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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.
Today in an article I wrote, I got the classic example of a ‘reverse Before & After.’
Well today, I got back an edit from someone I’d interviewed for an article about a technical medical subject. His edit – or After version – looked more like what I would use as a Before. Read for yourself:
The study launched in September intends to better understand these syndromes to help paediatricians identify them – and set patients on the path to proper treatment sooner.
The study launched in September intends to gather new data about the presentation of these disorders while raising awareness in the medical community. It is hoped that earlier identification of patients will also facilitate initiation of effective treatment.
This is one of those situations where a writer needs to tactfully defend their original choice, while ensuring the reviewer understands the reason for the simpler language. Wish me luck!
Here’s an example of how a wordy, negative paragraph could be recast more plainly and positively:
Elaborate or unnecessarily voluminous offers are not desired. Offerors are encouraged to take care in completely answering questions and offer requirements and to avoid submitting extraneous materials that do not show how the offeror is able to meet requirements.
Please keep your proposal brief, focusing only on answering the questions in this RFP and showing how you meet our requirements.
Would that have been so difficult?
Recently in a post for the Editors and Writers group I’m part of via LinkedIn, a poster asked for what annoys us most when we’re editing other people’s writing.
I wrote that it was noun strings (also called ‘noun stacks’), those wonderful series of words that people tend to tie together into one long descriptor. To illustrate, witness these three examples:
- We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.
- Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
- Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.
You may notice that many of these nouns function as adjectives in the string, and that overall the writing has quite a passive tone.
And if you’ve seen these kinds of constructions in writing you encounter (or create yourself), you may also see them turned into lettered acronym, as in the first example. No surprise given that trying to say them out-loud requires you to take a few breaths so that you can finish!
You may think this kind of writing is mostly a corporate or technical phenomenon. But, as in the third example, they can crop up just as often in health care and not-for-profit environments.
Some writers attribute this kind of writing as laziness, but I would venture that it takes some thought to put together such a long construction (though through long-term exposure to them, I actually made up the above examples in a couple minutes).
But I would add that it’s an effort better spent creating clearer alternatives, such as the following:
From: We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.
To: To get a better handle on how employees who telecommute are using their time, we have installed software that monitors their activity while at home.
From: Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
To: You can resolve these issues by following Human Resources’ Policy for Resolving Disputes.
From: Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.
To: If you use this ointment properly, the condition of your hands’ skin will improve.
Next time you find yourself about to create a noun string, try pulling those words apart into a clearer phrase. Your readers will thank you.
After first acknowledging Prince and Johnny Mercer for today’s title, I’d like to briefly look at using the positive tone when we’re speaking.
I’ve written tip sheets and taught lessons about it, but how to adopt this tone when I speak never really hit home until I had a child five years ago.
Before then, the only non-work time I was attentive to what came out of my mouth was in front of the very young or the very old – with the emphasis of course on omitting the classic swear words.
But with my own child, I found I was using the imperative or ‘command’ voice more often than ever before – and mostly it was to get her not to do something. With parenting books stressing that staying positive helps increase the child’s self-worth, I started to focus more on my language.
Here are some examples of the kinds of changes I made:
From: Don’t go on the road To: Stay away from the road OR Stay in the driveway
From: I don’t want you watching too much TV today. To: I’d prefer we went outside or read a book today.
From: We know you won’t make this mistake again. To: We are confident you will do better next time you try.
From: Never eat the mushrooms from the ground. To: Only eat the mushrooms from the fridge.
From: Can you please stop screaming! To: Can you please lower your voice?
Now that I’m more practiced at using a positive verbal tone, I actually feel better during conversations with people about potentially inflammatory things – including the need to avoid those poison mushrooms. And, I’ve gotten even better than before at keeping things positive in the tone of my writing.
Want to accentuate the positive?
Test yourself! Try this resource from University of Tennessee professor and Technical Writing Dept director Dr. Russel Hirst. It covers the subject of tone quite nicely – including how to make it positive – and offers an easy-to-follow online worksheet that provides the answers at the end.
Get another perspective and more examples. This paper posted on a UK social justice site is written through their lens, but gives excellent analysis of negative word choice’s effects on other areas of our lives. It also gives useful tips on how to include more plus signs in your writing.
If you need training on how to improve the tone of your speaking or writing , contact me or SimplyRead directly.