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Is That Clear?

March 3, 2006 by in category Blogs tagged as

By Louise Knott Ahern

As a young reporter, I used to whine that my editors “dumbed down” my writing when they traded big words for simple ones, broke up long sentences or otherwise made my writing clearer.

I’ve learned an important lesson since then.

Clarity is never dumb.

Clogged, jargon-filled writing is one of the biggest mistakes I find in professional communications today. The point of all writing is to convey a message. Yet the writing that comes out of businesses, schools and other institutions too often lacks a point, the messages weighed down under awkward phrases.

Take a look at the following sentence: The university seeks an increase in funds for the acquisition of periodicals in the library.

Now look at it this way: The university library needs more money to buy books.

Which one is better?

If you picked the first sentence, I’m not surprised. You have been trained to think that big words and long sentences sound professional.

In college, professors gave you minimum word and page requirements for your assignments, convincing you that good writing is long writing. That lesson is reinforced on the job, where you face reports and presentations full of acronyms, clauses and paragraphs that never end.

Hear me on this: Long writing does not make you sound smart. Nor does it make you sound professional.

It makes you sound scared.

Jargon and “bureaucratese” force readers to focus on your words, not your message. And when your message is cloudy, you fail as a writer.

Are you guilty of the heavy writing I’ve just described? No fear. Whether you realize it or not, you already know that simple is better.

Think back to those college days. When studying, did you highlight passages in your text books? You likely do the same thing today when you’re reading annual reports or memos from co-workers. That’s your mind telling you that not every single word you’re reading is crucial.

So, why waste time with words and sentences that aren’t necessary? It is better to make sure that every word you write is clear, precise and essential to your message.

Here are some tips to clarify your writing:

What’s the message?

Before you start writing, ask yourself a few questions. Who cares about this topic? Why should they care? What is the impact of this issue? What do you want people to do/think/feel after they read your words?

Questions like these will focus your writing on the most important points, which always adds clarity. They will also define your message and help you choose the perfect words.

Write like you talk.

You run into a colleague at the water cooler. She asks what’s new, and you say, “Due to a lack of funding, my plan to acquire an enhanced transportation method will have to be put on hold.”

Translation: I don’t have enough money for a new car right now.

For some reason, people think that when they put a message in writing, they have to dress it up and bog it down. They’re wrong. Writing should sound like you. This is how you establish your voice – your unique view of an issue translated into the written word. It’s OK to have a voice, even in professional settings.

The key to writing like you talk is to actually talk while writing. Before you put fingers to keyboard, pretend you’re explaining the issue to your mother. Write it that way.

And, yes, the level of formality in your writing should reflect the audience. I would expect you to speak differently to the President of the United States than your mom. But don’t confuse formality with stiffness. You must still be clear, and your writing should still sound like you.

Presume ignorance.

Assume that your audience has little or no idea what you’re talking about; that your memo or report will be the first time they’ve ever heard of your topic. This is true even if you know that your audience are your colleagues, who are as well-versed and as well-educated as you are on your subject.

When writing, pretend you’re trying to explain this to a group of middle-schoolers. This ensures that you keep it simple, stick to the basics, and avoid the pitfalls of jargon. Define acronyms. Cite studies. Explain procedures and use short words.

I know, I know. The inner Ph.D in you is gasping in pain. How can she possibly show off all those years of college if she can’t use the jargon of her field? Tell her to shut it. She’ll be fine once she realizes that her message makes her sound smart; not her words.

Speaking of words… Shorter is better.

Look again at the two sentences above. We replaced “acquisition of periodicals” with “buy books.” We cut ten syllables to two.

You might argue that “periodicals” does not exactly mean “books.” You’re right. The point is that you can always find a simpler way to say things. As an added bonus, finding the simple way forces you to be as specific as possible. That’s always a good thing.

Get rid of jargon.

I’ve said a lot about the evils of jargon, which should have been a clue that it would eventually get its own section. Nothing grates my nerves as much as jargon. Amateur communicators think that jargon and overly technical writing makes them sound like an expert. Look how much I know about this! I can spew all these fancy words!

I argue the opposite. Jargon is a camoflauge for a lack of confidence in the message. How do you know if something is jargon? Ask yourself this: Does a reader need a degree in the subject matter to recognize the phrase? Could a reader with no background in this issue understand the word? If the answer is no, find another way to say it. (Again, think about how you would explain it to your mother.)

People especially rely on jargon when delivering bad news, as if the message is easier to take when couched under “tech speak.” Bad news is bad no matter how you say it. Readers (a broad term for your customers, co-workers, superiors, etc.) will know when you’re trying to pull one over on them, and they won’t appreciate it. Sales are down? Then just say it.

Take a cue from Winston Churchill. The news from France is bad.

Cut.

Mark Twain once mused, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.”

Professional writers know what he means. The hardest part of writing is rewriting, and the hardest part of rewriting is cutting. You spend all that time putting the words down, and then you’re supposed to erase a third of them?

Yep. Writing is cruel.

But if you take it in steps, cutting doesn’t have to be so painful.

Start by looking for redundancies. Do you refer to an “advance plan”? Just say “plan.” It means the same thing. How about “unexpected surprise”? Aren’t all surprises unexpected? You’ll be amazed how many of these redundant phrases crop up in your work and weaken your message.

Next, condense or break up sentences. Read your work aloud. If you can’t finish a sentence without taking a breath, it’s too long. Either break it up into two sentences or shorten it. With paragraphs, a good rule of thumb is to not exceed a few sentences.

Finally, change passive to active voice. Not sure of the difference? Let’s look at some sentences again.

Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.

Active: The dog bit the man.

The first sentence is passive; the subject of the sentence (the man) is acted upon. An active sentence is one in which the subject acts upon something else. Turning your passive sentences into active ones will immediately make your writing sharper, warmer and more authoritative.

You can spot passive voice by the word “was” and by the use of “ing” words. She was dancing becomes She danced.

The proposal was approved by the city council becomes The city council approved the proposal.

Proofread beyond the spellchecker.

Township to hold forum on pubic safety.

If you caught the mistake in that sentence, I’m impressed. If you didn’t catch it, read it again. See it now? Didn’t know your local government was so concerned with your pelvic health, did you?

Too bad that real-life headline from my first newspaper job was supposed to say “public safety.”

Few things can kill your message as quickly as typos. Don’t rely solely on the spellchecker to proofread your work. Print it out. Edit it. Then edit again.

Is that clear?

Good.

© 2004 Louise Knott Ahern

OCC member Louise Knott Ahern is a freelance journalist and public relations coach who writes contemporary romances. She’s the author of “Opting Out: A Career Woman’s Guide to Going Home Without Going Crazy,” a blog for mothers at http://www.optoutguide.blogspot.com/. She is also a contributor to The Writer’s Vibe (http://thewritersvibe.typepad.com/the_writers_vibe/), a blog for professional writers.

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I Am A Stripper, Not A Porn Star!

February 28, 2006 by in category Blogs

By Michelle Thorne

If you google Michelle Thorne you will get about 850,000 hits for Michelle Thorne, England’s most famous porn star, and about 5 for me, Michelle Thorne, Bookseller. I’m in a bad mood, and not because there are people who think I do vile things with lots of men in stories that have no plots, on film or more accurately on video. Every month about this time I do book returns. I decide what books have had enough time on my new shelves and what books will get a reprieve until next month. I really hate this part of my work, because I hate to destroy books. It is a bad thing. I know it’s wrong. I yell at customers just for opening a book too far and creasing the spine, but today I have to strip books.

Yes, I am a STRIPPER.

There is no way around it. I wish I could keep every book I order, forever. I can’t. I don’t enjoy stripping books, but to make room for next month’s books, I have to. Yes, I do get credit for the returned covers but it’s not that great for me financially either. I take at least a 10% hit every time I send a cover back. If I buy a $5.99 book, I pay 40% of the cover price or $3.59. When I send a cover back, I receive $3.00 in credit, for that same book, from my distributor (and not real money…Ingram bucks). 59 cents is gone like the proverbial wind. It may not sound like much, but multiply it by every book I buy and return every month. And get this…Ingram can decide not to give me credit or can drastically change the amount I get back from them in credit, at their discretion. That sucks, big time.

At BUB….123 I give the potential “Stripees” an extra month on a special shelf at 50% off (the same as I would get from Ingram, only in cash that I can spend.) That’s their last chance. Really! I try very hard to be careful when I order, but sometimes I just don’t get it right. Many of the times I don’t get it right is when I have an Author Autographing. I can never be sure if I have under ordered and will sell out, or if I have over ordered and I have a table full of books left at the end of the day. I always offer the books to the Authors at cost, so I don’t have to strip them. Authors always have to get books for contests, their relatives or donations. If you buy them from me you get your royalties, a discount and no books will die that day. Authors, don’t forget to sign stock even if you don’t buy your books, I always have a harder time returning a signed book, but I can do it. Buy your books when you can, but I’ll understand when you can’t. Like I know you’ll understand when I have to do returns. Don’t hate me because I strip, It’s not like I do porn.

Michelle Thorne
Bearly Used Books…123
Home of A Great Read
123 So. First Street
La Puente, CA 91744
(626) 986-3700

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Coming Through

February 26, 2006 by in category Blogs tagged as

A Slice of Orange is closing the 25 Days of Romance Contest by bringing you a Bonus Blog from Maureen Child. We plan to announce the winner of the contest on March 6th. Thank you all!

By Maureen Child

On Valentine’s Day, my daughter Sarah called on her drive home from work. We usually get a lot of chatting done while she’s stuck on the freeway and that day was no different. Of course, the conversation turned to Valentine’s Day and she asked me if her father had given me the box of See’s Bordeaux that has become tradition in our house. When I assured her he had, she said, “Your sweetheart always comes through, doesn’t he?”

It wasn’t until much later that I realized how true her statement really was.

Mark and I were married when we were kids (although we were not twelve as Sarah insists) and we’ve been married a long time. We sort of grew up together and I can honestly say that even when he makes me nuts, I’m still nuts about him.

Nothing shakes Mark. Where I’m volatile and explosive, he’s steady and quiet—(not that he gets much chance to talk around me). He’s the patient one and I’m the one most likely to erupt like some long dormant volcano suddenly springing to life when everyone least expects it. We were a team when the kids were little and now that they’re grown we’re still a team. The team we were when we first started out. And it’s even more fun this time.

Mark is the rock in my world. I’ve always been able to count on him. When my car breaks down in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, I know I can call him and he’ll ride to the rescue. When I’m feeling like the world is crashing down around me, he makes me laugh like no one else ever has. When I’m on deadline, he listens to me whine. When I’m obsessing about a new book, he never asks what I’m doing as I stare blankly into space.

And back when I was sure I’d never sell a book, Mark always believed in me.

Romance isn’t just the stuff we write books about—the first flush of love, the excitement charging the air. It’s also about being there for someone every day. It’s about laughing together over jokes no one else will ever understand. It’s about holding hands in the movies and dancing in the kitchen.

It’s about always coming through.

Maureen Child
http://www.maureenchild.com/
EXPECTING LONERGAN’S BABY, Desire, April, ’06
STRICTLY LONERGAN’S BUSINESS, Desire, May ’06
SATISFYING LONERGAN’S HONOR, Desire, June ’06

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Reflections of Love

February 25, 2006 by in category Blogs tagged as

By Sandra Paul

“I have a great idea!” I told my husband enthusiastically. “Why don’t we put mirrored closet doors in our bedroom? It will not only give the room more depth, it will bring in more light!”

“Why don’t we just buy another lamp?” he replied dryly. “It would be easier.”

Obviously, he didn’t share my enthusiasm. Possibly because I’d been coming up with “great” ideas to improve our fixer-upper ever since we’d bought it two years earlier. Since then, my husband had spent nearly every weekend replacing windows, repairing walls, re-roofing, hanging siding, ripping out carpets, nailing down floors, fixing plumbing, laying bricks, cementing, yanking out tree stumps, laying a lawn, drywalling, plastering, and painting.

All of which he now reminded me of in unnecessarily specific detail.

“But the bedroom is a special project,” I reminded him in turn. “I envision it as our personal, private haven where we can relax. A getaway from the kids, pets–and endless chores.”

I think it was the chore bit that got him. At any rate, he didn’t argue further but put in the mirrored doors for me the following Saturday. When he finished, I stood in the doorway of our newly redecorated room, admiring how the lamplight bounced from the softly glowing burgundy walls to the gleaming mirrored doors and back again. I was totally thrilled with the result of my latest great idea. . . until the next morning.

While lying on my side, I opened my eyes–and stared in horror at the image before me. Less than four feet away was my own reflection, revealed in unforgiving detail in the harsh morning light. My once blonde hair looked dull and lifeless. My eyes were red and swollen almost shut. My skin was puffy and blotchy.

Involuntarily, I made a sound between a horrified gasp and a moan that caused my husband to sit bolt upright next to me.

“What is it? Are you hurt?” he demanded, leaning over me. He tugged down the sheet I’d lifted to cover my face.

“No, it’s those mirrors!” I blurted without thinking. “I look so awful. And now I’m going to have to face that fact, every single morning when I wake up!”

His green eyes widened with surprise, and then narrowed on my face. He stared at me as if he’d never seen me before.

Which was so not true. I’d first met those green eyes when we were in high school. We’d now been married over 20 years, and during those years, we’d spent less than twenty nights apart. I’d studied his expression countless times during countless days, hours and seconds. There was no face on earth including my children’s, I suddenly realized, who I gazed at more often than his. And if that was true for me, then it had to be true for him as well.

Shuddering at the thought, I jumped out of bed as he started to say something, wishing I hadn’t called my looks–or lack thereof–to his attention. I kept busy all day, avoiding mirrors, avoiding my husband’s gaze. And I went to bed that night, determined to forget the whole thing.

But when I awoke the next morning, I was lying on my side again. And I knew, without even opening my eyes, that I was facing those darn mirrored doors. It doesn’t matter; just don’t look, I told myself. I took a deep breath, and resolutely opened my eyes.

My gaze locked; I stared at the doors in amazement. Then my eyes grew misty. But that didn’t matter, because what I saw is forever imprinted on my mind and heart.

Sheets of notebook paper covered the glass. On them my husband had written, “You are beautiful. And I love you.”

Sandra Paul
http://www.romancenewstoday.com/index.html
DOMESTICATING LUC

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