Better Writing Boot Camp — Session 2: Crafting Paragraphs

In this session we turn our attention to paragraphs. They’re the building blocks writers use to present information. A paragraph is a grouping of sentences that relate to an idea, theory, or argument. (Of course, you can have single sentence paragraphs, but here we’re focusing on multi-sentence paragraphs.)
The key to clear paragraphs is making sure each sentence relates to the theme or thesis you’re writing about. If a sentence does not directly support the theme, it doesn’t belong in the paragraph.
To figure out if each sentence supports the theme, first identify the paragraph’s topic sentence. If none of your sentences set out your main thesis, you’ll need to craft one that does. Once you have a topic sentence, make sure each sentence clearly relates to it.
When you find a sentence that doesn’t directly support the topic sentence, remove it from the paragraph. If you take a sentence out of a paragraph that doesn’t mean you must delete it from the document. You may find the sentence includes an idea worthy of being the topic sentence of a new paragraph. Or perhaps the removed sentence supports some other paragraph. If so, move it there.
Though content drives paragraph length, paragraphs with many sentences require special attention. Besides making sure each sentence supports the paragraph’s thesis – ask yourself whether the order of the sentences makes sense. You can order the sentences in a variety of ways: chronologically, by cause/effect, by argument/counter-argument, and so on. When choosing the sentence order, be sure the ordering will make sense to the reader.
And finally, like long sentences, long paragraphs are difficult for readers. Paragraphs should present information in digestible chunks. Most long paragraphs can be easily broken into two paragraphs. Of course, you may have to craft a new topic sentence for the second paragraph. You can usually do this by simply paraphrasing the original topic sentence. Then review the two paragraphs, making sure the order of the sentences in each paragraph makes sense.
Invest the time in critically analyzing every paragraph you write. Your writing will be clearer and your readers will be grateful.
©2019 Good with Words

Better Writing Boot Camp — Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short

Have you ever taken a fitness boot camp? If so, you probably noticed that most of the activities are things you did in elementary school. (You probably also noticed those moves are a LOT harder on older knees than they were on 10-year-old knees!) By the end of boot camp you’re stronger because you’ve reconnected with muscles you hadn’t focused on for some time.
In coaching professionals interested in making their business-related writing better, I’ve noticed big payoffs come from focusing on a few basics. So, I’m launching a digital writing boot camp designed to help you whip your writing into better shape. The boot camp will be a series of short blog posts. Each post will cover one basic practice that will improve your writing – if you’re willing to really focus on it.
Ready? Ok, here goes …
Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short
An excellent first principle to focus on is keeping sentences short. Shorter sentences are easier for readers. Long sentences – even when grammatically flawless – require a lot from readers. Business writers seem to forget that readers don’t know the point you’re making until they finish reading the sentence. With long sentences, readers must hold a lot in their head before making sense of the idea you’re presenting.
Another problem with long sentences is that they’re more likely to be grammatically flawed. And, when you write a long sentence, you increase the chance of creating confusion and ambiguity.
How short? My rule of thumb is sentences should be under 25 words. I know, that seems like a lot of words – and it is. But, you’d be surprised at how many sentences in business documents are 30, 40, even 50 or more words long. Professionals often think that long sentences show off their expertise. Instead, it shows their laziness and lack of care about the reader.
So, any time your sentence spills beyond one line of type, take the time to check how many words it is. (It’s easy to check word counts in MS Word. All you do is highlight the sentence and in the lower left corner you’ll see the sentence’s word count.) It’s a bit time consuming to do for every sentence, but don’t skip this necessary step.
Any time you have a sentence that’s over 25 words – shorten it! Start by ruthlessly trimming unnecessary words. If that’s not enough, re-cast the sentence. Sometimes the easiest solution is to chop the sentence into two. Sure, you may have to repeat the subject of the sentence, but that’s a small price for clarity and ease of reading.   
I challenge you to diligently focus on writing shorter sentences for a month. Do it for your readers – and for yourself.

© 2019 Good with Words

Reflecting on Reflexive Pronouns

I’ll admit it up front: misusing reflexive pronouns (which are pronouns that end in –self or –selves) is a pet peeve of mine, so when I read this sentence from a letter written by Toronto’s mayor, I cringed:
“Mr. [X] has demonstrated to myself that he has a great work ethic and has always shown tact and diplomacy.”
As the name implies, reflexive pronouns reflect back on the subject of the sentence. Here’s a simple example: She bathes herself. I like this example because the mental image it presents makes it easy to envision the subject of the sentence doing something to herself.
Another way of describing when it’s ok to use a reflexive pronoun is when the subject and object are the same entity. In the mayor’s sentence, the subject (Mr. X) and the object (the author of the sentence – in this case, the mayor) are not the same entity, so “myself” is clearly wrong. The proper pronoun in that sentence is “me”: “Mr. X demonstrated to me that he has a great work ethic…”
If these explanations don’t make use of reflexive pronouns clear enough, here’s how MS Word’s grammar help explains why “myself” is incorrect in a sentence like the one the mayor wrote:
Reflexive Pronoun Use: It is incorrect to use “myself” alone as a subject, as in “Jake and myself went to town,” or alone as an object, as in “You will talk only to myself.”
Pronouns ending in –self (or –selves) can also be used to emphasize something, in which case grammarians call them intensive pronouns (rather than reflexive pronouns). As the name “intensive pronouns” implies, such pronouns are inserted for emphasis – to make you take notice of the noun or pronoun they go with.  Here’s an example: Tom himself did the laundry.
Given how simple the rules for using reflexive pronouns are (or, looked at it another way, the relatively few situations when using reflexive pronouns makes sense), I wonder why they are so often misused. In Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to punctuation, spelling, style, usage and grammar, Anne Stilman suggested that one reason writers might insert reflexive pronouns where they don’t belong is because they may think that “it sounds more important or genteel to say myself than plain I or me would do”.  That may be the case, but it certainly backfires because doing so only makes the writer seem illiterate.
So, next time you’re tempted to tack a “–self” or “–selves” onto a pronoun, stop and be sure to consider whether doing so is correct.

PLAIN Language International’s Upcoming Conference

I’m a member of PLAIN, the international association for plain language professionals. PLAIN’s 20thAnniversary Conference is coming up in Vancouver from Oct. 10-13, 2013. In the lead-up to the conference there have been many interesting discussions in the Member’s message forum.
In one of the discussions, William DuBay, of Impact Information Plain Language Services, offered up a great description of our profession. I thought I’d share it with readers as we mark International Plain Language Day (October 11). Here’s what Bill said:
“We are indeed a unique profession. We are not about writing; we are not about reading. We are at the point where these two activities intersect, at the point where comprehension takes place, where the rubber hits the road.”
I often describe plain language as reader-focused writing, which is what I think Bill is getting at when he talks about plain language practitioners being concerned with making sure the reader understands what’s written.
If you’d like to learn more about plain language – or better yet, if you’d like to join the conversation – I encourage you to join PLAIN.

The Benefits of Hearing Your Text Read Aloud

Today I was doing some on-line research on a grammar issue and I happened on a terrific writing web site: DailyWritingTips. There’s lots of very useful information on the site on a wide range of topics. I clicked on a few topics that were of general interest to me and then I noticed an item titled: 34 Writing Tips that Will Make You a Better Writer. Curious, I clicked on it.
The 2007 article was based on tips from readers. While all the tips were good advice – most are conventional wisdom.  But Tip #30, apparently submitted by E.I. Sanchez, offered a fantastic idea that I’ll certainly put into practice – and so I wanted to share it.
Here’s Tip 30:
“30. E. I. Sanchez
For large documents, I use Word’s Speech feature to have the computer read the article back. This allows me to catch errors I have missed – especially missing words or words that ’sort of sound the same’ but are spelled differently (e.g. Front me instead of ‘From me’).”
I had never heard of Microsoft Word’s Speech feature and I didn’t know if Word 2010 – the version I’m running – had the feature. With a bit more on-line research I found a simple description of how to enable it – and I did. I’m thrilled to say that the text-to-speech feature works really well. 
Reading your writing aloud has always been a terrific way of catching clumsy writing and even some typos. Indeed, it is a practice I employ often. But, I’ve found that when I read my own writing aloud, I don’t always catch typos because I read too quickly and because my mind knows what I meant to write and so that’s what I “read” – even though that might not be exactly what’s on the page.
Word’s Speech function reads at a more reasonable pace than I read my own stuff, and it read exactly what’s written. I’ve found that by reading the document on-screen as the document is read aloud to you, there’s a darned good chance you’ll catch things you wouldn’t catch if you simply read it aloud yourself.
Give it a try – I think you’ll find it as helpful as I do.  Thank you E.I. Sanchez!

Speaking my language

I was reading the latest Ontario Power Authority’s NewsOn-line newsletter and it had a terrific example of plain language principles that I thought I must share with you. It was a story about the recent rain storm that hit Toronto, dumping the most one-day rainfall ever recorded in Toronto.
The paragraph in the story that made me cheer was this:

About 100 millimetres (four inches) of rain fell during the storm that struck during the evening commute on July 8. It is the heaviest one-day rainfall recorded in Toronto.

Why do I love that simple two-sentence paragraph? Because it helped me understand what 100 millimetres of water is – it’s about 4 inches. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read recently about flooding in Alberta, for example, that have only provided the rainfall in millimeters – a concept I simply can’t wrap my mind around. (I know I should be able to comprehend what a millimeter is, since Canada uses the metric system. But, I grew up in the non-metric world and so a millimetre of water simply doesn’t mean much to me.)
By including that additional information in simple parentheses the writer helped me – and I suspect many other readers – immeasurably. And, as you can see – the additional parenthetical information didn’t disrupt the flow of the story or add much to the length.
That’s good business writing!
Plain Language writing is all about expressing information in ways so that different readers can understand it.

The different meanings of shall

A client and I were discussing the edits of a document the other day and I suggested replacing the word “shall” with a different word. The client hesitated and said that that morning he and others on the management team were working on firm policy statements and the issue of the mandatory nature of “shall” came up. He said that his understanding is that you should use “shall” when you want to ensure there is no wiggle room.
I then explained, in fact, there’s a push to eliminate use of “shall” because using it does not necessarily imply something is mandatory. The client clearly was sceptical about my comment. I then went on to explain that this isn’t just limited to a few writing consultants recommend – it’s something folks who draft legislation and contracts are also behind. (Folks like Brian Garner, for example.)
That discussion reminded me that my clients don’t read or follow all the language news that I do. (They’re too busy keeping up-to-date with their own industry, of course.) So, after the meeting I sent my client a copy of a Writer’s Edge article I recently wrote about ambiguity. In that article I provided some examples of the different ways “shall” can be interpreted.
Since I suspect many readers of this blog may also think that using “shall” helps bullet-proof their writing, I thought I’d share examples of the different meanings for “shall” here:
·    Father said we shall go see Grandma on Sunday. Here it means we will go see Grandma on Sunday.
·    The provinces shall have the power to amend the law. Here it means the provinces may amend the law.

The Comma that Opened Airspace?

An interesting March blog about the consequences of a poorly placed comma came to my attention recently and I thought I’d share it. The post, which was by Tony Tharakan, editor of Reuters’ India Online, tells about India’s approval of a controversial proposal by a Malaysian airline (AirAsia) for a new airline to operate in India. The proposed airline will be a joint venture (JV) between AirAsia and India’s Tata group and other Indian investors.
The controversy arose when some wondered whether the proposal complied with a September 2012 government press note outlining the rules for foreign direct investment in aviation in India.  Here’s a portion of the sentence in the September press note with the whose interpretation was open to debate:
“The government of India has reviewed the position in this regard and decided to permit foreign airlines also to invest, in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled and non-scheduled air transport services, up to the limit of 49% of their paid-up capital…”
AirAsia will only own 49% of the JV, so the issue wasn’t about the amount of foreign investment. Instead, officials from the aviation authority argued that the policy referred to in the press note allowed foreign airlines to invest in existing carriers, not start new ones up. But, India’s Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) interpreted the sentence to mean that foreign airlines were allowed to take up to a 49% stake in existing Indian carriers and new airlines being set up.
Tharakan commented that the problematic comma in the quoted sentence was the one after the word “companies”. He said: “Had there been no comma after “companies”, things would have been clear. It would have meant foreign airlines could only invest in existing carriers….”

Personally, I think the confusion is attributable to the comma after “invest’ and the comma after “companies”. In any event, I think much of the confusion could have been avoided by application of the plain language principle of using short, clear sentences rather than long, comma-filled passages. What do you think?

One set of eyes just isn’t enough!

Talk about life’s lessons…

I sent out an announcement to clients this morning about some seminars I’m launching and — wouldn’t you know it — the announcement had a typo. Instead of Plain Language, I typed: Plan Language. Of course the spell checker didn’t flag that because “plan” is a perfectly fine word, as far as the spell check program is concerned!

Well, nothing I can do about it now other than use this as a “teachable moment” and a chance to remind everyone that if it’s something important you’re putting out — it’s always best to ask someone else to proofread it before you send it. I know, finding someone to proof something isn’t always easy, especially if you fly solo, like I do. But, live and learn… (and try to find someone next time!)