In honor of International Plain Language Day, I’ll address a common concern about using plain language when writing at work. Will plain style make your audience think less of you? With my colleagues, I’ve published two studies that answer your question. The published sources are listed at the end of this post.
Study 1: U.S. workers prefer plain style in writing.
Let me start with clear evidence that plain style is preferred by readers in U.S. workplaces. We tested the preferences of 614 workers for two major style categories by showing them two short passages: one in plain style and one that was not.
We found 76% of workers preferred the plain options. This was true for all workers although a little less so for those in blue-collar jobs. Preferences were the same regardless of gender. Preference for conciseness was lowest among those who did not attend college.
I’ve summarized how we defined plain style if you’re interested.
There were four subcategories of conciseness tested with pairs of short passages.
Not plain example
Nominals (2 pairs)
The first part of this report defined a portfolio and shows how it can benefit Northern Telecom’s investment decisions.
The first part of this report provides a definition of a portfolio and how it can be beneficial to the investment decisions of Northern Telecom.
Expletives (2 pairs)
Fifteen institutions have responded, which should yield sufficient data to complete our analysis.
It is believed that the responses of the 15 institutions we have contacted so far will yield sufficient data to complete our analysis.
Non-requisites (3 pairs)
An Information Flow and Technology audit has revealed a computer problem with the reconciliation process at the end of the banking day.
An Information Flow and Technology audit has revealed that there was a computer problem with regard to the reconciliation process at the end of the banking day.
Hedges (3 pairs)
The degree of uncertainty inherent in dispersion modeling has led to overly conservative decisions about when to abort a mission.
I believe the degree of uncertainty inherent in dispersion modeling has led to overly conservative decisions about when to abort a mission.
Overall, 72.62% (95% CI [0.71–0.74]) of respondents preferred conciseness.
There were five subcategories of word choice tested with pairs of short passages.
Not plain example
Formality (3 pairs)
While working at ACE Electric, I learned much about the electrical trade and believe this experience has given me an appropriate background for the job you’re offering.
While working at ACE Electric, I learned much about the electrical trade and believe this experience has given me a good feel for the job you’re offering.
Grammar (2 pairs)
Although controlled fires are usually designed to serve a single purpose, they frequently have several benefits.
Although controlled fires are usually designed to serve a single purpose, they frequently benefit several.
Homonyms (3 pairs)
The Cahaba River site exceeds all of the minimum criteria for a wetland restoration project.
The Cahaba River cite exceeds all of the minimum criteria for a wetland restoration project.
Connotation (2 pairs)
It may take some time to gain the same product recognition in the foreign market that we have in the US.
It may take some time to gain the same product notoriety in the foreign market that we have in the US.
Jargon (1 pair)
The liquidity of assets, including the balance of the petty cash fund, should be entered in the journal.
The liquidity of assets, including the balance of the imprest fund, should be journalized.
Overall, 79.76% (95% CI [0.79–0.81]) of respondents preferred plain word choice.
Study 2: Readers perceive plain style writers as more (not less) confident and professional.
Plain style also influences how readers perceive writers. Using the same data collected from Study 1, we investigated those perceptions.
We found statistically significant evidence that writers conveyed
confidence by being concise, in particular by avoiding non-requisite words, jargon, and nominals, and by choosing words with standard/plain connotations and grammar
professionalism by avoiding non-requisite words and hedges and by using standard/plain homonyms
See sources to learn more.
Campbell, K. S., Naidoo, J. S., & Smith, J. (2021). When Your Boss Says, “You Need to Sound More Professional”: Writing Style and Writer Attributions. International Journal of Business Communication, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/23294884211025735
Campbell, K. S., Amare, N., Kane, E., Manning, A. D. & Naidoo,J. S. (2017). Plain-Style Preferences of US Professionals. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 60(4), 401-411. https://doi.org/10.1109/TPC.2017.2759621
The terrific Leslie O’Flahavan, owner of E-WRITE, and I recently held our first LinkedIn Live broadcast of Fix This Writing! Two Experts Show How to Make Bad Writing Better. Watch the recording and view the writing we discussed below.
The idea behind our broadcast is to take an example of not-very-good writing, explain why it’s not good, and show you how to fix it. We also talk about why the writer wrote it in that not-very-good way. (We’re both writing teachers, so we’ve studied why people write they way they do!) We invite our attendees to ask questions, as well as to offer their insights.
For the first broadcast, we examined the following customer support email that failed.
Our discussion began by recognizing that Jed, the writer, is probably working within a company that doesn’t support his writing skills much–or customer service in general. But we moved quickly into our primary purpose: to help Jed write a better message.
While acknowledging there are many aspects of the original email that could be fixed, I focused on what I believe are the two most important ones.
Fix #1: Make your tone helpful and friendly.
What comes first establishes the tone. I personally don’t want to be thanked when asking for help. For me, that created a negative tone in the original email. But Leslie and others more knowledgable about customer support noted this is the standard opening so I acquiesced.
I did insist that the most important fix I needed at the outset was reassurance that I would get help. In the revised email, I added “we want to help” to create a more helpful and friendly tone in the first sentence. You’ll see that I also used the contraction “we’re.” That’s another way to establish a friendly tone. Of course, casual tone of voice might not work in every organization. That’s depends on the organization’s brand voice.
Fix #2: Structure information in reader-friendly ways.
This fix is so important I might have listed it as #1! Jed’s original email included most of the information a reader needs. But it’s arranged more from his perspective than the reader’s. What the reader needs are instructions that are actionable. Here are some of the ways I altered the structure to be more reader-friendly.
Arrange information in the order that the reader needs it when acting on it. The information I labeled “OPTIONAL STEP” is frustrating (or perhaps useless) if the reader gets it after they’ve acted on the instructions. In the revised email, I moved that prerequisite information before the primary instructions.
Make action steps short and number them in a list. I revised Jed’s long sentence with three independent clauses into three, consecutively numbered action steps within a list.
Differentiate action steps from other information. In the revised email, I used capital letters as a visual cue to all steps. I also used white space to group steps that go together.
You’ll notice other fixes in the revised email. For example, the arrow shows I want to include a photo to show the reader where to find the SD card. In instructions, visual support can be critical for readers.
You’ll also see I fixed the grammar of phrasing such as “does the dash cam cannot turn on” and “…the cam stop working issue.” While it was one of the first things I noticed when reading Jed’s email, I believe the majority of customers asking for help care most about (1) getting that help, especially from someone who is friendly, and (2) understanding the help in a way that allows them to act. Whether the writer can create prose in the reader’s preferred language or style is, at best, a tertiary concern.
As a writing teacher, I’ve found that structure–arranging information–is the easiest thing to learn about pro writing. What do you think?
If you’re writing to readers from Western cultures, don’t make them wait! Western attention spans are short. We value efficiency–most of the time.
But I need to explain when efficiency is (and isn’t) paramount to offer helpful guidance. Here’s my point in this post: Delay only if your point meets all the following criteria for sensitivity:
Your primary message communicates negative news (e.g., the program announcement and rejection but not the meeting announcement found below).
That message focuses negativity primarily on the reader (e.g., the program announcement and rejection but not the apology below).
That message conveys negative news that is both personal to the reader and rare (e.g., the rejection but not like the program announcement below).
Sensitivity is the key to effective placement of your point, which I like to call the bottom line. But we need to think about sensitivity in a little detail. Keep reading for that explanation and some simple examples. If you’re not sure how to identify the bottom line in a written message, you may want to view the video tutorial in Improve Your Reader’s Efficiency before you continue.
Positive vs. Negative Messages
The first component of sensitivity is obvious. Is the bottom line negative? Consider the meeting announcement below.
The Business Communication Roundtable will meet at noon on the first Friday of every month, beginning September 6. We’re especially interested in reaching out across the University and into our community.
Bring a business communication challenge and your lunch to Bidgood Room 15. Is your challenge writing a business plan? Creating web content? Planning an elevator pitch? Communicating performance feedback? Getting people to respond to your email? Or something else? Any topic related to communication in the workplace is appropriate. Everyone with a challenge is welcome whether you are a business person, faculty member, staff member, or student.The group will share resources — and laughs.
This document conveys the bottom line: “The Business Communication Roundtable will meet at noon . . .” That bottom line communicates not negative but neutral news to its readers. (Sidebar: We are going to attempt generalizable guidance; there are always idiosyncratic situations we can think up that violate our general principles.) When the news is not negative, there is no excuse for delaying where/when the bottom line appears within the document. It should appear, as it does in the meeting announcement above, at the very beginning. That will satisfy the efficiency needs of Western readers.
Now consider the program announcement below.
TO: College Faculty and Staff FROM: Senior Associate Dean SUBJECT: Business Leadership Academy
The Business Leadership Academy has been run at a deficit since its inception. Last year the loss was approximately $55,000, which was less than many previous years. To make this endeavor self sustaining would require a significant increase in fees to the attendees. We were concerned that such a large increase in fees would reduce enrollment, resulting in even more deficits. [Administrative Finance Person] and I discussed this at length with [Faculty Leader Person] as well as alternatives to prevent further deficits. We mutually agreed that none of these would preclude deficits.
I decided that, while this program has been a great success, it did not seem prudent in a financial sense to continue this program.
The program announcement conveys the bottom line: “it did not seem prudent . . . to continue this program.” That’s negative news. The emotional response to negative news involves a process of moving from shock/surprise to acceptance. And that means it might be advisable to delay. But we have to consider more components of sensitivity to make the best choice.
Reader vs. Writer Sensitivity in Negative Messages
The second component we need to recognize is the locus of sensitivity about the negative news. Is the message negatively affecting the reader? Consider the apology email below.
TO: Volunteer Editors FROM: Director of Editorial Operations SUBJECT: Journal Schedules
I am writing to you to give you an update on the status of our journal schedules for this year’s issues. Some of you may have already been contacted individually by your staff editor regarding our ability to meet scheduled mail dates this year. Our analysis of our performance to date is disappointing at 8% of all issues mailing either on or before their scheduled date through September. This is compared with our 20% target established for this year. The majority of these delays (approx. 64%) were internal to our Operations Center, while 27% of the delays resulted from receiving material late from the Volunteer Editors. The internal delays are a result of three major challenges we’ve faced this year.
[lengthy description of the three challenges is omitted to save space]
I would like to express my apology for the internal delays and to assure you of our commitment to resolve our performance issues.
In this email, the bottom line message is “I would like to express my apology . . .” Note that it is the writer — not the reader — who is most negatively affected by that message. Apologizing can be uncomfortable to both the person offering and the person receiving the apology. But it is MOST uncomfortable for the person doing the apologizing.
So what about delaying the bottom line message? There’s no excuse for decreasing efficiency by delaying just because you, as the writer, are uncomfortable with your message. That means the writer of the apology email should not have delayed. Instead, that bottom line apology should have been stated in the first sentence or so. (As well as signaled in the SUBJECT line.)
Compare that apology email to the program announcement from above. The bottom line message, “it did not seem prudent . . . to continue this program,” is negative primarily for the readers. While the writer may have been uncomfortable making the announcement, the readers who are hearing the news are most affected because someone discontinued a program they care about. The emotional response to negative news is a process of moving from shock/surprise to acceptance. Again, it might be advisable to give readers a chance to move toward acceptance by delaying in the program announcement. But we have to consider more components of sensitivity to make the best choice.
Personal & Rare vs. Impersonal & Common Negative Messages
The final components of sensitivity relate to how personal and how rare a bottom line message is. Basically, impersonal and common messages are more likely to be perceived as neutral. In contrast, personal and rare messages are more likely to be perceived as negative (or positive). Consider the rejection email below.
Hi, [Student’s First Name].
I enjoyed meeting you last week. You certainly demonstrated skills that will be relevant to my work with First Tee of Tuscaloosa. Your out-going personality and interest in PR are valuable assets in doing this type of community outreach project.
Amazingly, another faculty scholar applicant has experience both identifying funding sources and writing grant proposals for non-profits. Because his experience is such a close match with my immediate needs, I have offered him the position.
I regret I cannot offer you a position as well. But the person I have hired will graduate next May so, if you’re still interested in a position for 2014-15, I hope we can talk again. I see a very bright future for you.
Wishing you great success,
The bottom line message is definitely a negative one: “I regret I cannot offer you a position . . .” While I, as the writer, was not happy to convey that message, the reader is more sensitive to it than I am. Most important to this post, the bottom line of the rejection email is both personal and rare for the reader. That means its bottom line is highly negative, and the reader is likely to be highly sensitive to it. As a writer, I signaled my awareness of this level of reader sensitivity by delaying my bottom line message within the document. I judged that the reader’s sensitivity to my bottom line was greater than her desire for efficiency.
Once more, let’s consider the program announcement email. It is neither personal to nor rare for the readers to hear about a program change. (The document notes that the personally affected reader was involved in the decision.) That means its bottom line is somewhat but not highly negative. That level of reader sensitivity does not ordinarily warrant a delay.
When Should You Delay?
The visual below summarizes the guidance I’ve illustrated with examples above. You can predict that, of the examples provided above, only the rejection email is highly sensitive (like “You’re fired” in the visual). It’s the only example in which you should definitely delay stating the bottom line message.
For the program announcement then, readers from Western cultures are likely to prefer efficiency. You shouldn’t delay unless you know your reader well enough to know he or she expects greater sensitivity than the average Western reader. FWIW: There is some evidence that, as a group, Western women take longer to accept bad news than Western men. Most of the relevant research on sensitivity to messages takes place in health care settings.
Here’s the program announcement, with the bottom line message in boldface below to show its location near the beginning of the document.
TO: College Faculty and Staff FROM: Senior Associate Dean SUBJECT: Business Leadership Academy
The Business Leadership Academy has been run at a deficit since its inception. Last year the loss was approximately $55,000, which was less than many previous years. I decided that, while this program has been a great success, it did not seem prudent in a financial sense to continue this program.
To make this endeavor self sustaining would require a significant increase in fees to the attendees. We were concerned that such a large increase in fees would reduce enrollment, resulting in even more deficits. [Administrative Finance Person] and I discussed this at length with [Faculty Leader Person] as well as alternatives to prevent further deficits. We mutually agreed that none of these would preclude deficits.
Placing an emphasis on efficiency in the documents you write for Western readers at work will pay big dividends. Don’t delay stating your bottom line in situations where it isn’t warranted.
The toll of so many meetings led a few companies to help employees by instituting no-meeting days. But most of us are still searching for productivity hacks so we can get our work done while also attending meetings. In this post, you’ll learn why to create a record of meetings and how to create one that supports those goals.
Why create a written record of meetings?
Some organizations create written records of meetings for legal reasons. These are usually the groups of people (boards, trustees, directors, etc.) who make decisions at corporations like Walmart and non-profits like Salvation Army. Many additional groups create records of meetings. Indeed lists three non-legal reasons:
Provide structure: Facts, decisions, votes taken, conflicts, attendees and other important details can be retrieved if needed.
Measure progress: Meeting minutes can serve as a timeline of progress on projects, efficacy of decisions, and effectiveness of team members in terms of action steps.
Determine ownership: Minutes record votes, owners of tasks and decisions.
Taking notes during a meeting is much easier if there’s an agenda and discussion follows it. The agenda contains important items beyond the obvious like the meeting location: (a) what participants are supposed to do before the meeting, (b) where participants can find resources they need to prepare for the meeting, and (c) estimates of time allocated for each topic on the agenda.
The first page of notes taken during a meeting I attended are shown below within the topics that appeared on the agenda. I want you to view the long laundry list of bullet items under the heading “Measures” in the middle of the page.
Those notes under “Measures” represent a chronological recording of the discussion. That’s all the note-taker could create during the meeting. An amateur would simply call them the meeting minutes, send them out, and call it quits.
But a pro knows better. After the meeting, a pro edits the notes into a document that captures the discussion in way that can be understood by someone who wasn’t there. Or someone who can’t remember where they put their keys last night.
Can’t technology take care of this?
There are tools that can transcribe meetings for you. Read about nine free options. Sounds like the answer to all of our productivity challenges, right?
The power of tools like Otter.ai for transcription is a given. But, as some meeting experts put it,
…leaders should make it routine to keep track of what was said — and what was meant — and to share those summaries with attendees and any relevant stakeholders who weren’t present. The point is not to capture a full play-by-play of the meeting, but rather to provide a concise synopsis of the key points and action items in a format that makes the information as accessible as possible.
Ashley Whillans, Dave Feldman, and Damian Wisniewski (Nov. 12, 2021) “The Psychology Behind Meeting Overload,” Harvard Business Review
Sadly, no one can find information efficiently in a transcript. Unedited notes are not meaningful to anyone other than the note-taker. And only briefly for him or her.
That means someone has to create minutes, which capture the meeting discussion and decisions in an efficient way for those who need to review them later. You can create minutes using notes you take or a transcript of the meeting. It’s up to you.
How do you create minutes after a meeting?
The relevant portion of the meeting minutes created from the unedited notes is shown below.
The minutes include several important revisions designed to inform the future readers more effectively and efficiently about the meeting:
The minutes are organized by topic not chronology. Only three major bullet points appear under “Measures” now. Several of the bullets from the notes were combined, and several were moved out of this heading because they represented discussion that happened while we discussed measures but which were about topics covered elsewhere in the meeting (e.g., results).
The style of the minutes focuses on meeting actions. Each major bullet point under “Measures” now begins with a past tense verb.
“Noted” is used to describe topics mentioned, usually by the meeting chair, but not discussed.
“Discussed,” on the other hand, denotes topics about which there was conversation.
Elsewhere in the minutes, there are items beginning with “Decided” to denote decisions made by the participants during the meeting.
The style of the minutes focuses on topics not people. There are no participant names in the bullet items under “Measures” because their identities are not important to the purpose of the meeting or the audience of the minutes. For this reason, others have mentioned that passive voice is useful in meeting minutes. Because participants in business meetings represent their work unit (or organization) and those units’ views are sometimes important both to capture and attribute, I might write something like: “Discussed IBA faculty’s concerns about locating individual measures of performance.” But the emphasis is still on the topic — not the people.
Note: the portion of the minutes I’ve shown you doesn’t include the all-important “Action Items” arising from the meeting. That was probably the section of most interest to participants in this case.
What else should you know?
After I created the minutes, I shared them — not the notes — with the meeting participants to invite their corrections or approval (as protocol demands). The corrected minutes were placed on the organization’s intranet where anyone could review them.
When a business professional needs to influence other people to do something not obviously beneficial to them, the pro often writes a document designed to persuade those people. That’s why we have proposals, business plans, recommendation reports, white papers, etc. Because those documents present complex information, they are often lengthy. But readers are busy! So writers need to provide their audience with a way to decide if the entire report is worth reading. And who should do that reading.
This post provides the basics for writing an executive summary. Sad to say I had to rely almost exclusively on prescriptive sources as there just isn’t any descriptive research on this (sub)genre of business reports (see below). But Lagerwerf and Bossers confirmed that decision makers were more likely to read the executive summary in business proposals than any other section.
Creating an Executive Summary
I recommend five steps to create an executive summary for a busy reader who might not assign others to think through the details.
1. Clarify your bottom line
If you’re not clear about what your reader should do after reading your report, you can bet your reader won’t be either. The one idea you want your reader to get (or the one thing you want them to do) is the bottom line message.
Yeung’s research into business reports concluded that recommendations are critical. They represent solutions to existing business problems. They support decision-making. Often, the bottom line of your report is a recommendation. That means the bottom line of your executive summary is a recommendation.
Some folks talk about the bottom line as the “big ask.” Business writing consultants at Good Copy, Bad Copy provide some good examples:
Adopt my proposed compensation scheme across the firm
Agree to my suggested strategy for the operations team
Provide the budget for the comms plan I’m presenting in the report
So before you begin writing, clearly state your bottom line. I like to write it on a post-it and attach it to my computer monitor so I can constantly remind myself what it is. It’s easy to get off track. The post-it is my guidepost as I make choices about content, organization, etc. while I write.
2. Analyze your readers
See the system I recommend. In short, you must think as objectively as possible about (1) your relationship with the audience and (2) the audience’s readiness–both their ability and their willingness–to accept your bottom line message.
3. Develop your content
This Inc. magazine piece offers a good explanation of the required content for an executive summary, as well as more and less effective examples. Here’s a further simplified approach.
Describe a problem, need or goal. The key is to describe something your reader is ready to hear with no additional explanation needed.
Describe the desired outcome. Again, the key is to BRIEFLY assure the readers you understand their wants and needs.
Describe your proposed solution. This is your bottom line: what should your reader know or do to get the desired outcome?
Support your proposed solution. You want to give your reader a limited number of specific highlights from the report. Choose those that directly support your bottom line. And choose only those that require little, if any, detailed explanation.
Let’s consider how content from two sample executive summaries matches up. Both were written for clients by a team of consultants demonstrating the value of data analytics for the clients’ organization.
Executive Summary for Report A
Executive Summary for Report B
Describing the problem, need, or goal of the reader
In the United States, Louisiana ranks highest in automobile insurance rates—this is due in part to insurance fraud. Some but not all fraud is detected.
Previous direct mail campaigns to reach new customers at Magazine Z resulted in an estimated annual net loss of $7K.
Describing the reader’s desired outcome
A technique for better detecting fraudulent claims would deter them and lower insurance rates.
A strategy for better predicting new customer response would improve return on investment.
Stating the bottom line (proposed solution)
To identify those with the highest odds of being fraudsters, drivers were ranked by modeling (1) the number of crashes, (2) the total number of not-at-fault crashes, and (3) the total number of rear-end, not-at-fault crashes.
To determine the probability of positive customer response, three campaign strategies were developed based on modeling the characteristics of the different sources of new customers.
Supporting the bottom line with specific highlights from the report
We developed our model using crash data from 1999 to 2012 from the Highway Safety Research Group. We analyzed crash characteristics of drivers involved in two-vehicle, rear-end crashes…
The model successfully detected one convicted fraudster with 69 crashes who is currently awaiting sentencing…
Each strategy involves modeling customer age and campaign month. The distribution of age showed three distinct groups. In addition, each campaign month varied wildly in success…
Using one of our model-based strategies (for hunting and fishing licenses as a source of new customers) should result in an estimated positive return of $25K annually…
In both executive summaries, the consultants began by describing an existing problem and desired outcome of interest to the client in language an executive can quickly grasp: better fraud detection in Report A and better prediction of customer response in Report B. Getting this information up front is how the consultants demonstrated they listened to their clients, and also respected their time.
Describing a problem is critical for all executive summaries because it makes explicit the connection between the detailed information in the report and the reader’s needs. Note that a 2016 report from MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS used the graphic below to demonstrate that data analytics rarely results in insights actually used to guide decision-making in organizations. I’m betting that, if analysts paid more attention to the organization’s problem/desired outcome, more of their insights would be applied.
Back to the report content in the table above… Because the bottom line for readers in both reports is similar (e.g., clients will recognize the value of data analytics for addressing their existing problems), both executive summaries focus on models created through data analysis: identifying fraudsters in Report A and predicting customer conversion in Report B.
In the remainder of both executive summaries, consultants supported their bottom line with selected details. Both provided some high-level content about their models in executive friendly language. They wisely omitted any detailed modeling information. That detail appeared within the body of the report. An executive reader could assign an in-house expert to review it but didn’t have to slog through it him/herself!
Consultants in both cases also highlighted a “sexy” finding in the executive summary: identification of an extreme and convicted fraudster in Report A and a dollar amount– estimated but positive–for the client’s ROI in Report B.
4. Organize and format your content for maximum reading efficiency
You must carefully organize and format your executive summary to make reading it fast and easy for executives (or anyone who feels the need to rush). That’s especially true if the bottom line is complex. Work on getting your bottom-line recommendation near the beginning. No executive wants to wait for the point. Or to be surprised when you state it!
Creating sub-headings is useful if your bottom line has multiple parts.
Using bullet points helps readers scan a list of short content items.
Limiting yourself to one page is more likely to achieve reader commitment.
I would add: Supporting important points with visual displays whenever possible. Compared to words alone, the image below is far more efficient in making Florence Nightingale’s point that most soldiers in the Crimean War died of preventable diseases (displayed in gray).
5. Edit carefully
Your content should be front and center. But it won’t be if your writing style or mechanics are not what your audience expects. If your style is too formal (or casual) or your subjects and verbs don’t agree in number, readers may focus on your writing instead of your content. Because not all readers have the same expectations, it’s easier to edit for readers you know well. For instance, while most readers don’t notice passive voice at all, a few are downright offended by it. If you know your executive readers well, edit your word choices and sentence structure with them in mind.
At a minimum, make sure you, or a qualified colleague, remove all non-standard spelling/typos and inconsistencies in your document. They reduce your authority. And that’s not going to help you persuade your readers to do anything that’s not obviously beneficial to them.
Evaluating a Complete Executive Summary
Let’s look at a complete executive summary. I’ve chosen one somewhat randomly titled “Economic Impacts of the Louisiana Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit” prepared in 2015.
Writer: consultants at HR&A Advisors, Inc. in New York, NY
Readers: clients who commissioned the report were Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association (LFEA) and Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA)
Bottom line message: the Credit has had a positive economic and unclear fiscal impact on the state
As background, I should note the report is 69 pages long with five major sections:
Introduction (pp. 7-11)
The Louisiana Motion Picture and Television Industry (pp. 13-25)
Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism in Louisiana (pp. 26-32)
Economic Impact Analysis (pp. 33-41)
Fiscal Impacts of Production Spending and Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism (pp. 42-43)
It also includes a technical (pp. 44-50) and a general (pp. 51-68) appendix, as well as disclaimers (p. 69). (If you’re interested, access the complete report.)
Clearly, the report’s length made an executive summary a requirement. As you can see below, the executive summary itself occupies roughly 1 and 1/3 pages (664 words).
If the writers had shared their draft with me before sending it to the intended readers (the clients who commissioned the report), I would offer the following observations.
My first point is that the content of most interest to readers is not at the beginning. Instead, it appears under the heading, “Summary of Findings.” The heading is definitely helpful in pointing readers to what they want. However, why place two full paragraphs of detail before the information of most interest to readers? To make matters worse, the first paragraph provides no information that would be new to the intended readers. Instead, it seems to be directed at a different audience. That’s a signal it doesn’t belong first in the executive summary.
The second paragraph may provide information that would be useful to some intended readers. But its primary value is as a means of organizing the bottom line about findings.
That brings me to my second point: the content of most interest is not organized for efficient comprehension. You may object by noting the writers used bullet points. In this case, however, those bullets signify nothing more than a little white space at the beginning of a paragraph would. Readers have to read every word of every bullet in order to get the meaning.
Consider how much more impact the bottom line would have if it looked something like what I created below in a revised version of the original executive summary, which is half the length of the original (329 words).
In the revised version, I organized the bottom line findings to make them easier to scan. The second and third paragraphs now begin with the bottom line of the content that follows. (Think topic sentences.) Plus, I highlighted specific findings in a table with bullets and parallel content/form.
Note I also created some content at the beginning as my guidance above recommends. The document now describes a problem (i.e., impact of the Credit is undocumented) and a desired outcome (i.e., measurements of impact will determine the Credit’s value). I hope my readers agree that the revised version is more executive friendly.
As always, your comments are welcomed.
Here are some sources that support my guidance on writing executive summaries.
Clayton, J. (2003). Writing an executive summary that means business.Harvard Management Communication Letter, 6, 3-4.
Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.
Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.
Roach, J., Tracy, D., & Durden, K. (2007). Integrating business core knowledge through upper division report composition. Business Communication Quarterly, 70, 431-449.
Van Nus, M. (1999). Business genres and their corporate context. Document Design, 1, 187-197.
Yeung, L. (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 156-179.
Here are some common workplace issues that are one focus for my technical editing students this week.
Content Collaboration #1
You’ve just started work on a document and are gathering information to include from several individuals who represent different departments at your organization. You get a response from three individuals.
Individual A suggests deleting an entire section of content.
Individual B sends you a report with information that will create an entirely new section of content.
Individual C gives you a thoroughly copyedited document, with punctuation, grammar, and other mechanical revisions.
Individual C has wasted time copyediting content that has been deleted. If you multiply this wasted time across the work of individuals throughout an entire organization, even a small one, you have identified a tremendous source of inefficiency.
Content Collaboration #2
You’ve been working on a document for months. It’s been reviewed by multiple individuals, representing various departments, and you are now seeking final approvals.
Individual D suggests deleting an entire section of content.
Individual E provides you with an entirely new section of content.
Individual F gives you a thoroughly copyedited document, with punctuation, grammar, and other mechanical revisions.
The actions of individuals D and E are the source of your frustration. They should have provided these changes in earlier reviews.
A 2018 industry study found that collaborating on workplace documents was one of American businesses most broken processes. To reduce inefficiency and frustration, you can adopt tools designed for content collaboration. But understanding what professional editors call “levels of edit” will help regardless of your tool. Read on for an explanation.
A Primer on Levels of Edit
I’m going to start with a little background, so skip ahead if that doesn’t interest you today.
Most of us recognize the origin of levels of edit as the result of a publication by two technical editors named Robert Van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler from the Jet Propulsion Lab under a NASA contract , which was published in 1980.
JPL Editorial Work Types
Level 1 Edit
Level 2 Edit
Level 3 Edit
Level 4 Edit
Level 5 Edit
Here’s how they differentiated between levels of edit.
In a Level 5 edit, the editor verifies that JPL policy has not been violated, routes the manuscript through the various production processes and performs a liaison function between the author and publications personnel… [T]he editor, performing a Level 3 edit, will be required to clarify the copy for the compositor and to indicate the format… And in a Level 1 edit, the full range of editorial capabilities is applied to produce a first-class publication.
The JPL system is specific to an organization and a genre. Let me introduce a more generic and simpler system that categorizes editorial activities.
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about the types of content that are relevant to this post. I’m focused only on workplace or professional contexts. Some, but not all, of what I have to say is relevant in the context of book or periodical publishing.
Structural editing is assessing and shaping material to improve its organization and content often communicated to an author in an email or meeting.
Stylistic editing is clarifying meaning, ensuring coherence and flow, and refining the language often marking up the author’s digital file, for instance, using tracked changes and inserting comments in Microsoft Word.
Copyediting is ensuring correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness, usually done in the same way as stylistic editing.
Proofreading is examining material after layout or in its final format to correct errors in textual and visual elements often marking up “special” files like a PDF produced from Adobe InDesign for a production professional.
The different levels of edit actually define the different types of professional editors.
How could applying the levels of edit increase efficiency and reduce frustration in the situations described at the top of this post?
When sending material, give people instructions like these:
Please respond by supplying or correcting information. You can email me or send me documents with information that is needed. You can also insert comments into the document file. Turn on tracked changes if you add information directly into the body of the document.
You may also suggest reorganizing content. Please do not focus on wording or mechanics or format at this stage. You’ll have the opportunity to help with this after the content and organization are finalized.
Levels of edit applied in Content Collaboration #1
To save time and frustration when collaborating with others during content production, make sure people know what level of edit you’re requesting. Be explicit. You may have to provide a couple of examples (e.g., a “do this” and “don’t do this”). What directions would you provide for Content Collaboration #2?
Ideally, you would get together with all of the stakeholders and agree to a review process that assigns the appropriate levels of edit to each collaborator. If you can’t make that happen, you can still use levels of edit to make your workplace collaborations less frustrating.
Buehler, M. F. (1988). The Levels of Edit as a Management Tool. IPCC ’88 Conference Record ‘On the Edge: A Pacific Rim Conference on Professional Technical Communication’., doi: 10.1109/IPCC.1988.24000.
I’m back (after an extreme hiatus from blogging). Because I’m teaching a new graduate course on style for technical writers, I thought I’d share some of the content I’ve been developing here. If you’d rather watch/listen than read, here’s my 19-minute lecture.
Should professional technical communicators still care about writing style?
Despite the fact that technical communicators do far more than write, there’s evidence that writing skill remains a critical competency. That includes the ability to alter style by manipulating language at the word- and sentence-level. In fact, there’s some evidence that the blending of marcomm (marketing communications) and techcomm (technical communication) within many organizations makes this skill more important than ever. See the results of Lanier’s survey of STC members from a few years ago.
What is the standard for effective writing style for technical content?
I ask my students to review three sources at the beginning of the course to get them thinking about the answer to this question.
First, I have them watch parts 1 through 3 of the video, UX Foundations: Style Guides and Design Systems, from LinkedIn Learning. Many of our students want to work in UX (user experience) after graduation and most will work with UX professionals. That makes it important to understand what UX has to say about style and standards.
Third, I tell them to study the Mailchimp Content Style Guide. This guide/standard is often held up as an exemplar in the world of web content and UX writing because of its success in establishing a clear brand. They published the 1st version on GitHub in 2015 to make it available to others under a Creative Commons license. Many web content developers have adapted it for their own use.
After reviewing these sources, students should reach several conclusions about the standard for effective writing style for technical content:
The terms “style” and “style guide” mean something different to different groups of people.
Writing standards are created by people who create and distribute content. They are not handed down from the gods.
Organizations create standards to consistently influence the way its employees portray it and the way it is ultimately perceived by the audiences of their communications.
There is no single, correct standard for anything related to writing style.
Let me say a little more about that last point. Here’s an example I share with students.
Chicago Manual of Style
Microsoft Writing Style Guide
A number of expressions are almost always abbreviated, even in regular prose, and may be used without first spelling them out. Many of these will be listed . . . in the latest edition of Webster’s . . .
Some acronyms, like USB, FAQ, and URL, are more well known than the spelled-out term. Don’t spell out the term if the acronym is listed in The American Heritage Dictionary . . .
Chapter 13: Quotations and Dialogue with 8 subheadings
83 words about pull quotes only
Section: Chatbots and Virtual agents with 4 subheadings
Demonstrating the lack of a single set of standards for all content
These examples show how standards differ. First, both Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Microsoft Writing Style Guide (MWSG) allow authors to use well-known acronyms (or other abbreviations) without spelling them out the 1st time in certain cases where the acronym is considered equivalent to a word. But CMoS refers to Webster’s dictionary and MWSG refers to American Heritage to determine which acronyms are in their list.
In another comparison, CMoS includes an entire chapter on the use of quotations and dialogue, whereas MWSG includes just a few words about the use of pull quotes–the stylized text used as a type of visual to pull readers into the content. On the other hand, MWSG includes an entire section on standards for chatbots, while a search of CMoS finds no relevant content.
Content creators must first know which guide applies to the material they’re creating. If you’re working on fiction, CMoS will include essential standards for your edits. If you’re working on a chatbot, however, it will be mostly worthless because it doesn’t address the standards relevant to your material.
There is also a lot to say about defining style vs. voice vs. tone. That’s coming soon. I look forward to sharing what comes next in our quest to master writing style for technical content over the coming weeks!
References to learn more
Here are the references I offer students in this first module of the course, many of which are mentioned in my lecture.
Since 2010, the Center for Plain Language annually judges the quality of content produced by US government agencies. The results for 2017 are shown below.
I love these report cards for several reasons but chief among them is that they use an evidence-based approach. On a shoestring budget. Most complaints about content quality are vague. But the Center describes the methods used to evaluate quality. You can read the details in their white paper.
In the past, I’ve used their white papers to introduce the field of technical communication to college students. I encourage others to do the same. Thanks to the volunteers at the Center, who share their work with the world and keep our public servants accountable.
This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.
Insure vs. Ensure
On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,
I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.
This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.
My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)
My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:
to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)
Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”
There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained
I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.
The use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.
As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.
Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.
You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness
The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.
Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.
The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.
This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.
Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,
Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.
I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.
You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.
The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.
The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules. I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).
John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.
Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day. As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.
As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”
5 Lessons for Editors
Authors own their texts.
No editor can ever stop looking things up.
Editors must continue to improve their craft.
Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.
For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing, here are some of my favorite sources: