Wednesday, June 25, 2008

We professionals should display more self-respect than this

As I discussed before, clear writing needs good readability. Good readability needs short words and short sentences.

Here's an example of what not to do. It's the first paragraph of an invitation from the PRSA. That’s the Public Relations Society of America, a professional group.

“The definition and scope of a crisis can be as unique as the organization it affects but the ability to quickly and effectively respond and communicate in a crisis situation is a must for every business or organization. The Public Relations Society of America Yankee Chapter and Plymouth State University presents a panel discussion on the changing landscape of crisis communication designed specifically for communication professionals. You will learn about crisis communication success stories and challenges from a panel of communication veterans representing a variety of areas including education, health care, and non-profit. The panelists will draw on personal experiences as communicators in crisis situations—successes, lessons learned, and best practices—to help attendees be better prepared for future situations. The Q & A format will make for an interactive experience ensuring that the discussion will be relevant to all participants.”

That paragraph gets a Flesch Reading Ease score of 10.4 (much more difficult to read than an IRS form).

Notice also that the PRSA, which fancies itself an expert on handling crises, uses the grating redundancy “crisis situation” twice.

This is disgraceful.

The Takeaway: Always try for a readability score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if the topic requires it. But never go below 30. Never. If you are a professional writer, this is a matter of self-respect.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Avoiding redundancy (1)

Another way to achieve clear writing is to make an effort to avoid redundancy. Diligently search out every redundancy and every phrase that appears to be a redundancy.

For example, the web site of Duck Creek Technologies included (see update below) this paragraph:

“Our EXAMPLE Author® product lets users work together collaboratively in an intuitive, graphical environment, to create and store product definitions in intelligent XML documents called ManuScripts™. This tool enables users to visually edit the data elements (rules, algorithms, tables, screens, and documentation) of a product. Author is built with the non-programmer in mind, so it’s easy to use.” (Boldface added.)

Let us imagine an intelligent person reading this paragraph. When he reads the first sentence, he encounters “work together collaboratively” and wonders, “As opposed to what? What other way would people work together? Is this a redundancy? Or is the writer trying to convey some other meaning here? If so, what could that meaning be?”

Finally, the reader gives up and concludes that it is indeed a redundancy. He moves to the second sentence, where he comes across “to visually edit.” The reader thinks, “The word ‘visually’ means using the sense of sight. Is the writer suggesting that other companies’ editing tools rely not on sight but on sound, smell, taste or touch? Or is this just a redundancy, analogous to ‘to physically walk’ or ‘to mentally think’?”

Then the reader’s eye glances back to the first sentence, where he spots a clue left by the writer: “graphical.” The reader thinks, “Ahh. The company’s editing tool is a graphical editor, and the writer is confusing visually with graphically. Therefore, ‘to visually edit’ is not a redundancy; it’s just an incorrect usage.”

And so the reader finishes reading the paragraph, which is only 58 words long but has taken him as much time to read as five or ten clear paragraphs. At this moment, how does he feel about Duck Creek Technologies? Probably disrespected and irritated, because one of the company’s writers wasted the reader’s time in order to save his own.

A redundancy (or an apparent redundancy) is an especially damaging type of error. It’s much more damaging than a “dumb” typo. For example, what if the Duck Creek Technologies writer had used “defunitions” and “algerithms” in that paragraph? Our hypothetical reader might have spent a split-second chuckling at each of the two typos. Maybe he would have mentally assigned a couple of demerits for sloppiness. But he would not have felt disrespected and irritated.

The Takeaway: Respect your readers. As you edit your drafts, try to detect every redundancy and every phrase that appears to be a redundancy. Unfortunately, this is not always one of the easier fixes. If you tend not to notice redundancies, the only cure is to become more sensitive to word definitions. You have to develop a visceral sense of the wrongness of “crisis situation” and “first introduction” – to mention only two of the more popular redundancies. You must also avoid relying solely on self-editing. Often, a second person can instantly spot a redundancy that is almost invisible to the author.

Update, Wednesday, March 11, 2009: Duck Creek Technologies substantially rewrote the product information on its site; in the process, it eliminated the two redundancies discussed here. We applaud the corrections.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (2)

On May 15, I discussed the act of trying not to say something, and how I usually got caught when I resorted to it. Today, I’d like to discuss how grammar and diction often reveal the evasion.

Last month, a journalist was discussing how network executives had pressured correspondents to tout the invasion of Iraq. Jessica Yellin, who worked at MSNBC before the invasion, said:

“When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.” (48 words)

Her circumlocution is remarkable, even comical. She has used:
  • Unnecessary clauses (make sure that, a war that was, a way that was).
  • An unnecessary passive-voice verb (was presented).
  • Two unnecessary copulative verbs (was under, was consistent).
  • A gratuitous adverb (frankly).
And she has used the press corps instead of the brief and simple us – falsely implying that she had been merely a bystander.

When you see a circumlocution this extensive and this strenuous (I call it “The Stretch”), you know someone is trying very hard not to say something. Ask yourself how a natural, unstretched sentence might look. In this case, the answer is easy:

When the lead-up to the war began, corporate executives were pressuring us to present the war jingoistically and servilely. (19 words)

The Takeaway: You don’t need to be a hypervigilant grammarian to know when you are resorting to The Stretch. It tends to jump off the page (or screen) at you. Whenever you catch yourself stretching, ask, “What am I trying not to say?” Then do whatever you think is ethical and dignified.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

More about shorter sentences

With very little effort, you can produce clear writing by breaking long sentences into more-readable short sentences. In an earlier post, I showed an example of this way to achieve clear writing.

Here’s another example. On the ClairMail web site, we see this very long (47-word) sentence:

“ClairMail System infrastructure resides on-premise or in a managed service environment and seamlessly and securely integrates with its back-end systems without requiring any new software on mobile phones - enabling customers to actively access their accounts and conduct transactions while allowing brokerages to directly access their customers.”

To be fair, we should acknowledge two things that make the sentence fairly readable in spite of its length: (1) the sentence structure is good; (2) the dash makes the sentence feel like two sentences. However, it is an easy task to break the sentence into four sentences:

The ClairMail System infrastructure resides on-premise or in a managed service environment. It seamlessly and securely integrates with its back-end systems without requiring any new software on mobile phones. Customers get direct access to their accounts. Brokers get direct access to their customers.

Not only easier to read, but also snappier.

The Takeaway: Very long sentences (say, 30 words and up), are almost always unnecessarily long. Break them up and you’ll feel a big improvement in readability. So will your readers. Remember, just because our readers are educated and can read sentences this long doesn’t mean we should make them do it all the time.