Thursday, August 30, 2012

Don’t pad your copy (2)

Don’t pad* your copy, especially if you are writing educational or instructional copy. Padding makes your copy less readable, less clear, and less credible. It makes you less credible. And heavy padding irritates and even repels readers.

Example of padded copy

Here’s an instructional web page about the abbreviations Cc and Bcc. Like the example in a previous post, the page contains useful material but also a lot of puerile, time-wasting padding. For example:
The fuzzy copies [the copies made via carbon paper] were called “carbon copies.” You knew your worth as a human by which copy you received. If you got copy #3, the super-fuzzy copy, you knew you were scum, and would have to sell your kidney to make your payment on your wood-panel station wagon.
The language used in the padding on this web page is less histrionic than the language in the previous example, and the grammar is better. But this web page is more irritating in one way: it promises a “quick and dirty tip,” leading the reader to expect straightforward instruction, but delivers a lot of padding anyway.

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing straightforward copy, such as educational or instructional copy, avoid padding. A little humor (grown-up humor) is OK, but don’t let humor overwhelm the information that you are trying to deliver.

See disclaimer.

*“To lengthen or increase, especially with extraneous or false information: pad a lecture with jokes; pad an expense account.” (Source)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Don’t pad your copy (1)

Don’t pad* your copy, especially if you are writing educational or instructional copy. Padding makes your copy less readable, less clear, and less credible. It makes you less credible. And heavy padding irritates and even repels readers.

Example of padded copy

Here’s an educational web page about modifiers, pronouns and participles. The page does contain useful information. However, the copy is heavily padded; for example, the author uses 171 words of padding even before getting to the topic.

The padding is cutesy, histrionic, and ungrammatical. And it contains incoherent imaginary dialog such as this:
Before we dive into our mirthful mayhem, let’s take a look at what writing is supposed to do. Anyone? Anyone know what writing is supposed to do? hmmmmm…yes, entertain, that’s a good one. Yup, inform. But what is the basic thing that writing needs to achieve. YES!!! oh yes!! *pumps fist in the air* COMMUNICATE…the more clearly the better. If we don’t communicate, we don’t…really, we don’t exist.
Many semiliterate writers believe that padding “funs up” copy. I will concede that there are probably a lot of semiliterate readers who find that sort of thing amusing. But it hinders serious readers; in the case of the example above, readers who are trying to learn how to write better.

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing straightforward copy, such as educational or instructional copy, avoid padding. It’s OK to use personal examples, so long as they are relevant and illustrative. A little humor (grown-up humor) is OK, too – but don’t let humor overwhelm the information that you are trying to deliver.

See disclaimer.

*“To lengthen or increase, especially with extraneous or false information: pad a lecture with jokes; pad an expense account.” (Source)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Concise writing is usually clear writing (29) – Karl Polanyi

The Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi (pictured) was a clear writer who wrote about complex subjects. His best-known work is The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944). Below is an excerpt from Chapter 6, “The Self-Regulating Market and the Fictitious Commodities: Labor, Land, and Money.” It’s not as difficult as you might expect.

...A market economy is an economic system controlled, regulated, and directed by markets alone; order in the production and distribution of goods is entrusted to this self-regulating mechanism. An economy of this kind derives from the expectation that human beings behave in such a way as to achieve maximum money gains. It assumes markets in which the supply of goods (including services) available at a definite price will equal demand at that price. It assumes the presence of money, which functions as purchasing power in the hands of its owners. Production will then be controlled by prices, for the profits of those who direct production will depend upon them; the distribution of the goods also will depend upon prices, for prices form incomes, and it is with the help of these incomes that the goods produced are distributed amongst the members of society. Under these assumptions order in the production and distribution of goods is ensured by prices alone.

Self-regulation implies that all production is for sale on the market and that all incomes derive from such sales. Accordingly, there are markets for all elements of industry, not only for goods (always including services) but also for labor, land, and money, their prices being called respectively commodity prices, wages, rent, and interest. The very terms indicate that prices form incomes: interest is the price for the use of money and forms the income of those who are in the position to provide it; rent is the price for the use of land and forms the income of those who supply it; wages are the price for the use of labor power, and form the income of those who sell it; commodity prices, finally, contribute to the incomes of those who sell their entrepreneurial services, the income called profit being actually the difference between two sets of prices, the price of the goods produced and their costs, i.e., the price of the goods necessary to produce them. If these conditions are fulfilled, all incomes will derive from sales on the market, and incomes will be just sufficient to buy all the goods produced.


On the world’s favorite readability test, Flesch Reading Ease, this excerpt scores a high 52.9 (The Wall Street Journal usually scores in the 40s and most academic writing falls below 30).

In this excerpt, the topic is difficult, the average sentence is long (35.2 words), and 40 percent of the sentences are in harder-to-read passive voice. But the author compensates for these impediments by using short words (average 4.8 letters per word), good sentence structure, and a concise style. Compared to the output of most economists, this is easy reading.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bloopers in church bulletins

On the Web you can find several lists of amusing bloopers presumably published in church bulletins. I link here to a relatively family-friendly list.

Many of the bloopers on the list sound contrived or apocryphal; they are nevertheless entertaining. Here are a few sample bloopers:

For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

The audience is asked to remain seated until the end of the recession.

Due to the Rector’s illness, Wednesday’s healing services will be discontinued until further notice.

The Takeaway: Keep smiling.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ten business cliches that prove you’re lazy

There are cliches and there are cliches. Most cliches became cliches because they had begun as clever, handy physical analogies for abstractions. For example: Scraping the bottom of the barrel. A loose cannon. One foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.

There’s nothing wrong with using this type of cliche, so long as: (1) you recognize that you are using a shopworn expression; (2) you recognize therefore that you are sacrificing originality to save time; (3) you don’t overdo it (say, more than one cliche per 1,000 words of finished copy).

But there is another type of cliche – the counterproductive cliche. You should never use this type of cliche. The ghostwriter Jeff Haden (pictured) gives ten examples in an excellent piece in Inc. magazine. Here’s an excerpt:
“Failure is not an option.”

This one is often used by a leader who gets frustrated and wants to shut down questions about a debatable decision or a seemingly impossible goal: “Listen, folks, failure is simply not an option.” (Strikes table or podium with fist.)

Failure is always a possibility. Just because you say it isn’t doesnt make it so.

Don’t reach for a platitude. Justify your decision. Answer the hard questions.

If you can’t, maybe your decision isn’t so wise after all.
The Takeaway: I urge you to read the rest of the article. You have probably heard all ten cliches, especially if you work in business; now find out why you should not use them.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (14)

Those fanatics all that we do would undo;
Down the fanatic, down the clown;
Down, down, hammer them down,
Down to the tune of O’Donnell Abu.
~ W.B. Yeats (pictured, in a 1911 photograph by George Charles Beresford)

“Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.”
~ Arthur Miller

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
~ H.L. Mencken

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Doc Searls, a highly readable business writer

If you are accustomed to reading business magazines or the business sections of newspapers, you know that most business consultants and pundits write ponderous prose. Doc Searls (pictured) is different. When you read him, you find yourself gliding through the text with relative ease. A recent example is “The Customer as a God,” a Doc Searls article published in The Wall Street Journal (may require registration).

Here’s an excerpt:
...big business continues to believe that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors. Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you’d like to live under house arrest. It’s why marketers still talk about customers as “targets” they can “acquire,” “control,” “manage” and “lock in,” as if they were cattle. And it’s why big business thinks that the best way to get personal with customers on the Internet is with “big data,” gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge—so they can be stalked wherever they go, with their “experiences” on commercial websites “personalized” for them.
It is not yet clear to the perpetrators of this practice that it is actually insane. Think about it. Nobody from a store on Main Street would follow you around with a hand in your pocket and tell you “I’m only doing this so I can give you a better shopping experience.” But that is exactly what happens online...
That excerpt wins a very high rating of 63.3 on the world’s favorite readability test, Flesch Reading Ease. Most large-company writing falls in the 10s, 20s and 30s.

The Takeaway: Skilled, experienced, diligent writers such as Doc Searls demonstrate that business prose can be made highly readable. Corporations have no excuse for scoring below 40 on readability. I believe it reveals a lack of self-respect.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Smart people know grammar is important – an editorial

Kyle Wiens (pictured) is a businessman who knows grammar is important. He’s the CEO of iFixit, an online repair community, and founder of Dozuki, a software documentation company. He has made good grammar a policy at both companies.

Everyone who applies for a job at either company must take a grammar test, and those who flunk the grammar test do not get hired. Mr. Wiens wrote an article about this policy; the article was published by Harvard Business Review. Here’s an excerpt:
Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence...

Good grammar makes good business sense – and not just when it comes to hiring writers. Writing isn’t in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.
Elsewhere in the article, Mr. Wiens says “people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing – like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”

He also says “programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code.”

The Takeaway: Grammar is important. Intelligent people judge you by your grammar. They know that if you are careful about grammar, you are probably careful about everything you do. In other words, your grammar reveals your character. But grammar and character have become politicized, and most CEOs are now afraid to talk honestly about them. That’s why I admire the courage of Kyle Wiens and of the Harvard Business Review.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A waiter who speaks English (2)

In a post one year ago I described the lovely experience of being served a meal by a waiter who: (1) spoke English instead affecting a combination of Valspeak, Likish and Ebonics; and (2) used good diction. He spoke English and used good diction because he grew up in Bosnia.

Last week my wife and I enjoyed another meal served in English, at a restaurant on Lake Winnipesaukee (pictured) in New Hampshire.

Our waiter was an affable young man from Brazil. Unlike many American waitresses, he had no facial piercings or visible tattoos. He spoke better English, with better enunciation, than many American valedictorians.

Instead of addressing us with the trashy, non-standard “you guys,” he called us “you.” Unlike most young Americans, he had learned the second-person plural personal pronoun in standard English.

Instead of using the Valspeak expression “Y’githe ahh thet?” (“You guys all set?”), he asked in standard English, “May I take your order?”

Later he asked, “How is everything?” (in other words, “How well did our chef prepare your food?”) instead of the insulting and absurd “How are you doing?” (in other words, “How skillfully are you eating?”)

When we appeared to have finished eating, he did not ask, “All set?” or “Are you still working on this?” or “Still pickin’?” He politely asked, “May I take this?”

When I had paid the check in cash, he asked, “Do you—” and stopped himself. Apparently he had realized that he had almost asked, “Do you need change?” just like an insolent American waitress hustling tips.

He was embarrassed. For two or three seconds, he had a strangled look on his face. I waited quietly. Finally, in a determined voice, he correctly said, “I’ll bring the change.”

Nice recovery. It was clear that he had been trained to be a waiter and a gentleman.

The Takeaway: The next time ugly diction and manners detract from your enjoyment, leave a copy of this guide on the table. And hand a copy, or email a copy, to the restaurant manager (two managers told me they had immediately incorporated the guide into their training programs). I have put the guide into the public domain; make and distribute copies as you see fit.

See disclaimer.