Readers label you based on your style

I’m in Seattle at the Association for Business Communication conference. Erin Kane and I will present “Reader Perception of Workplace-Writer Attributes” this afternoon. (Our fellow researchers, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning couldn’t make the trip.)

We had more than 600 working adults in the US tell us

  1. whether they preferred the more plain or less plain version of 21 written passages
  2. what two labels described the writer of their preferred written passage
  3. what two labels described the writer of the written passage they did not prefer

Good news for those who promote a plain style in their teaching or consulting. People do think plain style is more appropriate in a routine workplace email. The plain passages were preferred 80% of the time (±3.17 at a 95% confidence level). While you might think this is obvious, we have found little research that clearly establishes the style we recommend is actually valued by workplace readers. Most existing evidence is anecdotal.

Good news for those who write in a plain style, too. For example, results for one pair of passages testing nominal usage are shown in the bar chart: 70% of our participants preferred the plainer style without nominals (“defines” over “definition”).Nominal

The writer of the plain passage was most commonly described as clear and straightforward. The writer of the passage that was NOT plain as inefficient. Telling writers that, based on empirical research, they will be labeled as “inefficient” by most workplace readers when they use nominals is qualitatively different that telling them they shouldn’t use nominals.

We have lots of interesting results to share. Some today. Some in future publications. Thanks to the ABC’s C.R. Anderson Research Fund for supporting our work.

Does essay writing help you succeed as a writer at work?

Today’s post is in honor of the National Day on Writing. U.S. students spend years writing essays. They believe they know how to write. (And also often believe that writing is meaningless.) What they do not know is that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, content) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in effective written messages. That’s called genre awareness.

The situation means you shouldn’t be surprised that workplace novices write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Many non-academics complain. Loudly. Here’s a small selection of such complaints. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

There is definitely evidence that such complaints should be interpreted carefully. (See The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education.) That doesn’t mean students gain genre awareness before they enter the work force.

Let me share a story that makes my point. [A version appeared on Pros Write a couple of years ago.] Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even seen such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion first. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical education that would lead to better workplace success!

Of course, when teachers spend time on genre awareness, they are not aiding students in their quest to ace the essay writing required for academic purposes. I mean the high stakes writing “tests” used to determine college or grad school admissions or scholarship offers. Shame on higher ed!

I salute all of those teachers who promote genre awareness just because it’s best for their students in the long run. Keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be standing beside you.

How to perform the role of “grammar checker” at work

From beauty by the geeks
From beauty by the geeks

Yesterday in “The big grammar quiz of 2014,” the UK’s Management Today published a terrific piece about grammar in workplace writing. Test yourself with their quiz. Then review your score with their key, which includes thoughtful and accurate explanations.

If you rely on Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, you will resist those explanations. But I remind readers to consider expert opinions from Geoff Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education in “50 years of stupid grammar advice” or the MIT lecture with Steven Pinker, “Communicating science and technology in the 21st century.”

If you’re still resisting, check out my post, “Do you know what you’re saying about grammar,” which expands on Jonathon Owen’s “12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar mistakes makes.” If you’re hungry for another quiz and more thoughtful explanations from an expert, head over to John McIntyre’s “A grammar quiz not for sissies.”

The message here is that helping people communicate in writing is difficult. But not because they haven’t learned a list of grammar rules. (Part of the problem is that there is no single list. To understand the scope of such rules, check out the HUGE project, a database of all English usage guides.) Helping writers is hard because effective language choices cannot be reduced to that kind of list.

Instead, the Management Today piece ends with 10 terrific tips for those whose unofficial role at work is “grammar checker.”

1) Always encourage [writers] to start by thinking about the specific audience: different readers have different needs and expectations.

2) Often, ‘grammar issues’ are actually about context. How formal does the document need to be?

3) Always seek permission to offer writing advice. Lessons remembered from schooldays are deeply ingrained and criticism may be taken personally.

4) Look stuff up – the internet is the biggest reference library in the world ( is good for grammar and usage).

5) Help people understand that there often isn’t a ‘right answer’ in grammar; it’s an untidy field that needs judgement.

6) Businesses that write a lot will need a house style to help make decisions. The online Guardian and Economist style guides are a good starting point.

7) If a senior person has a pet grammar peeve, first find out whether it’s justified – it could be. If it isn’t, try to help them over it (although you may end up having to lump it).

8) Blogs and social media are helpful for keeping up with grammar usage issues –Lingua Franca is a good place to start.

9) Some people think it’s okay to be a ‘grammar Nazi’ but, as the term suggests, it’s very unkind to the recipient. Be sympathetic.

10) Don’t forget, older people will always huff a bit about the literacy of the next generation. ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter,’ William Langland once said – and he was born in 1332.

Thanks to the authors for offering solid advice: Andrew Ingram (Better Business Writing) and Tom Freeman (The Stroppy Editor). In the spirit of promoting those with good sense, here’s the one-minute video for Andrew’s company.

Celebrating National Punctuation Day

I have been trying to avoid thinking about today’s “holiday,” but Nancy Friedman has captured my attention.  Punctuation is indeed both relevant and interesting in today’s workplace.


Friday fun with a passive quiz

passive story coverI’ve been meaning to send you over to this grammar quiz from James Harbeck. But first let me remind you to avoid listening to any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices by telling you to “avoid passives.” Here are the items you must judge as passive — or not.

  1. An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred.
  2. Palestinian boy, 10, dies as Israeli troops fire on demonstration.
  3. Boy killed in West Bank protest.
  4. It’s fashionable to make the most expressive wine possible.
  5. There should not have been any physical contact in this incident.
  6. In this final dance move, a snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore.
  7. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.
  8. Did you let him go all the way with you?
  9. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.

You’ll have to visit the quiz published by The Week to get Harbeck’s answers. They’re accurate and entertaining. What more could a word nerd want for some Friday fun? (If you like Harbeck’s style, check out Sesquiotica for more.)

How useful are readability formulas?

Not very. I read about some interesting research last spring and meant to write more about it then.  Here’s the bottom line. The researchers evaluated 9 of the most commonly used formulas. Here’s how Willingham summarizes their findings:

All of the readability formulas were more accurate for higher ability than lower ability students. But only one—the Dale-Chall—was consistently above chance.

Only the Dale-Chall predicted reading ability better than flipping a coin. Ouch!

GunningFogIndex-300x224In general, writing experts dismiss the utility of readability formulas as a means of improving the quality of writing produced in the workplace. I mentioned the range of methods for evaluating quality before. The ACM Journal of Computer Documentation dedicated an entire issue to the topic of readability to usher in the 21st millennium century (Volume 24 Issue 3, Aug. 2000). I’ve copied their table of contents with live links and available abstracts for those of you with an interest.

Table of Contents

Introduction to this classic reprint and commentaries
Bob Waite
Pages: 105-106
The measurement of readability: useful information for communicators
George R. Klare
Pages: 107-121
Readability and computer documentation
Gretchen Hargis
Pages: 122-131
Traditional readability concerns are alive and well, but subsumed within several more recent documentation quality efforts. For example, concerns with interestingness and translatability for global markets, with audience analysis and task sufficiency, and with reader appropriateness of technical text all involve readability, but often in ways not easily measured by any formula.
Readability formulas have even more limitations than Klare discusses
Janice Redish
Pages: 132-137
A literature review reveals many technical weaknesses of readability formulas (when compared to direct usability testing with typical readers): they were developed for children s school books, not adult technical documentation;they ignore between-reader differences and the effects of content, layout, and retrieval aids on text usefulness; they emphasize countable features at the expense of more subtle contributors to text comprehension.
Readability formulas in the new millennium: what’s the use?
Karen A. Schriver
Pages: 138-140
While readability formulas were intended as a quick benchmark for indexing readabilty, they are inherently unreliable: they depend on criterion (calibration) passages too short to reflect cohesiveness, too varied to support between-formula comparisons, and too text-oriented to account for the effects of lists, enumerated sequences,and tables on text comprehension. But readability formulas did spark decades of research on what comprehension really involoves.
Klare’s “useful information” is useful for Web designers
Kristin Zibell
Pages: 141-147
In many ways the writing principles that Klare recommended 37 years ago to promote high readability scores still apply to web-site design. Behind the pursuit of readability lies audience analysis, a concern with the intellectual level, previous experience, motivation, and reading goals of ones intended audience. Suitably adjusted to take account of online interactivity, those same concerns should guide design work on web structure and interfaces today.
Readable computer documentation
George R. Klare
Pages: 148-168
Arguing that current approaches to understanding and constructing computer documentation are based on the flawed assumption that documentation works as a closed system, the authors present an alternative way of thinking about the texts that make computer technologies usable for people. Using two historical case studies, the authors describe how a genre ecologies framework provides new insights into the complex ways that people use texts to make sense of computer technologies. The framework is designed to help researchers and documentors account for contingency, decentralization, and stability in the multiple texts the people use while working with computers. The authors conclude by proposing three heuristic tools to support the work of technical communicators engaged in developing documentation today: exploratory questions, genre ecology diagrams, and organic engineering.

Learn to identify needless words and promote clarity

Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2009. Oil on velvet in two parts, 125.7 x 190.5 x 4 cm. Courtesy Galerie Neslson-Freeman, Paris.
Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2009.

A couple of months back, published 10 Tips For Better Business Writing. Tip #3 was “Omit needless words.”

The author echoed the time-honored advice of William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style published by Cornell University, where he worked as an English professor, in 1919. (You may be more familiar with later editions of the book by Strunk & White.)

Sadly, as Geoff Pullam wrote in 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,

Many [recommendations] are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.)

I mean who could argue with such advice? No one. That makes it a platitude.

Fiction writers call wordy style purple prose, and WriteWorld offers these examples to clarify.

Plain: He set the cup down.
Middle Ground: He eased the Big Gulp onto the table.
Purple Prose: Without haste, the tall, blond man lowered the huge, plastic, gas station cup with a bright red straw onto the slick surface of the coffee table.

Far more than creative writers, workplace readers make fun of purple prose. And those who write it. Pros prefer the plain (concise) style over the elaborate prose of pseudo-literary geniuses.

Keep in mind that not all redundancy is bad. Over at Sentence First, editor Stan Carey notes the key is whether redundancy makes the message more meaningful or memorable. And linguist Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar reminds us that redundancy is important precisely because communication is a noisy system. The issue here is identifying which words are needless so you can get rid of them and keep only the ones that communicate your intended message to your reader.

Principles for achieving conciseness are explained in Chapter 11 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you should work through exercises in that chapter, which will help you apply the principles as you identify and fix obstacles to concise prose. Here are some additional resources to help you reduce wordiness:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary from a business plan for a non-profit. The document was created by me based on one found at, but it has been adapted specifically to help you think about conciseness in workplace documents.

  • Writer: director of a non-profit food bank
  • Reader: decision makers at philanthropic foundations
  • Bottom Line Message: provide the organization with funding because it provides important services in an effective and efficient manner

Here’s a version of that executive summary revised for wordiness.

Video Tutorial

The executive summary is included in this 11-minute video about using conciseness to create better efficiency for workplace readers.  To improve your writing efficiency, the video also clarifies the best time within the process of creating a document to think about conciseness and other stylistic features. Plus it demonstrates that conciseness promotes a more forceful and confidant tone.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with conciseness in workplace documents. Just enter the term in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might check out the following articles.

Campbell, K. S., Brammer, C., & Amare, N. (1999). Exploring how instruction in style affects writing quality. Business Communication Quarterly, 62(3), 71–86.

Fagel, S., & Westerfelhaus, R. (2005). Charting managerial reading preferences in relation to popular management theory books: A semiotic analysis. Journal of Business Communication, 42(4), pp. 420–448.

Suchan, J., & Colucci, R. (1989). An analysis of communication efficiency between high-impact and bureaucratic written communication. Management Communication Quarterly, 2(4), pp. 454–484.

How to write like a (wo)man at work

Photo Credit: 謝一麟 Chiā,It-lîn via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: 謝一麟 Chiā,It-lîn via Compfight cc

Thanks to Linguistics Research Digest for pointing me toward a recent study showing that men and women use different writing styles (word choices and sentence structures). This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the differences have been documented in speech rather than writing prior to this research. Second, and most importantly, the female writing style is made up of many signals associated with perceptions of weakness.  (This is similar to what research uncovered when comparing men’s and women’s speech styles. Like Deborah Tannen’s Talking from 9 to 5.) The bottom line for us here at ProsWrite is that it’s impossible to reach pro status as a workplace writer when you use a powerless style.  That isn’t a problem only for women. Details below.

Background first. The study asked 127 undergraduate students at a large university in the western US (split evenly by gender) to describe, in writing, each of five photographs of natural landscapes. Their responses were analyzed to identify stylistic cues that have been associated with gender (see the table). The red arrows designate cues confirmed as indicating female style and the green arrows with male style.

linguistic features by gender

Some Interpretation.   To get a better feel for how the cues associated with female style cause problems for workplace writers, I’ve created two versions of a passage from a whitepaper for a corporate client (recently drafted by a student team in something close to the female style).

Female Style

Male Style

For years the standard for delivering instructional messages has typically been through the use of words, more specifically in the form of oral demonstrations or print materials. Currently, computer technology has emerged to be a dominant force in the world. Coupled with the evolution of the average computer user transforming into a skilled manipulator of technology, the use of multimedia has established itself as a powerful tool for instructing. In effort to keep up with technology, educators from the elementary to university level have confidently employed the use of computer resources. These computer resources frequently used in classrooms, lectures, and distance learning have proven to be an important asset for comprehension and engagement. However, major corporations have yet to make short videos the norm for internal or external use. Currently, the majority of companies appear to have instructional or training pages which consist of only text. Sadly, these companies are spending a lot of money in order to provide the necessary information to their external customers and internal employees through little to no multimedia use. In order to improve, companies need to question the efficacy of this strategy and look to change how they use short videos for educational purposes. Because multimedia information can teach, assist, or instruct employees or external users to complete tasks, videos can become an impactful part of the on boarding, training, teaching, and service desk operations within an organization. Companies spend millions of dollars each year to produce text-only instructional or training pages for their external customers and internal employees. But educators have shown that multimedia, including video, enhances comprehension and engagement. Companies who are not using video for on-boarding, training, teaching, and service desk operations within an organization should rethink their strategy.

Differences in style for the two versions:

  • word count (female: 234, male: 54)
  • references to emotion (female: sadly, male: none)
  • hedges (female: appear to be, male: none)
  • references to quantity (male: millions, female: none)
  • negations (male: not using video, female: none)

To get and keep your reader’s attention in the workplace, you must write in the male style. It is perceived by readers as more powerful.  But this team of students produced a workplace document in female style. Why?  I could argue that it’s because the final editor of the document was female.  That’s true. She did alter the more male style of the initial draft created by two male team members.

But my experience tells me the most important cause is that the entire team is made up of very good students. Female style is closest to the style preferred by teachers: the academic style. And students write formal, extended text almost exclusively in school for teachers.  (They do heaps of informal and brief writing in text messages and tweets. But their purpose and audience in social media is far different than in a whitepaper.) As someone who has taught workplace writing within an educational context for 25 years, I know good students — whether male or female — tend to use a female writing style when asked to create formal, extended text. It’s all they know. When tasked with writing for a workplace audience, some make the transition to male style more easily than others. If the researchers had asked participants to write a formal, extended description of photographs, I believe they would have seen less difference in gender style.  And I suspect those differences would predict academic success more than gender.

Sadly [yes, I am referring to emotion here], morphing your academic (or female) writing style into business (or male) writing style requires significant, conscious effort.  But it can be done. I see it happen every semester.

Original Research

Mulac, Anthony, Giles, Howard, Bradac, James J. and Palomares, Nicholas A. (2013) The gender-linked language effect: an empirical test of a general process model. Language Sciences 38: 22-31

Do you know what you’re saying about grammar?

adviceDo you offer grammar advice to others? I urge you to read 12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar makes to insure you’re not repeating common mistakes. Jonathon Owen, blogger at Arrant Pedantry (and also a linguist, writer, and editor) knows what he’s talking about. To me, the most serious mistake self-proclaimed “specialists” make is Mistake #3 on Owen’s list.

The writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing.

Let’s talk about “register” for a minute. Register is a term used to refer to the way styles of language vary according to situation. Example: when stating your opinion of the new PlayStation 4, your words and their structure vary in different situations:

  1. a text to your friend (ps4 is the sh@% f#$k xbox)
  2. a conversation with your grandmother (it’s better than any other game system)
  3. an online consumer review (better gaming than Xbox)
  4. an online professional review (The PlayStation 4 is $100 cheaper than rival Xbox One and has the upper hand on indie and day one digital-only offerings.)
  5. an academic essay (Compared to Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 gaming system demonstrates critical advantages: it is less expensive, and there are more independent, as well as more digital-only, games available at the time of its release.)

The style of your language — its register — differs because the rhetorical situation (your audience, purpose, mode of delivery, etc.) differs. I’ve referred to this as code-switching in previous posts.

Back to Mistake #3. The formal writing register is the style of language preferred when writing for teachers.  That’s example 5 above. None of the other styles of language would be appropriate for use in an academic essay. But here’s my point. The style of example 5 would NOT be appropriate for any of the other four situations. (If you think the style of 5 would be appropriate for situation 4, you might need to think carefully about the audience for online reviews of gaming systems.)

As Owen wrote in the post that prompted mine:

Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.

The choice between Who did you give the book to? and To whom did you give the book? is a choice of register. Only the most formal written register includes the use of whom.

If you’re providing grammar guidance, make sure your advice takes register and genre into account. Also remember that the register of the business world is less formal than the academic register. And specific business genres can be both more formal (a white paper) and less formal (an email request to a colleague who is also a close friend) than the business register in general. Using an inappropriate register for a specific situation is a breach in manners — like wearing white shoes after Labor Day — not a breach in grammatical competence.

I’ll repeat what I wrote in Shibboleths and entering the professions: What is most sad to me is that so many people perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated — even with English degrees. They parrot memorized etiquette rules based on the language preferred by teachers. But they were denied any real language education. An education that taught them about registers and their rhetorical functions. An education that would allow them to make good judgments about the most appropriate style of language for a specific situation.

I need your help . . .

. . . to understand what influences writing quality in the workplace. Everyone has an opinion. And it usually focuses on blaming someone else. The public, through their legislators, blames educators. Educators blame legislators. Or businesses. And businesses blame both.

What truly happens? I mentioned my interest in this topic a year ago in Why hasn’t plain language become the norm. This fall, I am spending my sabbatical gathering information from workplaces to find out. I expect to spread the blame — and responsibility. This afternoon, I begin talking to people in one organization about what they’re reading and writing at work. I’ll share some of what I learn here in the months to come.

And I’m still looking for participants — especially those in non-profit organizations. The brochure shown below offers you the big picture. But you can get details from me.