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Cogent Communicator: Stop Wasting Your Readers’ Time

By Susan de la Vergne

Twitter has made me a better writer. When you get only 140 characters, you get straight to the point.

That’s one way to make good use of your readers’ time: know the gist of what you’re going to say, and get there directly. Or you could wander into the subject, spending time on Background, Overview, and Scope sections commonly prescribed by many well-meaning templates.

Get to the Gist

I suggest that, starting right away, everyone add a section called Gist to all templates. This new section goes first, before Overview, Background, or anything else. In Gist goes the essential point, the key message, the couple of things you’d put in a tweet (without the abbreviations LOL).

Here’s what might go in a Gist section:

Gist of a Process Change: We’re recommending steps be added to our testing process to ensure the QA team is promptly notified when code is ready to test.

Gist of a Change of Scope: The project will be able to accommodate the request to accelerate the roll-out schedule and to extend the roll-out territory to all branch offices. The additional cost will exceed the budget for this phase by 15%.

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I realize it’s hard to start with the gist. You don’t always know the key point right away. You may have to start with the objective and background and then figure out the gist. It’s fine to write it later, then move it to the beginning.

Never Enough Time

Two things people say they never have enough of: money and time. I’m going to leave the first one alone, but as writers of emails, design documents, plans, and other project deliverables, there are a few more things we can do to save our readers time. Getting to the point clearly, concisely, and early on is just one of them. Here are a few more:

Use Short Words Where Long Words Would Do

When I taught in the graduate engineering program at Portland State University, one of my students confessed to me a horrifying (horrifying to a writer, that is) tidbit she had learned as an undergrad back in Thailand: her professors told her always to use long words instead of short ones so you’ll sound smart. As examples, they told her to say things like be cognizant of rather than know and designate rather than choose.

Longer words aren’t more valuable. They’re just longer and, when strung together in a sentence, take your reader longer to wade through. They don’t make you sound smart; they make you sound thick and murky not what you want.

I’ve observed other examples of this long word problem recently. Here they are (along with their shorter options): disseminate (send); additional (more); utilize (use); inception (start); obviate (avoid); re-locate (move).

While we’re at it, whatever happened to the word many?  It’s such a nice little word, which seems to have been sidelined in favor of the bigger mouthful multiple.

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Use Natural English

Years ago, I found this sign in our company parking lot:

It has come to our attention that numerous employees are using the space adjacent to the executive parking lot for smoking. While smoking is permitted in designated outdoor areas throughout our organization’s physical complex, that particular location is not suitable for this activity.  Please discontinue your use of this area for smoking. Thank you.

I was sorely tempted to rewrite this clunky, wordy mess. I didn’t, but it would have been fun to replace it one night while no one was looking. Had I done so, the new sign would have read:

Smokers: We’ve recently observed some employees smoking on the patio next to the executive parking lot, which is not an approved area.  Please smoke only in locations where smoking is allowed.  Thank you.

The second one is concise an obvious advantage. But perhaps even more important, it sounds like it’s coming from a human being, not a sanitized-language generator.

It’s always easier to read and digest natural English. You could, for example, write He will assume the fiduciary responsibilities for the company commensurate with the onset of the new fiscal year Or you could write, He will take over responsibility for the company’s finances on October 1 It’s not hard to see which is easier to read.

I sometimes think business writers aspire to write legalese. You know, that tortuous unreadable contract language invented by lawyers. The goal of legalese is to pack each sentence with nested phrases that intercept every possible problem and supply every possible alternative. Your goal is to write things human beings engineers grasp quickly.

Just to make sure the difference between natural and unnatural English is obvious, here are a few more examples:

Unnatural: Complications have arisen in the interface design due to greater complexity than assumed.

Natural: The interface design is more complex than we originally assumed.

Unnatural: Vendor consulting is required for additional technical assistance to resolve outstanding issues in a timely manner, adding additional cost and causing potential to exceed project budget.

Natural: We require consulting assistance from the vendor to help us resolve outstanding problems. This additional cost may push the project to exceed its budget.

Unnatural: Test results have been found to be insufficient to permit the project to achieve the previously estimated deadline.

Natural: Testing is behind schedule. The deadline is at risk.

The acid test: read it aloud. Do you talk like that? If not, revise.

Omit the Obvious

I saw this sign in a train station restroom recently, hanging on a stall door. It said, Toilet temporarily out of order. Of course it was temporarily out of order. It would only be sign-worthy news if it were permanently out of order.

That sign for smokers said, smoking is permitted in designated outdoor areas throughout our organization’s physical complex. Of course the designated outdoor areas were throughout our organization’s physical complex. Where else would the sign be talking about? Designated smoking areas at the nearest airport? Smoking is permitted in designated outdoor areas is plenty.

The goal is to keep your writing lean. Instead of absolutely essential, say essential. Instead of due to the fact that, just say because. Sometimes you need consensus; of course it’s a consensus of opinion. A couple more: small, not small in size and few, not small in number.

Stop Noun-izing

There’s actually a writer’s stylistic term for the problem I’m about to describe. It’s called nominalization. I prefer to call it noun-izing, when you turn a lively verb into a clunky noun. Like this:

Due to inadequate water drainage, closure of the basement is required until maintenance can be called to apply a remedy to the situation.

Wow, look at all those nouns that should be verbs. Drainage (should be drain). Closure (close). Remedy (fix).

Which gets us to this: Because water isn’t draining properly, the basement is closed until maintenance can fix the problem.

This one is a little harder to spot if you haven’t had a lot of practice. Here’s how to do it: when a sentence weighs heavy because it’s burdened by too many syllables, inventory the sentence to see how many nouns are in it. If there are a lot, transform at least one into a verb. Your reader will be glad you did (even if they’re not quite sure why they like it better).

Lead Your Reader Along: Use Headers

If you write a how-to guide, a long list of specs, or a stream-of-consciousness email, go back through it and insert headers every few paragraphs to let your reader know what each section is about. (Notice that technique in use in the very article you are now reading.)

It usually takes longer to write something short and less time to write something long. Perhaps you’ve noticed that. Benjamin Franklin once wrote a very long paper describing his experiments with electricity, which he sent to the Royal Society in London. He included an apology saying,  have already made this paper too long not having now time to make it shorter.

You no doubt have the same problem as Mr. Franklin, lacking time to revise or cut. When you don’t have time to make your writing trim and lean, at least organize the lengthy draft for your reader by inserting subject headers throughout. It’s one way to offer them some help.

Using natural English and omitting needless words are subtle ways of propelling your reader through your text. They may not even notice the techniques you’re using for their benefit. More obvious are the techniques of using headers and making sure your point is clear. They’re not only obvious; they’re simple courtesies.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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