Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

schoolmarmNo grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.

and

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 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’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • 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 other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.

Learn to analyze a workplace audience to deliver an effective message

Know your audience. This would count as a platitude for good writing without some specifics. So this post provides a specific system for analyzing a workplace audience. That system requires writers to assess two aspects of their situation–the context of their message:  (1) their relationship with the audience and (2) their audience’s readiness to accept the message.

An earlier post used the example of writing a letter soliciting sponsorships for First Tee of Tuscaloosa from local businesses. Here’s what I wrote about audience readiness in that situation.

  1. How much expertise do readers have about the message? For the entire group of readers, the writer guessed there was moderately low knowledge of First Tee, especially of its goals (which focus on life skills rather than golf). This meant the letter has to educate or inform the audience.
  2. How sensitive are readers to the message? Overall, the writer predicted moderately low sensitivity because the sponsorships were cheap and included advertising at the First Tee site and events. But the writer still had to persuade them to act.

As another illustration of the importance of readiness, check out these examples used by Victor Yucco in Framing effective messages to motivate your users.

Today’s mortgage APR: 3.75% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. Save today!

Many, although not all, North American readers are able to understand the message. For those who don’t, additional informative content is needed like a definition for the abbreviation or a comparison of fixed versus variable mortgages.

But even for those who comprehend the message, they may not be willing to accept it. That’s why Yucco presents the following version as an improvement.

Today’s mortgage APR is at an all time low of 3.75%. Complete our pre-qualification form now to lock in this rate. This rate would save you enough money on a $250,000 loan over 20 years to send your child to college when compared to an increase of just 1%, which could happen at any time.

To address audience willingness, the writer created persuasive content, such as emphasizing the need to act now and describing the financial gain from doing so with an example of significance to the target audience.  (Yucco summarizes research on framing based on health research–see below.)

My point here is that an audience must be ready–both able and willing–to accept a message. If you haven’t analyzed your audience’s readiness, your message is likely to be ineffective. The same is true for your need to reflect on your relationship with the audience before you write.

Audience analysis in a workplace setting is explained in Chapter 2 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’ll find many exercises that require you to analyze a workplace audience and consider the implications for creating a written message. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document
  • two brief video tutorials
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

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

Sample Document

Review the abatement notice created by me for instructional purposes based on information available from Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

  • Writer: the owner of a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s employees and OSHA officials
  • Bottom Line Message: three hazards identified during an OSHA inspection have been addressed

Video Tutorials

I’ve split the video tutorial on audience into two, shorter ones. The abatement notice is included in both.

Related Readings

There aren’t many posts here at Pros Write that don’t deal with audience. If you enter “audience” in the search field near the top of this page, you’ll get about 10 results. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, there are countless possibilities. You might begin with the following sources.

Austin et al. (2009). Using framing theory to unite the field of injury and violence prevention and response: “Adding Power to Our Voices.” Social Marketing Quarterly,
15(S1), 35-54.

Hersey & Blanchard (1988). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Prentice Hall.

Hofstede (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage.

Create logical flow between sentences to promote accurate and efficient reading

I have argued that sentence variety is the enemy of efficiency. People read more accurately and efficiently when all the elements of a document are tightly connected. This includes the connection between consecutive sentences. I refer to this as cohesion (sometimes referred to as Functional Sentence Perspective by linguists).

My experience is that most adults are able to create cohesive prose at the sentence level without explicit instruction. But, for those without this skill, the problem is truly critical. Their readers struggle to read their prose and make comments about awkwardness, lack of logical “flow,” or–the most damning–the quality of the writer’s education. The kicker is that few writing teachers I’ve known understand how to help. Responding as a reader or editor is not the same as teaching.

Cohesion is briefly explained in Chapter 8 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’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with the logical flow of information. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • 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 there’s something else you’d like to see.

Sample Document

Review a copy of the letter to a supplier. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics (forestethics.org). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with more effective cohesion.

Video Tutorial

The letter to a supplier is included in this <12-minute video about cohesion in workplace documents.

For more on flow, check out this video from the writing center at the University of North Carolina.

Related Readings

There are not many posts here at Pros Write that deal with cohesion because it is relatively rare problem for adult native English speakers.  If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clark, H. H., & Haviland, S. E. (1977). Comprehension and the given-new contract. Discourse Production and Comprehension. Discourse Processes: Advances in Research and Theory1, 1-40.

Crossley, S. A., Allen, D., & McNamara, D. S. (2012). Text simplification and comprehensible input: A case for an intuitive approach. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 89-108.

Kopple, W. J. V. (1982). Functional sentence perspective, composition, and reading. College composition and communication, 50-63.

Choose your words carefully — when it counts

Which should you write: “Jane is an adequate team member” or “Jane is an OK team member”? The adjectives in the two options are synonyms.  So how do you choose? Are you wondering about “OK” in a written message at work?

Here’s a list of readers’ attributions made about writers based on a choice to use one of two different words in a workplace email. (These were collected during our own current research project.):

  • unsure
  • reserved
  • vague
  • passive
  • insecure
  • timid
  • confused
  • wordy
  • uncertain
  • showoff

So how much does it really matter whether you choose “adequate” or “OK”?  The answer is a lot. Sometimes.

As I wrote in The psychology of word choice, a writer has two options when deciding whether to use a word s/he has recognized as “questionable”:

  1. To satisfice by deciding the benefits of using it outweigh the costs
  2. To optimize by deciding to search for a better word

No doubt satisficing is the choice when speed is critical to the writer. Optimizing is worthwhile only when the cost of choosing the questionable word is significant enough to trump speed.

Here’s an example from the video tutorial on word choice you’ll find below. The word choice in question is “peril.” It denotes the same meaning as “danger” or “risk,” but also connotes the sense of life and death. There is simply no way to make a good choice without thinking about the context in which the word is being used. In this case, a technology consultant is writing a recommendation report to finalize his work for a client. Because of the connotation of “peril,” its use is questionable in the document. And because the writer wants to convey an impression of himself as careful, accurate, etc. to his client, he decides to optimize by searching for a better word.

Here’s another example involving the choice between “peril” or “risk.” In this situation, however, a technology consultant is writing an email to a friend and colleague about the client project.  The use of “peril” is still questionable. Because the writer is busy with more important things and isn’t worried about his friend’s impression of him as careful, accurate, etc. in this situation, he decides to satisfice by leaving the word in his email. The cost of searching for a different word in this context is too great.

Language choices cannot be accurately described as right/wrong.  They are ALWAYS more/less appropriate for or successful in a specific rhetorical context. You need to think strategically about whether you will ignore the cost, the speed, or the quality for every document you create. You can’t deliver all three. Don’t feel guilty about satisficing when the situation calls for it.

But keep in mind that everything you write — even the dozens of daily emails — has consequences for your reader, your organization, and you. Just think carefully BEFORE you satisfice!

Principles for optimizing word choice are explained in Chapter 14 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition).You’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix problems with your choice of words in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

  • 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 more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from a recommendation report based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook. It has been adapted specifically to explore how pros choose words in workplace documents. I summarize the rhetorical context as:

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a commercial brewing company
  • Bottom Line Message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of that report excerpt with better word choice.

Video Tutorial

The recommendation report excerpt is included in this ~10-minute video about choosing words for workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with word choice in workplace documents. You can search for “word choice” or more specific topics like “jargon.” There are zillions of studies of the effects of word choice on readers. You could start with the following sources, which provide support for my guidance.

Biber & Conrad (2009). Register, Genre, and Style. Cambridge University Press.

Bremner (2012). Socialization and the acquisition of professional discourse: A case study in the PR industry. Written Communication, 29, pp. 7-32.

Thrush (2001). Plain English? A study of plain English vocabulary and international audiences. Technical Communication, 48(3), pp. 289-296.

Zhang (2013). Business English students learning to write for international business: What do international business practitioners have to say about their texts? English for Specific Purposes, 32(3), pp. 144-156.

Lead your reader through your content with transitions

leader_mazeReaders understand a message better when writers use explicit signals of what they want readers to get out of a document. Transitions like “unfortunately” are one type of explicit signal. (Headings are another — see Think long-term and be kind to readers with well-formatted documents.) In fact, transitions are also sometimes called logical connectives. Maybe that makes their function more obvious.

Consider two versions of an excerpt from Costco’s 2011 Summary Plan Description (SPD).

For those who don’t enter revised elections within the 30 day deadline, certain automatic changes will apply. If you have declined healthcare you will not be automatically enrolled. If you do have healthcare coverage and you are:

  • Reclassified from “full-time” to “part-time,” your current medical plan will switch to Choice Plus for Part-Time Employees (HMSA HMO in Hawaii). If you’re currently in the Premium Dental Plan, you will switch to the Core Dental Plan.
  • Reclassified from “part-time” to “full-time,” your current medical plan will switch to Choice Plus for Full-Time Employees but you will continue to be covered by Core Dental.

When your status changes, your Life and AD&D Insurance coverage will change to the level available to other Employees with the same benefit status and years of Service as you.

For those who don’t enter revised elections within the 30 day deadline, certain automatic changes will apply. For example, if you have declined healthcare you will not be automatically enrolled. However, if you do have healthcare coverage and you are:

  • Reclassified from “full-time” to “part-time,” your current medical plan will switch to Choice Plus for Part-Time Employees (HMSA HMO in Hawaii). If you’re currently in the Premium Dental Plan, you will switch to the Core Dental Plan.
  • Reclassified from “part-time” to “full-time,” your current medical plan will switch to Choice Plus for Full-Time Employees but you will continue to be covered by Core Dental.

Also, when your status changes, your Life and AD&D Insurance coverage will change to the level available to other Employees with the same benefit status and years of Service as you.

The version at right, with those three transitions I’ve highlighted in red, will increase comprehension of the content over the version at left.  Why should Costco care?  Because U.S. (ERISA)  law requires that employers deliver SPDs that explain employee benefits “in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant.”

Transitions are briefly explained in Chapter 9 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter that help you to identify opportunities to use transitions to control a reader’s interpretation in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources to help you learn about their use:

  • 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 better resources.

Sample Document

Review the executive summary for a consultant’s report. The document was adapted for instructional purposes from a report produced by TishlerBise.

  • Writer: employees of the planning consultant
  • Readers: representatives of the city of Orange Beach, as well as interested citizens and businesses
  • Bottom Line Message: specific fees on real estate development are recommended to support municipal services on newly developed land

Here’s a revised version of the executive summary with more effective transitions.

 

Video Tutorial

The executive summary is used in this 12-minute video about transitions in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are a couple of posts here at Pros Write that deal with transitions . Just enter the term in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, start with the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

 Chung (2000). Signals and reading comprehension — theory and practice. System, 28, pp. 247-259.

Get clear about your purpose before you write for workplace readers

Speedometer - Reaching Your GoalPro workplace writers are strategic. Period.

They begin a document with a predetermined goal and a plan for achieving it. Bryan Garner, author of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, makes the point when he says,

Many people begin writing before they know what they’re trying to accomplish. As a result, their readers don’t know where to focus their attention or what they’re supposed to do with the message.

You may think you have to write to know what you want to say. That’s fine. As long as you understand that sort of writing is just for you. It might count as a very rough draft. But it’s not for an audience. It’s expression. Not communication. The contrast between the two has occupied those interested in the arts as well as in communication for eons.

The downside to being a strategic writer, like being a strategic business leader, is a committment to spend time planning before you act and then holding yourself accountable while you do. With each email, proposal or report you create, you have to decide how important its effectiveness is to you and the organization you represent.

At this point, I have to remind you that no document can be fast, cheap, and good. When the cost/benefit of a document matters, you have to be strategic by planning. (See how intense planning a short document can be by reading about how much planning went into creating a mortgage disclosure form.) Getting clear about your purpose is a critical part of planning.

Purpose is explained in Chapter 1 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you identify purposes for writing in different workplace situations. But here are some additional resources to help you learn more about this aspect of writing like a pro:

  • a sample document
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this email created by me based on an actual student’s response to an assignment from a 1999 textbook titled, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell. I’ve adapted it specifically to help your think about purpose in workplace documents. A few details about the context of the document:

  • Writer: a project manager for a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s owner
  • Bottom line message: one project is over budget and behind schedule

 

Video Tutorial

The email and some other examples are included in the 8-minute video below. This is my second attempt at a PowToon video so I welcome comments about how well it works.

Related Readings

There are a handful of posts here at Pros Write that deal with purpose in workplace documents. Just search for “purpose” or “planning” in the field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (2015). Thinking and interacting like a leader: The TILL system for leadership communication. Chicago: Parlay Press.

Quinn et al. (1991). A competing values framework for analyzing presentational communication in management contexts. Journal of Business Communication28, pp. 213232.

Think long-term and be kind to readers with well-formatted documents

It’s something of a paradox. But the space you leave blank in your documents matters.  Compare these two forms discussed in an article about the importance of white space by the Nielsen Norman Group. (They help clients make users of their websites, applications, and products happier.) As the article says,

The recreated Walgreens.com registration form (right) is easier to complete than the original (left) because related fields are grouped together, making it seem like 3 short forms.

Source: Nielsen Norman Group based on a Walgreens web form
Source: Nielsen Norman Group based on a Walgreens web form

Now you may say that the difference between the two forms is too small to worry with. But, if your reader has to stop to think about what you mean or what to do, they may quit reading.  Small changes matter when you’re competing for readers’ attention with everything else available to them!

If your audience must read your document, then you haven’t been kind. And they’ll reciprocate. Trust me.

White space — along with other categories of document format like typeface — is briefly explained in Chapter 10 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’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with document format. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • 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 helpful resources.

Sample Document

Review the glossary on page 6 of this technology consultant’s report. The document was created by me based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Textbook for Technical Writing to show ineffective formatting.

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a brewing company
  • Bottom line message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of the glossary, with more effective format.

 

Video Tutorial

The glossary (along with other examples from the consultant’s report) is included in this ~13-minute video about format in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with format . Just enter “format” or more specific terms (e.g., typeface or white space) in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, there is a wealth of possibilities. You might begin investigating with the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Reichenberger et al. (1995). Effective presentation of information through page layout: A linguistically-based approach. Proceedings of ACM Workshop on Effective Abstractions in Multimedia, Layout and Interaction, San Francisco, California.

Riley & Mackiewicz (2010). Visual composing: Document design for print and digital media. Prentice Hall Press.

Schriver (1997). Dynamics in document design: Creating text for readers. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Use parallel structure in lists to increase reading efficiency

Source: sensingarchitecture.com/tag/gestalt-principles/
Source: sensingarchitecture.com/tag/gestalt-principles/

Those offering advice to professionals who write have long suggested that similar ideas should appear in similar (or parallel) form. In fact, the advice appears in one of the earliest business writing textbooks, first published in the U.S. in 1916. But I’m committed to offering you guidance for writing successfully at work based on quality evidence about the effects of writing choices on workplace readers. Not on tradition. Not (only) on my personal experience. Not even on my own pet peeves. I’m a descriptive — not prescriptive — linguist.

That preamble signals that I had to tweak my recommendations for using parallel structure based on some recent research I learned about last fall. Parallel structure definitely appears to make reading more efficient. And, when combined with the use of a stacked list, it also enhances recall of information. But there appear to be limits to its effectiveness: do not use parallelism alone within a paragraph format to improve accurate identification and recall of information.

Parallelism is explained in Chapter 12 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). But the newest research won’t appear there until we publish the next edition. If you’re using that book in a formal setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix parallelism problems in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

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

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from the Report on Economic Recovery from Disasters prepared by Entergy, America’s Wetland Foundation, and American’s Energy Coast (entergy.com). and adapted by me for instructional purposes.

  • Writer: Entergy employees with input from individuals at America’s Energy Coast, America’s Wetlands Foundation. and Swiss Re
  • Readers: a diverse group of stakeholders along the energy Gulf Coast in the US
  • Bottom Line Message: quantitative measures of economic risks associated with climate hazards

Here’s a revised version of that document excerpt with parallel structure.

Video Tutorial

The report excerpt is included in this ~11-minute video about parallelism in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are a few posts here at Pros Write that deal with parallelism in workplace documents. My first book used principles from Gestalt psychology like similarity to explain effective document design. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you could start with the following sources.

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (October, 2013). Grammatical and visual parallelism in business communication pedagogy. Association for Business Communication Convention, New Orleans, LA.

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (2013). A Unified Theory of Information Design: Visuals, Text & Ethics. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Campbell, K.S. (1995). Coherence, Continuity & Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pickering, M. J., & Ferreira, V. S. (2008). Structural priming: A critical review. Psychological bulletin134(3), pp. 427.

Insure readers understand your message with the right content

Workplace readers often say they want short documents. But shorter doesn’t always equal an easier reading experience. Consider these jury instructions:

A fact is established by direct evidence when proved by documentary evidence or by witnesses who saw the act done or heard the words spoken. A fact is established by circumstantial evidence when it may be fairly and reasonably inferred from other facts proved.

Got that? Here’s a revised version of the same content:

Direct evidence means a fact was proved by a document, by an item, or by testimony from a witness who heard or saw the fact directly. Indirect evidence means the circumstances reasonably suggest the fact. Indirect evidence means that based on the evidence, you can conclude the fact is true. Indirect evidence is also called “circumstantial evidence.”

For example, suppose a witness was outside and saw that it was raining. The witness could testify that it was raining, and this would be direct evidence. Now suppose the witness was inside a building, but the witness saw people walking into the building with wet umbrellas. The witness could testify that it was raining outside, and this would be indirect evidence.

juryWhen these two versions were tested in a mock trial, the jurors who received the longer version thought it was simpler than those who got the shorter version. And the group with the longer version also scored better on comprehension questions about the content of the instructions. So shorter isn’t necessarily better.

If you haven’t spent much time in a white-collar workplace yet, you likely have little experience writing for readers who know less than you do. Instead, you’ve delivered documents to teachers, who normally know more than you about your content. Plus teachers are obligated to read whatever students write. I promise that won’t be the situation at work! You will have to carefully develop the right information to make your message clear to workplace readers. You’ll have to know your audience well enough to predict what information they need.

Developing informative prose (that means definitions, comparisons, examples, etc.) is briefly explained in Chapter 3 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in an academic setting, you’ll find tons of exercises in that chapter. They’ll help you practice identifying and fixing problems with the supporting details in professional texts. Here are some additional resources:

  • 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 you want to suggest how to make the resources more useful.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary for a business plan adapted by me based on a sample available from the Center for Business Planning (businessplans.org).

  • Writer: the owner of a manufacturing company
  • Readers: potential investors (like venture capitalists)
  • Bottom line message: the company is a good investment because they’ve got an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand

Here’s a revised version of that executive summary with better content development.

Video Tutorial

The business plan’s executive summary is included in this video about informing readers in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a guide to the essentials, which takes ~13 minutes.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with developing effective information for workplace documents. Enter “information” 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 sources.

Garrison, L. et al. (2012). Designing evidence-based disclosures: A case study of financial privacy notices. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer, pp. 204–234.

Holmes-Rovner, M.et al. (2005). Evidence-based patient choice: A prostate cancer decision aid in plain language. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 5(1), pp. 16.

Schiess, W. (2008). The Texas pattern jury charges plain-language project: The writing consultant’s view. Clarity, 60, pp. 23-27.

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, Forbes.com 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 Bplans.com, 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.