Why writing is like choosing a gift
A nice analogy came up in training this week.
When you are choosing a gift, you don’t start with “What shall I buy?”. You start with the recipient – who are they, and why are you buying them a present. Is it a routine birthday or Chrstmas gift? Or do you want to show you haven’t forgotten them? Or is it to wow them and make them fall in love with you?
The answers to these questions will radically change your choice of gift.
Writing is the same. It may be tempting to start with “What shall I write?” but you get there quicker if you ask the wider questions first.
(Thanks to Kate for this nugget).
There are several videos on YouTube offering advice about business writing, and some are better than others.
Some are very basic (possibly aimed at people whose first language is not English); others base their advice on neurolinguistic “science” about creating psychological effects in your customer’s head.
There, you see. I put the word “science” in inverted commas to create a special psychological effect in your head.
But the videos to really watch out for are the ones where somebody has just sat down and made it up. No research, no sources, no anything – just “here’s the advice”. I nearly spat my tea out when I found this one from Self Learn: it’s called Seven Quick Tips, and here is the first....
LIMIT PREPOSITIONS WHEN POSSIBLE
If you don’t remember what they are, here’s a list and primer. When overused, prepositions can weaken writing and contribute to wordiness. For example: “The meeting on December 1 about the budget” is sharper when written “The December 1 budget meeting”. Also watch out for prepositions following a verb, such as “come up with” or “find out”.
It is actually a good idea not to overuse prepositions, but this isn't the best way to explain it to someone who is trying to write better documents. Most people don't know what a preposition is.
The other thing is, if you are advising people to avoid expressions like "find out", what are you suggesting they write instead? Discover? Elicit? Make clear? I'm not sure any of them really improve the sentence.
Beware of tosh out there
Reading aloud helps. Usually.
One of the best ways to tell whether your writing is making sense is to read it aloud – or, even better, get someone else to read it out. Where they laugh, it’s likely to be funny; where they stumble, you probably need to adjust it.
On the whole, punctuation helps us to read: that’s what it’s for. But thereare a few cases where punctuation requirements go against those of reading aloud. Try reading out this sentence.
“The main point is that, regardless of who was driving, the vehicle was uninsured”
You will probably put a pause after “is” or after “point”, and another one after “driving” – this would tell the listener that “regardless of who was driving” is a subordinate clause and not part of the main sentence.
It is correct for the comma to come after “that”, so that commas mark the beginning and end of the subordinate clause, but it’s no help at all when it comes to reading aloud. Indeed, if you pause after "that", the listener might think you meant the other meaning of the word (as in "that chair").
If you find yourself writing sentences with potential stumbling points like this, it’s always worth trying to re-write them. Here are some options.
“The main point is: regardless of who was driving, the vehicle was uninsured”
“The main point is this: regardless of who was driving, the vehicle was uninsured”
Or turn it round:
“The main point is that the vehicle was uninsured, regardless of who was driving”.
Keeping emails short
A useful tip from Guy Kawasaki (digital business guru) - for email, limit yourself to five sentences. “Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time”.
We all try to keep emails brief, but having a target is helpful, and a target expressed in number of sentences is particularly handy. Sentences are often units of thought, and it seems very demanding to send someone more than five thoughts in an email.
But how will people feel about receiving your highly efficient, optimal, five sentence email?
If you are afraid of offending the recipient, you can add in this text at the end as a disclaimer:
Q: Why is this email five sentences or less?
The Oxford comma: yes, or no?
The Oxford comma – or serial comma, which makes clearer that it relates to listing a series of things – is one of the flashpoints in the teaching of writing. There are strong views out there.
Here’s the gist of the debate.
Champions of the serial comma think there should be a comma before “and” in sentences like:
“Tonight we had egg, beans and rice”
So it should read “Tonight we had egg, beans, and rice”.
Famously, they quote examples where the absence of the serial comma is confusing;
“Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”.
This sentence could indeed suggest that the writer’s parents were Ayn Rand and God, and the serial comma would resolve that confusion:
“Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God”
– this version suggests Ayn Rand and God are different from the parents.
But a lot of people were taught, at an early and impressionable age, that you do not put a comma before “and”.
And sure enough, they can point to examples where the serial comma just makes things confusing, like this one:
“Dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God”.
If the serial comma is added, we get
“Dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God”
which suggests now that Ayn Rand is possibly the mother.
The truth is, from the point of view of linguists and trainers, the whole debate is a waste of breath, stirred up by over-zealous teachers in the past, and perpetuated by style guides today. There isn’t a “rule” about the serial comma, and anyone who thinks there is, is talking about a preference.
The rule is, include the comma if it makes your sense clearer, or – this can be important – if you want to change the rhythm of a sentence to make the right impression.
We saw an email from a CEO to staff which talked about the new structure being “the best possible outcome for shareholders, suppliers, and you”. It just sounds more measured, and more thoughtfully written, than “shareholders, suppliers and you”.
There's no such word as "nice"...
Mrs Slarks, my scary primary school headmistress, once told me that there was no such word as “nice”. To my shame, I had used the word several times when writing about what I did during the summer holidays.
Of course, now I understand why she said it. Mrs Slarks was sick to death of reading sentences which said “We went to Devon and it was nice”. “I had a nice ice cream”. “The donkey ride was very nice”. How, oh how, could she stop us from constantly reverting to this rather meaningless adjective?
So, in desperation, she went for the nuclear option and declared there was no such word.
Presumably the same frustration drove her to inflict on us the rules about starting sentences with "and".
Trouble is, people never forget what they learn at that age.
It's easy to see now that Mrs Slarks was trying to raise our game, and stop us from turning into inarticulate twerps.
But here's the thing: of all the rules about writing that you learned at primary school, do you know which ones were made up in this way, and which ones had some legitimacy?
Read all about it
Quite pleased with this article about us in Business Monthly which appears in Thames Valley weeklies. You are never quite sure what will be printed when journalists interview you.
(Read the full article here)
Despite the fact that everyone who works on the paper looks very young, they seem to run a tight, professional operation - they ring you back when they said they will, they don't write twaddle, they ask the right questions.
So it's a pretty reasonable depiction of what we do, although the speed-read summary does perhaps make it sound like I am a full-time error detector.
The only thing missing?
I think it's productivity.
For sure, good business writing is about avoiding mistakes, ensuring clarity, solving the problem of over-long emails etc - but in the end it's about making people more efficient in what they do for the organisation.
Are you the office grammar checker?
A lot of offices have a Grammar Checker – the person who looks at documents before they leave the building.
Maybe that’s you.
But most Grammar Checkers haven’t had specialist training: they just know some of the rules because they were taught them all those years ago.
We created this quiz in Management Today to help those Grammar Checkers check whether the rules have changed – a lot of them have.
Kamm thrashes pedants. Now what? "PICNIC"!
There is a new book about grammar called Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm, where he sets about demolishing a lot of the mythology and loony logic behind so-called grammar rules.
Perhaps you, like me, had a lot of those rules beaten into you at a delicate age. Don’t start a sentence with “and”. Don’t say “me and Peter”, say “Peter and I”. You can’t say “to boldly go” because it’s a split infinitive.
Kamm successfully demonstrates that a lot of these “rules” are tosh, and should be ignored. He does so with great energy and glee, and a forensic attention to detail.
Result: Kamm wins. Ignore those rules.
So you can put “Do it quick” (as opposed to quickly). It’s a flat adverb: people have been using them for hundreds of years, and it’s only recently that anyone decided they are wrong.
You can start a sentence with “hopefully” (just as you can with “mercifully”, “thankfully” etc.).
And you can put “less than twenty people” (instead of “fewer than twenty people”) – the rule is a “bit of folklore” which was dreamed up in the eighteenth century.
But there is a problem here – and it’s a biggie.
Speaking as someone who trains people in business writing, I can tell you that if you follow Kamm’s advice, you run the risk of making a very poor impression. The simple reality is this: if the senior manager reading your document thinks that anyone who writes “less than twenty people” is a twit, you are going to look a twit.
It’s all about the reader – in business you ignore that at your peril. Hence the acronym PICNIC (Problem in chair, not in correspondence).
So what is the advice for someone who wants to write a successful business document? For now, I would say avoid the “negative canon” – those usages which wind up pedantic people. There is usually a different way to structure a sentence (tip: try starting it differently – the rest often follows naturally).
Thankfully, no one minds “thankfully”
I was challenged about the use of “hopefully” in a workshop last week, and within just a few seconds the situation became slightly stressy. The young woman in question was absolutely certain that you cannot start a sentence with “hopefully” if you mean “it is to be hoped that…”.
For anyone new to this argument, here’s a simplified summary (otherwise, skip two next paragraphs).
Adverbs modifying a sentence (“Luckily no one died”) were thought to be acceptable if they could be rephrased as “It is lucky that…”. Many sentence adverbs work like this – it is fortunate that, it is presumable that, etc. But it doesn’t make sense to say “It is hopeful that…” – hence the objection.
However, the argument doesn’t hold because there are plenty of other adverbs which are used this way without a problem – thankfully, frankly, etc. However, many young people remember it as a definite rule, drummed in to them by pedantic relatives or teachers.
I have three reasons for mentioning this here.
One is the absolute certainty with which my workshop delegate felt about this now defunct rule – in her mind it wasn’t a vague feeling or a supposition, it was a Definite Rule
Secondly, amongst all the rules that were drilled into us at an early, how are we supposed to know which are “real” rules and which are just preferences?
Thirdly, it’s really hard to “unlearn” something you were taught that long ago. It’s like unlearning to drive on the left, or to open doors for people.
Many organisations, like religious cults and the military, dismantle what people have learned so they can learn a new set of rules. Our workshops are a bit gentler than that.
Radio interview - BBC Berkshire
Why Spellchecker is not enough
Why teach people to spell if they use Spellchecker on a Windows computer all day? It's a fair point: if only we'd had Spellchecker in the eighties... that would have been a few tantrums avoided at the agency.
Mind you, we all know Spellchecker misses a few errors - like when people put "their" instead of "there".
But I have recently been looking more closely at the things which Spellchecker misses, and it's a long, long list.
But rather than go through them all I will just say two things.
One - if you learn to spell with confidence, it will help you as soon as you don't have Spellchecker (like, when you start using a new mobile device - anyone remember the crazy Nokia spelling suggestions?).
Two - read this poem out loud. It's a salutary experience.
Ode to My Spell Checker
Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques form eye revue
Miss steaks eye did knot sea.
Eye striker quay and type a word
And weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write
Itch owes me strait aweigh.
Anne differ small mist ache is maid
It nose bee four-two long
And eye can put the error rite -
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
Aunt yew pleased to no?
Its letter perfect awl the way
My chequer told me sew.
(author unknown, but based on the Spell Checker Poem by by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar)