritime chain of second-hand clothing stores). And, Tammi’s also kindly added that if I get to the NSLC, we’ve gone too far. Great. There’s the Frenchy’s up ahead, and we’ll just have to look for brown houses, and stop and turn around if we get to the Nova Scotia Lion’s Club.
(At this point, anyone from Nova Scotia might be giggling already. But let’s not spoil it, okay?)
The last leg is often the toughest
So we drive and drive along the main drag, seeing a couple shops, a liquor store, and several brown houses, including one gorgeous-looking historic home with a little plaque inscribed “Thibodeau.” “Wow, what if they lived in that one!?” But no, it says Thibodeau and their name is Saunders. And I haven’t yet hit the Lion’s Club.
Then, near where the main street ends, there is another Frenchy’s store! Is THIS the Frenchy’s we are supposed to pass, or is it the previous one? It isn’t making any sense. We had driven to the outskirts and I knew they were supposed to live closer to where my uncle worked, at Therriault shipyard. Weird.
So we turn back, by this time our patience waning and our daughter’s non-existent. This is when I realize that I have written every phone number on the sheet of paper with the directions EXCEPT that of my aunt and uncle. Theirs I have likely written on something that still sits four hours’ drive away, back at my cousin’s. And my cousin isn’t answering at either of the numbers I DO have written down.
But wait: there’s a sign at the next intersection: “Nova Scotia Lion’s Club headquarters 1/4 km”. Yeehaaa — the town rejoiceth (I think our daughter even stopped shrieking for a millisecond!
But why does the sign direct me to turn? That makes no sense since they’re supposed to live along the main drag. OK, at this point, we’re thinking we should just turn around, go back as far as that liquor store, and hightail our way back to our cousin’s before dark.
Finally, in an uncharacteristic feat of frustration, my husband stops at a store, gets out of the car, and goes in to ask for directions. As it turns out, my uncle is well-known in the town, and with my Aunt was actually awaiting on us in that lovely, Victorian (and brown) house with the Thibodeau sign on it. Evidently, the house is historic and Thibodeau is the original owner’s name.
When you assume, you make an S out of U,M,E
As this story illustrates, communication is rife with assumptions about what others understand, and what final action they’ll take when they receive our message. And it was no less true here, even though we both speak the same language, live in the same country, and have similar backgrounds (except the provinces we’d grown up in).
My cousin assumed the following:
- That I would know what NSLC stood for (and how could she have pondered the possibility of my thinking it stood for Lion’s Club—and that there’d actually also BE a Lion’s Club nearby?)
- That I would be able to find the house without looking for a number, based on colour and details about landmarks – and the fact that it’s a very small place.
- That I wouldn’t have reached the other Frenchy’s store. She likely figured I would not get that far, having already turned around back at the NSLC.
None of these is really her fault, since they touch on a different level of thinking that most of us don’t use while writing directions – we’re not all trained technical writers, after all! Since we usually first base what we write and understand on what we know, she couldn’t possibly have counted on the assumptions I was making as I read her instructions. I assumed that:
- ‘LC’ stood for Lion’s Club. It actually denotes that liquor store we’d passed by (i.e., Nova Scotia Liquor Commission).
- There’d be a house number.
- There was only one Frenchy’s to pass by.
- A house marked with a name other than theirs must not be the one they lived in (and again, my cousin assumed that this wouldn’t confuse me).
- I’d encounter nothing unusual about the directions, so waited ‘til we were on the road to read the directions all the way through.
And as this story illustrates, it is those assumptions that can trap us as writers into thinking that the recipients of our information will understand it. But just because it’s so simple and obvious to us, doesn’t mean it will be when it meets with another person’s brain and experience.
It’s also why creators of information benefit from testing that info out on samples of the people who will need to act on it.
(composed 80% on my BlackBerry)
[this article was originally published in March 2009 on my website: http://www.simplyread.ca]
Watch this blog week-after-next to hear what happened after we paid this ticket…
This morning I was grumpily mailing payment for a traffic fine. It’s the kind of work I often put off for too long – more than a handful of times I can recall finding a way-past-due bill at the bottom of my To Be Filed basket. So this time, I was resolute to just get ‘er done.
We planned to protest the other two tickets, but this third was one of those ‘failure to produce’ offences, of which we were indeed guilty. True to form, I had thrown my insurance renewal in said basket, then quickly lost track of it. So, I had neglected to tear off and insert into mine and my husband’s wallets the new pink insurance slip – procrastination had done me in once more.
But not today. Today would be different. Having written the cheque, found and checked off the box where I plead guilty, signed the ticket and extracted the proper-sized envelope, I was all set to banish this bit of administrivia from my life for good. And then it happened…
The ticket itself is already written in about 6-point type. However, as if to compensate they’ve taken the trouble of including their mailing address three times, and in bold. (If you looked at the French, you would get to see it six times.)
Only problem? Nowhere in any of these addresses had they included their postal code.
My first reaction is severe annoyance. If the Ontario Court has such an interest in getting their money, they would at least make a few more points of space for that important detail.
Now I have to get onto the Postal Code look-up site, type in their address and wait for it to appear. An annoyance, but reasonably easy to address since I’ve had the site bookmarked as I often use it for business reference.
But think about all of the types of people that live in a large metropolis like the Greater Toronto Area. Sure, many of them likely have access to a computer; or, if they’re at work, they could also look up the postal code in the book (assuming they still publish these). This assumes that everyone getting a ticket has the literacy skills to navigate the tiny print and legalistic language of their Offence Notice in the first place.*
If someone has the time, they could also make their way to the nearest Post Office, and look up the Postal Code there or ask someone else to help – a not-so-welcome prospect in mid-January. Maybe they assume that someone getting a traffic ticket will simply drive their way over, so the cold’s not a factor. Meantime, the time ticks away without the Ontario Court getting their money.
Well, my inner rant continued, but at least the thing was now stamped and ready for the mail. But then, it gets more fun.
Before I hit the mailbox, my husband shoved a few papers toward me: the covering sheets he’d gotten with the tickets. It turns out, they had also taken the trouble to provide instructions to help payers complete the process. It was better-worded than the ticket, and used much more whitespace to separate the information.
The plot further thickens…
Thinking maybe I’ve been too hard on them, I start reading the covering sheets, and immediately my eye is drawn to the address that’s centred and in bold. Same as they’d done with the ticket. But wait a cotton picking minute! This address is different from the one on the ticket, which I’ve now written on my envelope having located that missing Postal Code.
Oh yes, and it also looks from this new slip like they want me to make the cheque out to someone different: Toronto Court Services, not the Ontario Court of Justice. Grrr. Now I must open the envelope as well as re-address it (I’ll be damned if I’m gonna try to pry that stamp off now!) So now I’m supremely annoyed, and my mind turns to the idea from our title: can I now ticket the Ontario Court for ‘Failure to produce a postal code for remitting Offence Notice?’ (translation: giving insufficient and inconsistent information to those needing to pay their *^%$ fine already)?!?
After all, I did in fact possess the missing document, and could have produced it within the 24 hours they often give people in missing license cases (in fact now that I think of it, I should have fought this ticket too!). So too does the Ontario Court surely have access to its own postal code. And I do charge by the hour for my time. Do I have the right to mail them a ticket – how about for the same $65 they’ve asked of me? – charging them with the offence of wasting my time and possibly that of many others trying to navigate these documents?
Likely not. But maybe I’ll mail them my marketing package and see if they’ll let me help them straighten things out.
- For more on adult literacy in Canada, see Statistics Canada’s Building on our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey.
- A Google search of “Ontario Court plain language” yielded some positive signs that departments within this massive government organization is getting the clarity message. Like any important change within a complex organization, the move to plain language in all public documents will likely continue, albeit slowly.
Keep watching this blog to hear what happened after we paid this ticket…