Using plain English

I have lots of conversations with people at work about using plain English. It seems as though everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but people are less sure how to go about it, and even more importantly, how to get other people to use plain English instead of ‘government speak’. I work in a government organisation, so we see plenty of examples of long wordy documents filled with jargon and buzzwords.

It’s worthwhile thinking about why people don’t use plain English. Apart from people wanting to hide their true purpose, many people think that they need to write in a stuffy convoluted way in order to sound ‘professional’. This is far from true. Being professional is about being clear and writing clearly can be hard work.

As Woody Guthrie said… “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make something simple.”

So next time you start writing something, think about how you make yourself as clear as possible. If you’re writing an important document or email, get someone else to read it before you send it. Be open to feedback about how you can improve your writing and practice as much as you can.

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How to write a sentence

I’ve just been reading a fantastic book by Stanley Fish called How to write a sentence and how to read one. At the start of the book he describes the way words ‘slide into their pre-ordained slots’ in a well constructed sentence. I think this is an accurate description of the writing process. I’m sure that you’ve experienced writing a sentence, hitting the delete button and re-writing the sentence repeatedly until it feels just right. Not only do you need to hunt for the perfect word, you need to arrange the words in the perfect order and this is often a matter of trial and error.

Good writing is not just about choosing the right words, the relationship between the words also matters. This is called syntax. Where grammar is concerned with rules, syntax is about how words and phrases are arranged in a well formed sentenced.

Striving for well formed sentences can be hard work, so where do you start?

First of all, you need to accept that you will need to edit your work. (As a case in point, that sentence started off as ‘first of all, you need to accept that you will probably need to write and re-write every sentence numerous times’).

Secondly, remove any fluffy parts of the sentences that don’t really add anything of value. For example, I originally started this post by talking about how much I like reading, but I deleted it because it was irrelevant. (Also, it’s quite obvious that I like reading or I wouldn’t talk about it quite so much!)

Thirdly, use active voice. This is much less complicated than it sounds. You just need to get the subject in your sentence (usually a person or thing) to do something, rather than having something done to them (that’s why its called passive voice).

Here’s an example…

Passive: The ball was thrown by Ben.

Active: Ben threw the ball.

And another one…

Passive: The activity needs to be completed by all staff in the organisation.

Active: Everyone needs to complete this activity.

Or even better: You need to complete this activity.

So there you have it, it’s as simple as one, two, three.

Wan’t to chime in with your opinion? Feel free!

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Once I had a secret love – content strategy and me

I’ve been wanting to write about content strategy for a while now, but I’ve been put off by not knowing how to make it relevant to the readers of this blog (that’s you). It struck me that my desire to provide material that is relevant, interesting and informative is exactly the problem that having a content strategy is meant to solve. Let me explain…

Content strategy is about trying to develop a coherent package of information for your audience. It’s about planning and managing information. I think of it as information wrangling, with the audience in mind. The term content strategy is most commonly used in relation to website development and was coined by Rachel Lovinger. Lots of people think that content strategy is just a new term for having an editorial policy, but it’s much more than that.

The role of the content strategist is to develop material that is readable, understandable, findable, useable and able to be shared. This requires a deep understanding of what people want and need to know, and how people consume information. These days, anyone who develops information needs to appreciate that if the audience finds the material useful, they will probably want to share it with other people. You need to make it easy for people to do this. On a website, this involves using sharing buttons, such as the ones at the bottom of this page. For bigger companies, it means making information downloadable and accessible.

Foremost, it requires you to develop material that is readable and understandable.

So how does this relate to the work you do on an everyday basis? The more I read about content strategy, the more it appeals to me. When I look at overcrowded documents, or cluttered websites, I think about how much better they would be if only someone stopped to think about who would be reading the document, who would be visiting the website and what do they want to know? Imagine if you could produce presentations that were clear and relevant, and really focussed on the audience – wouldn’t that be great?

So next time you are asked to write a report or develop a presentation, ask yourself:

  • who is this for? 
  • what might their interests be? 
  • what do they need to know?
  • how might they want to share this information?

This leads me to the dilemma I outlined at the beginning of this post – how do I know what is relevant, interesting and informative for you? Without some feedback from you, I’m really only guessing, so feel free to ask a question or share an idea. I’ve love to provide more of what you are interested in, so do let me know.

Where have all the commas gone?

I have been enjoying reading a children’s book called The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. It’s quite a famous Australian book, first published in 1958. For those of you who don’t live here in Australia, brumbies are a type of wild horse, most commonly found in the Snowy Mountains.

One of the interesting things I noticed in this beautifully written book is the proliferation of commas. They are used with gay abandon. Actually the word ‘gay’ is used with gay abandon as well. How times have changed. Anyway, the book begins like this…

Once there was a dark, stormy night in spring, when, deep down in their holes, the wombats knew not to come out, when the possums stayed quiet in their hollow limbs, when the great black flying phalangers (a type of glider – see photo below) that live in the mountain forests never stirred. In this night, Bel Bel, the cream brumby mare, gave birth to a colt, pale like herself, or paler, in that wild, black storm.

250px-Sugies03_hp

Wow, look at all those commas! You don’t see them being used this much in contemporary writing but I think they give the writing a beautiful cadence that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  Judging by the writing that passes over my desk most days, it seems that the comma has quite gone out of fashion and I think this is a pity.

According to my son and his girlfriend, most young people are taught that they should never use a comma before the word ‘and’ and you should never start a sentence with and. Both of these rules are quite wrong, in my humble opinion. My favourite writing blog Grammar Girl says that we should definitely be using a comma before ‘and’ when it is being used to separate the items in a list.

This is called the Oxford (or serial) comma, and it’s important because it adds clarity to your writing.

Here’s an example straight from Gramma Girl… Rebecca was proud of her new muffin recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut.

The absence of any commas after peanut butter makes it unclear how many types of muffins there are. There could be one recipe involving all three ingredients, or three different types of muffins: peanut butter, chocolate chip, and coconut. A serial comma in the appropriate place would help you identify the number of items in the list.

The serial comma helps things to make sense, so don’t be afraid to use it when it’s called for. After all, our aim is to help people to understand what we are saying, so you should be trying to make this as easy as possible.

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Writing at work

Have you ever been in the situation where you just suddenly forgot whether you should use affect or effect or how to spell accommodation? This happens to me quite a lot, especially at work, and I find it really helpful to have a few good writing books and blogs to refer to when the need arises.

As I may have mentioned before, one of my favourites is Writing at Work  by Neil James from the Plain English Foundation. It’s an excellent reference book and sits on my desk within easy reach, next to the dictionary.

My favourite blog is Grammar Girl (Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing) which can answer just about any grammar question you may have, and also has a list of the top mistakes that people make. It’s really useful, easy to understand and often funny.

Future Perfect is the website of a company which offers writing services but also has a heap of free resources including grammar quizzes (don’t we just love quizzes) and good advice about writing, punctuation and proofreading.

These are three of my favourites. Check them out and start improving your writing today. Let me know what you think and if you have any personal favourites.

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Finding focus

I’m guessing that most of us have spent at least a little bit of time recently deciding what we will focus on, and what skills or interests we want to develop in 2013.

I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest problems is that I am interested in way too many things, to the point where I flit from topic to topic always hungry for new and interesting ideas but not really digesting or absorbing very much. And while this is very entertaining, it results in knowing a little bit about a lot of subjects, but not being an expert on anything in particular. This is not a good thing in the world of business (so they say), which favours those with marketable expertise.

So this year I am going to focus on being more focussed.

This means finishing one book before starting another. (Well maybe I can have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go, but not five at once).

Attention
Attention (Photo credit: aforgrave)

It also means spending more time writing about practical ways that you can craft your material so that your messages are clear.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll only talk about one thing. As far as I am concerned, there are many elements to clarity. Regardless of whether you are writing a report, creating a presentation or designing a website the principles and elements are the same.

You need:

  • Clear concise writing that makes sense to the reader
  • Consistent and logical ordering of your content
  • Plenty of white space so that your text is legible and doesn’t overwhelm people
  • Graphs, charts and illustrations that help people to understand your message
  • An understanding of how people learn and how they make sense of information

But above all, you need to KNOW what it is you are trying to say. Working this out is by far the most important thing you need to do and is the place where you should start.

So my plan for the coming year is to focus on writing helpful, inspiring and practical blog posts. What are you going to focus on? Are there skills that you want to develop and can I help you?

 

 

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Desperately seeking perfection

It was pointed out to me that one of the sentences in my last post ran on for too long and that I had also used the words ‘as well’ in two consecutive sentences. This is true. Slightly clumsy writing if not actually wrong. To be honest I was a bit worried about publishing that last post as I was convinced it would contain a major error and I would end up looking like a fool. I double checked it before I posted, added a few words (unnecessarily as it happens) and hit the publish button hoping like mad that it would be ok. Never mind. One can only try.

I still think that it’s important to make an effort to organise your thoughts. The opposite of laziness is not perfection, it’s effort, and it applies to everything you do. You should be striving to do the best you can in the time you have available. You can’t wordsmith every single sentence until it’s perfect or you would never get any work done, but you can make an effort to unjumble the content once it’s on the page.

I read a lovely quote by Guy Kawasaki which goes like this…

“While brevity may not be the cause of elegance, longwindedness certainly prevents it.”

So I think I will end there.

Are you a lazy writer?

Thermometer-lazy-1
Thermometer-lazy-1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I see a lot of poorly written and badly designed information in the course of my travels. I suppose that sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not so much that they are badly written, they are just sloppily put together.
For example, the other day someone gave me a big long memo about a meeting they had been to. It was kind of them to take the trouble to make some notes, but they had really just poured out their thoughts onto a page without any consideration of which order the content should be presented in so that it made logical sense to the reader. This resulted in some of the key points about why we should go down a particular path being in mixed in with very detailed points about how this should happen (process notes). They had gone to the trouble of typing up their notes but they hadn’t taken that one extra step of organising them so that they made sense. Just a few extra minutes would have made the whole thing make more sense and have been more persuasive as well.
This is often the case with emails as well. People just write down whatever pops into their minds without thinking about what the reader needs to know first. I don’t think this is intentional but it would certainly help if writers did a little editing. By all means write down whatever comes to mind, but feel free to move it around so that it makes sense. Put it in a logical order. Your readers will thank you.

4 ways to improve your presentations

Microsoft PowerPoint
Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have been asked to develop a presentation for your manager about a new HR policy. You begin by opening up the corporate template and start typing using the default settings in PowerPoint with its obligatory bullet points. Blah…blah…blah….

Before long you have lots and lots of slides loaded with text and you’re bored with the whole process.

It’s more than likely that your boss has provided with little or no guidance about what the point of the presentation is, or why it needs to be developed, or even who it’s for.

You want to create something professional. You’d like it to be a bit different, but not zany because you don’t want people to think you are weird and it won’t do your career any good to be thought of as too ‘out there’.

So where do you start with creating a presentation that is effective and gets the message across? Here’s where I can help.

1. FIRST THINGS FIRST

If possible sit your manager down and ask him or her the following questions:

  • Why do we have a new policy? Does it solve a problem or clarify a situation?
  • Who is the presentation for? If she says everyone, you might need to make two versions. One for staff, one for managers.
  • How are people likely to respond to the new policy? Will they see it as an improvement to their working conditions or a hindrance (you really need to know what the target audience is feeling about the issue that the new policy is attempting to address).

2. TELL THEM WHY IT MATTERS

Start your presentation with the reason why there is a new policy. For example a policy on working from home has been created because the organisation recognises that work doesn’t just happen at work, and that workers have complicated lives. Always start from how the policy will affect the people in the room and what problem it is trying to solve.

3. KEEP YOUR MESSAGES SHORT

Put your key points on the slides. One point per slide please! Make every effort to avoid corporate speak. Be straightforward and direct. So for example, instead of saying that the organisation has to rationalise their resources because of competing priorities, just say ‘we have limited funds and we need to use them wisely’. People really appreciate clear messages that get your point across.

4. TELL THEM WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO DO

Be very specific about this. Tell them exactly what you what them to do, don’t make them guess. Using our working from home example, ask them to read the new policy and speak to their manager if they are interested in working from home.

And that’s it. You will have created a presentation that is clear and helpful. It will tell people why they need to know and what they need to do. You’ll be a star!

What should you be reading to improve your writing skills?

Plain English Handbook
Plain English Handbook (Photo credit: arellis49)

If you want to improve your writing skills then the first thing you need to do is write. And then write some more. This is the advice that you usually get from writing books and I agree that the best way to hone your skills is to practise as much as you can. Sadly, you can’t really avoid the fact that you need to work hard to be good at something. But you also need to get feedback on your writing and it’s not usually helpful to get feedback from friends and relatives. They are either too harsh or too kind. They never tell you what is wrong with your work or how you can improve your writing, but perhaps they dont know exactly what is needed. This is where writing books come in. They probably aren’t a substitute for a really good writing teacher but they can help you a lot.

It’s hard to nominate my favourite writing book. I have quite a few and like my children, I love them equally, so I will have to give you a small list of my favourites. My number one is probably Paula Rocque’s book called ‘On writing Well‘. This is a great little book which gives plenty of practical advice. Paula covers topics such as cutting wordiness and using the right word.

My second favourite (for the great technical advice) is by an Australian called Neil James. Neil is the head of the Plain English Foundation and has written a great book called ‘Writing at work” which is a terribly useful and surprisingly readable book. By that I mean that the book not only gives good technical advice but is full of interesting information.

My third pick is Brilliant Copywriting  which will help you write persuasively. I found this book to be funny, entertaining and helpful. If you are writing to persuade (and aren’t we all doing that in some shape or form) then this book will help you craft your message. There’s lots of good advice and the book itself is very enjoyable to read.

So these are my picks for today. I hope you find this useful, but if you disagree or have other books to recommend, feel free to comment.