Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The maniacal use of “drive”

Most of the techniques I recommend for achieving clear writing are easy to learn and apply. They require only a little time to learn and practice.

One such technique is this: try to avoid using fad words (also called mantras). They are usually vague substitutes for precise words. They rarely help you produce clear writing; they almost always work against you.

For example, consider the word drive.

A press release announcing a friendly corporate takeover stated that the acquisition “...was driven by the clear synergy between the two companies’ market and technology philosophies.”

The writer probably had intended to say that the managements of the two companies identified the potential synergy and wanted to actualize it. However, this is a misuse of the verb drive, and in this case the misuse unwittingly diminishes the astuteness of the senior managers who conceived and executed the acquisition.

To be driven is to be propelled mindlessly: herds of cattle, teams of oxen, slaves, serial killers, and leaves in the wind are driven. Free, rational men are not.

By using a fad expression, the writer weakened his own story. A better wording would be “was inspired by,” which would imply more thoughtful and deliberate action.

The misuse of drive has become a mania. Many writers seem unable to write a press release, a web page or a PowerPoint presentation without doing it. In only 55 minutes on Google, without breaking a sweat, I found drive and driver being used instead of the following precise verbs and nouns, respectively:

Drive (v.tr.)
attract, control, create, cue, decrease, determine, elicit, enable, encourage, engender, expand, generate, govern, guide, incite, increase, limit, manage, occasion, operate, produce, promote, prompt, run, steer, stimulate

Driver (n.)
attractor, creator, cue, determinant, enabler, encourager, generator, governor, guide, incentive, inciter, limiter, manager, occasion, operator, producer, promoter, prompt, prompter, purpose, rationale, stimulus

The Takeaway: Whenever you are about to use drive (driver) in business copy, ask yourself precisely what you mean and then use that word. But if you really can’t think of a precise word, use drive (driver).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Unintentional hedging (1)

Here’s another easy way to produce clear writing (and speaking). Don’t hedge unintentionally. It diminishes, undermines or negates your message.

Every day, we all read or hear dozens or hundreds of unintentional hedges. For example:

Using “Umm” or “Umm, no” when disagreeing with someone.

Using “What I did was, I (past-tense verb),” as opposed to directly saying, “I (past-tense verb).”

Using “This may sound like a stupid idea, but I think...”

Using “Just my two cents” or “Just the view from here” or “Something to think about” or “For what it’s worth” (FWIW).

Using “kind of,” “kinda,” “sort of,” “sorta,” “like” and “pretty much.”

“Kind of” and “like” have become mania expressions in recent years. Often you see people quoted in the press who can’t seem to use a predicate adjective without putting “kind of” or “like” in front of it: “He looked kind of horrible.” “I was kind of scared.” “It was, like, catastrophic.”

Many writers and speakers even place “kind of” in front of a noun, adjective or adverb that implies precision. For example, I heard a CEO give a speech in which he said, “That’s kind of exactly what I mean.”

And some writers and speakers use “kind of” to undermine the main point of what they are writing or saying. For example, I heard another businessman say that he thought his company’s strategy “kind of maybe defines the trend of the industry.” People in the audience snickered.

When a writer or speaker uses these hedges a lot, even obtuse readers or listeners are going to notice it. When they do, they will receive this message: “I'm not really saying anything. Don’t pay any attention to me.”

The Takeaway: Say what you mean. If you intend to hedge, hedge: “We will be ready to announce the product in about five months.” Otherwise, don’t hedge. State simply and directly what you did, what you will do, what you believe, or what you recommend. Don’t tiptoe up to your assertions with “Umm.” Don’t say “like” or “kind of.” And don’t sneak away from your assertions with “Just a thought.” If you say what you mean, you will earn more respect.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Detecting your own jargon

If you want to produce clear writing every time, you must always be on the lookout for jargon.

Unfortunately, jargon words and phrases are more apparent to readers than to authors. That is to say, they are usually difficult to detect in your own copy. Here’s an example:

A chief executive officer attempted to eliminate the jargon from a draft press release. After he was satisfied with his rewrite, the first sentence read as follows:

“NetSuite Inc. (NYSE: N - News), a leading vendor of on-demand, integrated business management software suites that include Accounting / Enterprise Resource Planning ( ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Ecommerce software for small and midsized businesses and divisions of large companies, today announced NetSuite OneWorld, a cloud computing solution which enables multi-national and multi-subsidiary companies to manage their global business operations in real-time.”

This sentence is close to 100% jargon. Not surprisingly, it rates a Flesch Reading Ease score of 0.

This example makes the point nicely: it is difficult for us to see our own jargon for what it is.

Here’s the full story, in The Wall Street Journal’s business technology blog.

The Takeaway: Because we read jargon all day, we are almost blind to it. If you are serious about eliminating jargon from the copy you write, ask for help from a sharp-eyed editor. Show your copy to the editor after you are satisfied with it. Better yet: try out the copy on a member of the target audience, if possible. For example, ask a friendly customer or a member of your advisory council for an opinion.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (1)

Today the newswire Reuters carried an item headlined "Chicago lifts two-year ban on foie gras." It's a good example of a failure to achieve clear writing -- involving as it does a venerable news service.

The first three paragraphs are:

"CHICAGO (Reuters) - Gourmets in Chicago can order foie gras again after the city council on Wednesday repealed a two-year restaurant ban on a delicacy that critics say is produced at cruel expense to geese and ducks.

"The aldermen voted 37-6 to drop the ban on restaurants serving foie gras, an ordinance that had passed with a single dissenting vote in April 2006.

"The city had issued a few warnings to restaurants for flouting the ban and one defiant eatery was fined."

These paragraphs answer "Who?" and "What?" and "When?" and "Where?" and "How?" -- but do not directly answer "Why?"

There's a clue in the third paragraph (quoted above). There are four more clues in later paragraphs (not quoted in this post -- click through if you want to read the whole story).

I'm not a psychologist, and this is just a guess. I believe the editor was trying not to say something like this: "One alderman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, 'Not one restaurant has complied with the ban. It's unenforceable.' "

As you may know, most journalists bend over backwards to avoid irritating government employees by suggesting that they are impotent in any way. That's because, collectively, government employees are the largest single source of predigested news.

I could be wrong on this example. But, in general, a great amount of unclear writing results from writers' reluctance to directly state inconvenient facts.

The Takeaway: If you notice that you're having difficulty writing a sentence and you're feeling stressful, stop writing for a moment. Ask yourself: "What am I trying not to say?" You will know the answer. I won't presume to tell you what to do next, but I will say this: I have faced this same difficulty thousands of times. Whenever I chickened out, I noticed that intelligent readers usually saw through my euphemisms, evasions and circumlocutions anyway.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Shorter sentences and shorter words

Your common sense says so. And psychological research has proved it. In general, long sentences are harder to read than short sentences. And long words are harder to read than short words. So, another easy way to produce clear writing is to keep your sentences and words short.

Here’s what not to do. It’s a paragraph from the web site of SiRF:

“SiRF capitalizes on its architectural innovations, system design and silicon expertise, RF capabilities and state of the art semiconductor manufacturing technology to make GPS capabilities accurate, affordable, power efficient and compact enough to be used in consumer applications. SiRF’s extensive patent and intellectual property portfolio improves on conventional GPS by providing location awareness where other approaches cannot, including under dense foliage, in steep ravines, in ‘urban canyons’ and even in some indoor environments. In the constant tension between lost and found, SiRF’s GPS solutions tip the odds in favor of being found.”

Words per sentence: 30.6
Characters per word: 5.9
Flesch Reading Ease score: 2.8 (much harder than a tax form!)

Without losing any important content, you could revise it like this:

SiRF makes GPS accurate, affordable, power efficient and compact enough to be used in consumer applications. We do this by drawing on our architectural innovations, design expertise, RF capabilities and advanced chip-making technology. Our many patents improve on conventional GPS. We provide location awareness where other approaches can’t. Under dense foliage, in steep ravines and in “urban canyons.” Even in some indoor environments. In the constant tension between lost and found, SiRF tips the odds in favor of being found.

Shorter sentences and shorter words.

Words per sentence: 13.0
Characters per word: 5.3
Flesch Reading Ease score: 41.1 (as easy as The Wall Street Journal)

The Takeaway: Try to get into the habit of using short words and short sentences, even in your first draft. In your second draft, try to shorten or break up any sentences that are longer than 20 words. Replace a few long words with shorter words. Yes, that’s hard to do if you work in the networking industry (as I do) or other industry that uses long names for concepts and products. But you can still make a big difference just by changing represents to is and so on. Your readers will feel the difference immediately.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Testing the readability of your copy

To produce clear writing, you need to produce more readable writing. Readability is a prerequisite to clarity.

It is fortunate that readability can be measured. There are several tests available; I recommend Flesch Reading Ease, which was designed by Rudolf Flesch (photo), the famous plain-language consultant. It is based on solid psychological research, not abstract theory.

It is the world’s most widely used test – the standard readability test used by the U.S. Department of Defense and many other government organizations. Microsoft has built a modified version of the test into Word.

Here are a few sample ranges of test scores, from higher readability (top of list) to lower readability (bottom of list):

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers
10s Many high-tech web sites

To test your copy, all you need is a PC running Microsoft Word. Follow these steps.

Open your Word document.
Check (turn on) “Check grammar with spelling.”
Check (turn on) “Show readability statistics.”
Left-click “OK.”
Spell-check your document.

After the spell-check, you will see a report of “Readability Statistics.” The Flesch Reading Ease score is the second-last number in the list.

When writing for business, aim for a score above 50. If the topic limits what you can do, you may have to settle for 30 to 50. But anything below 30 is too hard to read. Many readers will give up. You will lose sales. So, dig in and start rewriting.

Readers of academic and scientific writing generally tolerate lower readability than readers of business writing. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that you should strive for a low score in academic and scientific writing. All readers appreciate high readability, often unconsciously.

The Takeaway: Get in the habit of checking your Flesch Reading Ease readability score while you check your spelling. Aim high. With continued practice, you will be able to attain high readability almost effortlessly. Your readers will notice.