Fat-free writing (more on plain English)

Plain English Guidelines: Keep sentences short

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Over the whole document, make average sentence length 15 to 20 words. Muddle is more likely in a long sentence, unless the construction is simple and well-organised. Learning to cut repetition and verbiage, using lists and headings properly, and shortening sentences can make the world of difference to your writing.

For example:

(1) Split and disconnect—Full stops enable readers to digest your latest point and prepare for the next. Compare these two statements:

  • I understand that some doctors making night calls have been attacked in recent months on the expectation that they were carrying drugs and their caution when visiting certain areas in the south of the city has been very exacting and has even included telephoning the address to be visited from their car when they arrive outside the house.
  • I understand that some doctors making night calls have been attacked in recent months on the expectation that they were carrying drugs. Their caution when visiting certain areas in the south of the city has been very exacting. It has even included telephoning the address to be visited from their car when they arrive outside the house.

(2) Say less – Sometimes a sentence is lengthened by needless repetition. Compare these two letters:

Dear Sirs

Trial of John Smith and James Jackson

Trade Descriptions Act 1968, Manchester Crown Court, 10.30 a.m.

Tuesday 7 June 2000

The above defendants are to be tried at Manchester Crown Court on Tuesday 7 June 2000 at 10.30 a.m. for several offences under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 concerning the supply of motor vehicles to which false trade descriptions had been applied.

Dear Sirs

Trial of John Smith and James Jackson

Trade Descriptions Act 1968, Manchester Crown Court, 10.30 a.m.

Tuesday 7 June 2000

The above defendants are to be tried for several offences concerning the supply of motor vehicles to which false trade descriptions had been applied.

Source: Oxford Dictionaries Online

Fat-free writing

Some words add instant girth to your writing and slow readers to a crawl. The problem? Noun* Addiction.

Too many nouns:

  • “The effect of the overuse of nouns in writing is the placing of excessive strain upon the inadequate number of verbs and resultant prevention of the flow of thought.” [29 words]
  • Nouns changed to verbs: “Using too many nouns in writing strains verbs and prevents the flow of thought.” [14 words]

See how the second one is much clearer, and only half as long? Look anywhere in corporate Australia, and you’ll see nouns not only lurking in people’s writing, but flagrantly flaunting their fleshy rumps. What’s wrong with nouns?

Nouns are things. They sit there lazily, doing nothing. Oh, they seem innocent, but be warned — use too many and your readers will beg for mercy…or press “delete.” The solution?

Verbs. They’re actions. Something’s happening. It’s the difference between a photo and a movie. Nouns make your writing fat (long), boring and vague, while verbs keep it short and lively. So…go the verbs!

  • Noun: A thing, quality, place or person. E.g. car, happiness, neighbour.
  • Verb: An action. E.g. run, think, drive.

Source: Magneto

Examples

He discussed specific examples of designing analysis tools with consideration of possible future factors that may need to be taken into account so that if such contingencies arise they are easily incorporated into the model being used.

Replace with:

  • He discussed specific examples of designing analysis tools, with consideration for contingencies and a willingness to incorporate changes.

He may have some difficulty attuning his leadership approach to individual employees, and possibly taking behaviour at face value rather than making an effort to understand underlying motives and feelings.

Replace with:

  • He may have some difficulty attuning his leadership approach to individual employees. As such, he may at times take behaviour at face value, rather than making an effort to understand underlying motives and feelings.

Here are some examples of cutting the diamond to sparkle more brightly (taken from consultant reports):

  • Rather than repeating a basic report created for a customer in previous years, he improved the report by including more relevant information based on discussions he had with his wider team regarding the client’s current situation.
  • His preferred approach is to be able to anticipate likely difficulties and plan ways to avoid them.
  • He ensured that management was kept remained informed and signed off on the required compromises.
  • Irrespective of the specific targets Lee sets for himself, his preference to set himself less challenging and stretching objectives may…
  • He monitors deadline dates, talks with others to check things are on track progress and…
  • His strong preference for involving others also suggests that, if progress is not being made according to the schedule, he will make contact with customers and inform them of the situation.
  • As mentioned, he is likely to involve customers in any discussions regarding changes and is likely to feel moderately comfortable instructing others in the way to do things in order to achieve the overall goals.
  • She instilled a sense of urgency and tackled problems in a practical and pragmatic way…
  • Peter’s responses to the personality questionnaire indicate that he prefers to behave consistently, rather than preferring to adapt his behaviour. This may indicate that there will be some people with whom he finds it more difficult to build relationships. as a result of his consistent approach.
  • You do not confront with others, you confront others. But… you consult with others.

Plain English and short sentences (less is more)

Unnecessary words

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Probably the most frequent error is the use of words that aren’t needed. … Watch for extra prepositions, as in head up; beat up on, outside of and watch on; and superfluous nouns, as in weather conditions, bush-fire situation, development process. Pleonasms (phrases that say the same thing twice) are everywhere:

  • close proximity
  • significant landmark
  • two-way dialogue
  • vital lifeline
  • surrogate mother-figure
  • important milestone
  • personal body language
  • pre-prepared

If you have trouble spotting them, just try to imagine the implied opposite: distant proximity, for instance, or an insignificant landmark. Make every word tell. 

Source: The Editor’s Companion.

The Economist on unnecessary words

Certain words are often redundant. The leader of the so-called Front for a Free Freedonia is the leader of the Front for a Free Freedonia. A top politician or top priority is usually just a politician or a priority, and a major speech usually just a speech. A safe haven is a haven. Most probably and most especially are probably and especially. The fact that can often be shortened to That (That I did not do so was a self-indulgence). Loans to the industrial and agricultural sectors are just loans to industry and farming.

Use words with care. A heart condition is usually a bad heart. A near miss is probably a near hit. Positive thoughts (held by long-suffering creditors, according to The Economist) presumably means optimism, just as a negative report is probably a critical report. Industrial action is usually industrial inaction, industrial disruption or a strike. A courtesy call is generally a sales offer or an uninvited visit. A substantially finished bridge is an unfinished bridge. Someone with high name-recognition is well known. Something with reliability problems probably does not work. If yours is a live audience, what would a dead one be like?

In general, be concise. Try to be economical in your account or argument (‘The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out’—Voltaire). Similarly, try to be economical with words. ‘As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style.’ (Sydney Smith) Raymond Mortimer put it even more crisply when commenting about Susan Sontag: ‘Her journalism, like a diamond, will sparkle more if it is cut’.

Some words add nothing but length to your prose. Use adjectives to make your meaning more precise and be cautious of those you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. The word very is a case in point. If it occurs in a sentence you have written, try leaving it out and see whether the meaning is changed. ‘The omens were good’ may have more force than ‘The omens were very good’.

Avoid strike action (strike will do), cutbacks (cuts), track record (record), wilderness area (usually either a wilderness or a wild area), large-scale (big), the policymaking process (policymaking), weather conditions (weather), etc. ‘This time around’ just means ‘This time’.

Shoot off, or rather shoot, as many prepositions after verbs as possible. Thus people can meet rather than meet with; companies can be bought and sold rather than bought up and sold off; budgets can be cut rather than cut back; plots can be hatched but not hatched up; organisations should be headed by rather than headed up by chairmen, just as markets should be freed, rather than freed up. And children can be sent to bed rather than sent off to bed—though if they are to sit up they must first sit down.

This advice you are given free, or for nothing, but not for free.

Source: The Economist Style Guide

Happy New Year! More on this topic next week.