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Are your sentences too loaded? Try stripping your nouns!

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.

Freed of noun clutter, your sentence more readily springs off the page.

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.

I’ve been teaching a lot lately about the active and passive voices, encouraging writers to favour the active voice in every instance they can.

The ‘active voice’ is where you always begin the phrase with a subject (a noun) that is performing the action (a verb), as in: I typed this post.

If you were using the ‘passive voice’ there, you would have written: This post was typed (you may or may not have added ‘by me’)

I’ve also been encouraging people to prefer verbs over nouns, since verbs bring more action into a text, which better engages readers. And like the active voice, writing that favours verbs over nouns makes it a lot clearer who is doing what.

So hearing the Eviction Notice to Occupy Toronto protesters read out-loud this week, I wondered at the tone of voice that came through in how they’d written the letter (read a clean PDF copy from the Globe and Mail site).

I was so curious about what made that tone come through, that I copied and pasted the text, then highlighted it. Here was my logic:

  • Parts highlighted in yellow use a noun-based language and a passive voice.
  • Parts highlighted in green use verbs and an active, direct voice.

Check it out:

City of Toronto Eviction Notice to Occupy Toronto protesters: my highlighted version

My conclusion?

The voice goes back and forth so often that it’s clearly a sad case of Death by Committee.

What’s your take on the language the writers used here?

Leave your comment, so we can learn from each other...

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