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    Digging Deep Into Letters

    Monday, May 18, 2015

    h-spo How do you develop a closer relationship with language? It’s something I’m coming to understand as I read Roy Peter Clark’s excellent and accessible book, The Glamour of Grammar. In it, Clark notes, “For those living inside the language, each sound, each letter offers potential delight and meaning.”

    To drive home his point, Clark encourages readers to adopt a favorite letter; research and mind map words that begin with it; and write a short profile about it.

    My word profile is published below. If you’re feeling inspired, give the activity a try and let us know how your profile turns out.

    The Hubbub About H

    I didn’t expect the letter h to be so heated.

    In a mind map of h-words, a good-versus-evil theme emerges. There’s harmony and havoc; hero and heathen; help and hinder. Then there’s the ultimate clash of heaven and hell.

    Honestly, h has had a hectic history. At one point, the Romantic languages nearly heaved the letter out of existence. In the 13th Century, Old French—the very language where h’s “aitch” pronunciation derived from—omitted the letter from its language. Late Latin followed suit, silencing h. The letter reemerged in Middle English, starting with word spellings and eventually vocalizations. However, h is still silent in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

    H’s period of turmoil is evident in Modern English words with Latin roots such as honor and honest (silent h); humble (h is now vocalized); and able (derived from the Latin habile).  

    But there’s more. H is at the center of a pronunciation battle brewing in Great Britain. A growing number of Brits who pronounce h as “haitch” rather than “aitch” are catching flack from wordsmiths who deem the former as improper and inelegant. In fact, the BBC has been flooded by complaints about hosts using the “lower standard” of pronunciation. Oh the horror!

    All this hubbub for a letter that started as an Egyptian hieroglyphic for fence. No disrespect to the pharaohs, but I think H looks more like a rung on a ladder.

    But maybe I’m just being hostile.

    Now it’s your turn. Pick a letter, any letter. Do a little research. Then write a profile. I think you’ll feel a new kinship with a small but not so insignificant piece of our language. 

    —Tim Kemper

    A 1-2-3 for Writing Instructions

    Monday, April 27, 2015
    Confused drawer?

    I recently became a first-time homeowner, which has been quite the learning experience. Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that Do-It-Yourself projects are not as simple as they look on HGTV.

    My lack of DIY acumen has resulted in an unhealthy amount of time browsing instructional Web sites, manuals, and videos. Along the way, I’ve encountered a surprising number of poorly written instructional materials. Common problems include unclear commands, undefined technical terms, missing steps, and mislabeled diagrams.

    These problems are particularly unfortunate for us novice DIYers, who rely on instructions and best-practice models to get jobs done. Poorly written instructions make it difficult to complete jobs safely and correctly, which compounds frustration.

    But it doesn’t have to be so. Here are some tips for making instructions easy to follow and understand.

    1. Write for beginners. If you’re writing to a general audience, imagine the person with the least knowledge of the subject, and write to that person. Keep in mind that this reader is likely apprehensive to get started. Hold his or her hand through the process using words and visuals.
    2. Outline and test your steps. Create a list of numbered steps, and test them out. Are they in the correct order?  Are additional actions needed to complete the task?  Remember, you are walking your readers through each step. Don’t assume they will take an action that is not explicitly stated.
    3. Write each step as a command. Command sentences get right to the point, providing readers with a clear directive of what to do next. These sentences use active verbs and an implied subject (you). So instead of saying “The seat should be attached to the chair back with four long bolts,” say “Attach the seat to the chair back using four long bolts.”
    4. Use simple language, and define technical terms. I recently worked my way through a set of instructions that included a step to “Inset the CHAMFERRED END of side stretchers into the holes of the chair’s back legs.” Besides the questionable command (should “inset” be “insert”?), what really bothered me was the all-caps treatment of the (misspelled) word chamfered. It’s not a term I was familiar with, but the all-caps treatment indicated that it was important. The instructions neither defined the word nor showed an illustration of its meaning.
      The lesson for instructional writers is this:  Even if you are fluent in the language of the task at hand, the language may be foreign to your readers. Avoid technical words and insider language. And when a technical term is necessary, define it through words or visuals. Also, take the time to proofread and spellcheck your work.
    5. Use pictures, illustrations, and labels wisely. Visual elements, when used correctly, are hugely beneficial. Make sure your visual elements are big enough to see and detailed enough to understand. This includes the list of materials needed to complete the task. Labels and directional graphics such as arrows are a few ways to improve the readability of visual elements.
    6. Observe someone using your instructions. Nothing serves like a real-life test. So ask a friend or colleague (someone unfamiliar with the subject) to put your instructions into practice while you watch—without intervening. Take notes about any points of hesitation or confusion, and revise your instructions for better clarity.

    In conclusion, remember that people turn to instructions when they don’t know how to do something. Your job is to provide the help they need, in the clearest, simplest terms. 

    —Tim Kemper

    How to Write About Big Data

    Wednesday, March 26, 2014

    Big data is big business.

    Major industries—from health care, to energy, to retail—shell out billions of dollars for data collection and analysis.

    If information is the “new oil,” then reserves are booming. Amazingly, 80 percent of the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone.

    Distilling such a massive volume of numbers into meaningful and actionable chunks is a formidable challenge, one that this humble blogger will leave to statisticians and data scientists.

    But big data presents a unique challenge to communications professionals, too. For collecting and analyzing big data is one thing. Communicating what it means is an entirely different undertaking.

    Data is the centerpiece of much workplace communication, including annual reports, market analyses, executive summaries, and other correspondence. All these forms share something in common: they will be read by a mostly non-technical audience. Yet this same audience may include stakeholders who have to make important decisions and take actions based on the data.

    When reporting data, your goal is twofold: (1) Make the data “digestible” and (2) explain its significance. Your communications should focus less on the method of analysis and more on the big-picture results. Accuracy and clarity are paramount.

    Organize for Clarity

    Your data-based writing can achieve clarity by focusing on one main idea.  Following a three-part organizational pattern similar to SEA will help you develop this idea. This method states the main idea first, follows with details to support it, and ends by calling the reader to action.

    When writing about data, use a similar three-part structure:

    • Opening: Introduce the main idea. The main idea is the “big idea,” or insight, that comes from the data. The idea could be an emerging trend, a data-based prediction, a meaningful comparison, a consequential outlier, or something else of value. You should be able to state the idea in a single sentence.
    • Middle: Support the main idea with data. You can do so by pointing out high and low points, changes over time, and other pertinent numbers. If you include tables or graphics, make sure to explain what they mean.
    • Closing: Restate the main idea to show how it impacts your audience. If appropriate, make recommendations based on the data.   

    For more complex data analysis, secondary results may need reporting. Highlight these in the middle part with separate supporting paragraphs for each new insight. These paragraphs should follow a modified version of the three-part structure: 1) Begin by identifying the insight; 2) support the insight with data; and 3) close with a conclusion based on the insight.

    The middle part is also where you should report and respond to any data that differs from or contradicts your main idea.

    Simplify Word Choice

    Another way to clarify your data-based writing to simplify your words. Do so by:

    • using plain language;
    • removing unnecessary jargon and complicated language; and
    • defining acronyms and technical terms.

    Notice the difference in word choice in these two examples:

    A)     By deconstructing numerical research of the wood flooring industry, one can conclude revenue does not necessarily flourish in connection with MBF. If you direct your attention to the MBF and revenue patterns in West Virginia in Table 1, you will infer that the region is a bullish market for sales ($94 million) and a bearish market for production (45 MBF). Meanwhile, Georgia produces 215 MBF annually, while generating less than $27 million in sales. The proposition of a regional production-to-sales correlation is a falsity.

    B)      Our analysis of the wood flooring industry fails to show a geographic correlation between sales and production. Table 1 shows that West Virginia is the second leading market for wood flooring ($94 million annual sales) yet is home to only four manufacturers producing 45 million board feet (MBF) annually. Conversely, Georgia floor manufacturers produce upwards of 215 MBF but sold just $26.93 million within the state in 2013. This data suggests production does not drive revenue within geographic regions.

    Can you see why the second example is clearer to a general reader? It uses plain language, defines acronyms, and cuts unnecessary jargon.

    Adding Visualizations

    In discussing how to communicate data, it would a foolish to neglect visualizations. A visualization is a graphic representation of data, such as a bar graph, time lines, or information maps.

    Visualizations are powerful communication tools. They often reveal the “big idea” of a data set more clearly than words, helping the audience digest the information. Not surprisingly, visualizations are also more engaging than numbers and words. Some are downright beautiful.   

    Thankfully, it doesn’t take a graphic design artist to create an engaging visualization. Many easy-to-use visualization tools are available for free online. Applications like Google Charts, Many Eyes, Tableau, and Visual.ly are a great place to start.

    If you decide to build a data visualization for publication, keep in mind these helpful tips from the Data Journalism Handbook:

    1. Focus on one big idea. Your visualization should reflect the “big idea” of the data set. Think about the one impression you want to leave with the reader. Enhance that idea by removing unessential data or information.   
    2. Design for two types of readers. The visualization should be easy enough to understand at a glance, but also offer something of value that will invite the viewer to study it more closely.

    As with any communication, accuracy is vital. The final step to writing about data, or creating a visualization for publication, is having one or more trusted individuals check and revise your work.

    Good communication is good business. That doesn’t change in our increasingly numbers-driven world. Wherever people are busy crunching numbers, someone needs to communicate what it all means.  

    —Tim Kemper


    Lessons from a News Writer

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    A few months ago, I attended an excellent book reading by pop-culture author and essayist Chuck Klosterman. During the Q&A portion of the reading, a journalism undergraduate expressed frustration with the inverted-pyramid structure of news writing, an organizational method placing the most important details of a story up front. The student felt this upside-down approach stifled his creativity.

    “I’m more interested in writing feature stories, with interesting, non-linear organization,” the student addressed Klosterman. “What advice can you give me?”

    “You’re not going to like my answer,” Klosterman responded. “But I’m a supporter of the inverted pyramid; it makes writing accessible. It helped me greatly in my early career.”

    I imagine this response surprised the student. Why would a skilled feature writer like Klosterman endorse such a simple approach to sharing news?  

    Klosterman explained how he started his career at a small-town newspaper, writing stories in the inverted-pyramid style until the task became like clockwork. Doing so helped him focus on reporting the most important information and fulfilling the needs of his audience.

    This exchange connects to business writing in a number of ways.

    First, delivering information in a direct manner is often the best approach in business. A direct approach saves the reader time and highlights the most relevant information. Just as most news stories follow the inverted pyramid, most business correspondence should lead with the main idea, using the SEA organization method

    The exchange also highlighted the payoff of practice. Klosterman honed his writing skills through the day-to-day grind of writing and reporting stories, using the inverted pyramid. In the business world, each new writing task presents a similar opportunity. Take something as routine as responding to email. By replying to every email clearly, carefully, and correctly, you will find it easier to draft more complex writing forms. 

    Finally, the student’s frustration unearthed a common misconception about writing—that simple, straightforward writing is unskilled writing, that it doesn’t showcase an author’s abilities. This attitude can lead to unintended consequences.

    Consider a similar scenario from the business world:

    Jerry is assigned to write a proposal at work. He knows his supervisor will read it, and he wants to make a great impression. So he asks himself, “How can I make my writing unique?” “How can I ensure my effort gets recognized?” “How can make sure I stand out?”

    You can probably see a problem emerging. Jerry is focusing is on himself, rather than the ideas he needs to communicate. He’s focusing on style before substance. This approach is unlikely to yield the results he desires.

    Jerry would be better off asking: “What ideas are essential to this proposal? How can I make sure my readers understand these ideas? How can I simplify my writing to improve its readability?”

    The main purpose of business communication isn’t to stand out; it’s to be understood. The best writers in business and journalism shine a spotlight on ideas, not themselves. They write with the needs of the audience in mind. And they organize their ideas in a manner that’s easy to understand.

    Klosterman learned these lessons early in his career. And they opened the door to new and more creative opportunities, just as they can improve your own writing and standing in the workplace.

    —Tim Kemper

    The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business (Part II)

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    Last week we celebrated the second week of the NCAA basketball tournament by creating our own "Bizzaro" version of the Sweet 16, but with business writing in mind. In part one of "The Sour Sixteen." we examined eight writing errors that you should steer clear of anytime you're writing important workplace documents. While the NCAA tournament field is down to its Final Four, we'll delve into eight final writing problems. Before we begin, here is a quick look back at the first half of the list. Notably

    1. Lack of focus
    2. Missing important proper nouns
    3. Using slang
    4. Forcing artificial language
    5. Using the wrong word
    6. Missing comma after introductory elements
    7. Faulty subject-verb agreement
    8. Incorrectly joined sentences

    The next four problems concentrate on two important traits of writing, voice and sentence fluency.

    1. The writing sounds too informal
      A professional writing voice is a lot like proper business attire. Just as you wouldn't wear a T-shirt and athletic shorts to a formal business meeting, you shouldn't write a memo that includes slang and emoticons. In workplace writing, it is best to avoid an informal voice altogether. An informal voice is characterized by frequent contractions and personal pronouns; humor and slang; and shorthand and emoticons. It is perfectly appropriate to use an informal voice when you're jotting down notes or gathering your thoughts, but when it comes to drafting workplace documents or e-mail, opt for a more formal tone.
    2. The writing sounds too formal
      Yes, there is also a point when business writing can sound too formal, or stiff. Grasping this point may seem contradictory after reading the previous rule about informal voice. However, there is an appropriate medium between the two. We call it "The Business Middle." The Business Middle is a conversational but professional voice. It uses friendly and natural expressions but is still free of humor and slang. Notice the difference in these two passages:
      Formal and stilted: This correspondence is in reference to the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. My decision is to agree to the conditions of employment for that position that were expressed to me…
      The Business Middle: Thank you for offering me the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. I am happy to accept the position at the annual salary of…
      The Business Middle is appropriate for most business letters, workplace e-mails, and memos. If you're writing a more formal document, such as one dealing with legalities or bad news, it's best to use a more serious and objective tone. One final thought on the levels of formality: If you're struggling to find a happy medium between informal and formal voice, it's best to err on the side of formal. After all, it's always less awkward to be a bit overdressed rather than noticeably underdressed.
    3. The writing is too negative
      Another problem relating to voice occurs when the writing comes across as overly negative. A negative tone is one that focuses on a problem, rather than a solution; it is accusatory rather than cooperative. Here are some tips for achieving a positive writing voice:

      Focus on…
      • The subject, not the personalities of the people involved
      • Solutions, not the problem
      • Strengths, not weaknesses
      • Suggestions, not threats
    4. The sentences are too repetitive
      Effective writing flows smoothly from sentence to sentence. If you start all your sentences the same way, you risk creating choppy writing. Choppy writing is predictable and hard to read, which is why you should vary the beginnings and length of your sentences. Consider the difference in fluency in the following examples:
      Repetitive: The report shows that first-quarter earnings continue to improve. The report's findings show that we should reinvest.
      Varied: The report shows a marked improvement in first-quarter earnings. If earnings continue to rise, we should reinvest.
      To improve the fluency of your own writing, consider different ways to begin sentences, or ways to combine ideas.

    The last set of errors focuses on English language rules. Business writing and business correspondence must follow the correct use of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, words, and grammar. Sometimes these language errors are hard to spot, but even the most obscure error can be bad for business. As you will see, the following mistakes can create confusion, which prevents clear and straightforward communication.

    1. Unnecessary shift in tense
      A shift in tense happens when a writer uses two different tenses in the same sentence when only one is needed. Such an error can distort when something is happening.
      Shift in tense: I prepared the invoices and verify all the expense reports.
      Corrected: I prepared the invoices and verified all the expense reports.
      Make sure the tense (past, present, or future) remains consistent throughout each sentence.
    2. Indefinite pronoun reference
      An indefinite pronoun reference results when it is unclear which word or phrase a pronoun refers to.
      Unclear: Once they transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package. (They could refer to the workers or the owners.)
      Clear: Once the employees transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package.
      You can fix an indefinite pronoun reference by using more specific words to rename the subject or by rearranging the sentence.
    3. Missing comma in compound sentence
      A compound sentence made up of two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as sentences) needs a comma and a conjunction to properly link the two clauses. Oftentimes, writers will ignore the comma before the conjunction, even though the conjunction itself is not strong enough to hold the two clauses.
      Incorrect: I was unhappy with the conversation so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
      Correct: I was unhappy with the conversation, so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
    4. Missing commas around additional information
      When a group of words adds information that is not needed to understand the sentence, you should set off the extra information with commas.
      Example: Third Community Bank, which was founded in 1957, is opening three new locations in the area.
      Remember, commas are needed only when the phrase (extra information) can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

    So there you have 16 writing errors that are bad for business. Think about them the next time you're assigned a writing project at work. By making a point to avoid them, you'll improve the transparency of your communication. And that's good for business.

    —Tim Kemper

    Photo by Frank Douwes