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clear writing

WRITING TO BE UNDERSTOOD

In this section we offer tips to help you focus and tighten your writing. It's a process that usually happens over time, bit by bit, so be patient and just keep writing.

CONTENTS

“We are distinguished by the source of our sharpness and obliging manner . . . “

When the owner of an information technology consulting company in Seattle, Washington, received the email below, he thought it was a prank. When he realized it wasn’t, he posted it on the company website under the heading “Business-speak out of control.”

Subject: Approach to cross promote

I am writing to make a proposal for a business combination with a reasonable confidence. We at [ _______ ] aim and focus to give our best to people that are in the market to acquire jobs in the progressive Northwest. [ _________ ] is a limited dimensional firm compared to Xbarit, never the less we are distinguished by the source of our sharpness and obliging manner to provide service to your company with a fair return of exchange. Being the business development manager, my team members and I are determined that [ __________ ] has significant potential upside given the continued solid growth to increase our boundaries beyond with strategic initiatives that can vary from eliminating redundant infrastructure to eliminating duplicate operating costs which will lead to combined cost efficient financial performance. Together we can offer an increasingly exciting set of solutions in the software industry for our clients and candidates.

I would value the opportunity to further discuss with you how to optimize the integration of our respective businesses. I look forward to a prompt and favorable reply.

Of course, you would never have written a business, or other, communication as garbled as the one above. But when you write, are you vigilant to state your point(s) clearly, avoiding wordiness and unhelpful clichés that muddle your message?

Understanding the basics of clear writing

The basics of clear writing (non-fiction) are pretty much the same, regardless of whether you’re writing an essay, term paper, memo, business letter (including a cover letter for a job application), press release or magazine article.

They are:

  • Know and respect your audience; this writing is for them, not something to feed your ego.
  • Decide exactly what you want or need to communicate to that audience (whether one person or many).
  • Do research to fill gaps in your command of the material.
  • Open with a clear topic statement (there are other effective ways to open, but save those for a time when your writing skills are more polished).
  • Organize your supporting points to move your audience logically through the topic.
  • Get your first draft down without agonizing over language or style; it is more important to get thoughts on paper (at least into the computer) at this stage than to achieve perfect phrasing.
  • Edit your first and subsequent drafts, ensuring you have . . .
    • presented each subpoint clearly, using the same (parallel) style of wording and fact presentation;
    • maintained the same tone throughout;
    • used simple, direct language;
    • deleted all words, phrases and factual material that contribute nothing to your point;
    • fixed all grammatical and spelling errors; and
    • concluded by reinforcing your theme.

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Sharpening and cutting

As you are writing your first draft, you should be more concerned with ideas than perfection in style or mechanics. Let the thoughts flow, even to the point of using words or phrases that are incomplete or that you know you will want to improve upon.

Now, in the editing process, you can cast a critical eye on what you’ve written. Could you say something more directly? Cut all unnecessary words, phrases and even sentences. Substitute shorter words for longer ones.

For practice, rewrite and simplify the following sentences (some suggested revised versions are below):

(a) Shaun offered an explanation of the recently effected travel expense rules.
(b) Benjamin will construct a new residence for the Everleys.
(c) Ramon endeavoured to facilitate our efforts to ascertain the root cause of the problem.
(d) In the event that the main gate fails to function properly, utilize the small gate which is located approximately 100 feet to the west.
(e) Subsequent to the time that we held our conversation regarding the objectives of the company, I calculated that we needed somewhere in the neighbourhood of twenty-five million dollars in order to have the ability to compete with ABCD.
(f) Due to the fact that Smedley arrived long after the meeting began, we found ourselves in a situation where we had to schedule an additional meeting later in that same day.
(g) We are optimistic that the work can be accomplished in a timely manner owing to the fact that we have put in place some new equipment to replace the old equipment.
(h) A search for a missing piece of genetic code is being carried out by scientists.

Some suggested revisions of the above sentences:

(a) Shaun explained the new travel expense rules.
(b) Benjamin will build the Everleys’ new house. (You can also delete new, for obvious reasons.)
(c) Ramon tried to help us learn the cause of the problem.
(d) If the main gate doesn’t work, use the small gate about 100 feet west.
(e) After we talked about the company objectives, I calculated we needed about $25 million to compete with ABCD.
(f) Since Smedley arrived late, we had to schedule another meeting later in the day.
(g) We hope (or think) the new equipment will enable us to finish the work soon.
(h) Scientists are searching (or looking) for a missing piece of genetic code.

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Checking for grammatical errors

You can fix some grammatical errors by ear. (Example: He gave all the credit to Vivian and I. Sounds OK, right? To quickly and simply test the correctness of I, remove the word connected to it by and: He gave all the credit to I. Me is clearly the word you want: He gave all the credit to Vivian and me.)

However, if you’re serious about writing well, you’ll have to be able to analyze sentence structure. Every sentence has a subject and a verb, although sometimes the subject is understood rather than stated: Go! (The subject, understood, is you.) Also, the words between two periods do not always form a sentence: He gave me a long, piercing stare. Gulp. 

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Identifying subjects and verbs

For practice, find the subject(s) and verb(s) in the following sentences:

(a) Jim’s dad invited me to a family barbecue.
(b) Miles of fence have been built around the nuclear test area.
(c) Going to the library on Fridays and stopping for coffee afterwards has for years been a highlight of my week.
(d) My buddy Bob and I watched soccer matches but stopped long enough to finish our homework.

Here they are, subjects boldfaced and verbs italicized:

(a) Jim’s dad invited me to a family barbecue. (Pretty straightforward, eh?)
(b) Miles of fence have been built around the nuclear test area. (Now things get a little more complicated. Miles, not fence, is the subject. The prepositional phrase of fence modifies miles.)
(c) Going to the library on Fridays and stopping for coffee afterwards has for years been a highlight of my week. (Going and stopping look like verbs, but they are really gerunds: nouns made from verbs. The verb, has been, is split by the prepositional phrase for years. Note that even though the subject has two parts, it is a single concept and takes a singular verb.)
(d) My buddy Bob and I watched soccer matches but stopped long enough to finish our homework. (Looks as though Bob could be the subject, but it’s really an appositive – a word or group of words that renames a noun or pronoun. This sentence contains two separate verbs.) 

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Choosing the verb that agrees with the subject

If you haven’t correctly identified the subject of a sentence, you can’t be sure your verb choice will be correct. Find the subject and then select the corresponding verb in the following sentences:

(a) A long list of customer complaints (was/were) her first concern when she took over the fabric store.
(b) The entire stock of new and used professional-grade golf clubs (was/were) stolen.
(c) A splinter group made up mainly of classic-car enthusiasts (is/are) planning (its/their) own show.
(d) The number of youths driving with suspended licenses (is/are) increasing.
(e) There (seem/seems) to be no end of troubles with our septic tank.
(f) Both Arpita and Bisrah (is/are) aware of the stricture.
(g) Neither Jack nor his brother (was, were) home when the package arrived.
(h) Neither Jack nor his brothers (was, were) home when the package arrived. 

(a) A long list of customer complaints (was/were) her first concern when she took over the fabric store. (The subject is list.)
(b) The entire stock of new and used professional-grade golf clubs (was/were) stolen. (The subject is stock.)
(c) A splinter group made up mainly of classic-car enthusiasts (is/are) planning (its/their) own show. (The subject is group. We slipped a pronoun choice in here as well.)
(d) The number of youths driving with suspended licenses (is/ are) increasing. (The subject is number.)
(e) There (seem/seems) to be no end of troubles with our septic tank. (The subject is end.)
(f) Both Arpita and Bisrah (is/are) aware of the stricture. (The compound subject, joined by the correlative conjunction both/and, is plural. The situation would be the same if both were deleted.)
(g) Neither Jack nor his brother (was/were) home when the package arrived. (When a compound subject is joined by the correlative conjunction neither/nor, the verb takes its number from the subject closer to it, in this case brother.)
(h) Neither Jack nor his brothers (was/were) home when the package arrived. (Same explanation as previous item, except in this case brothers is plural.)

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Avoiding singular/plural pitfalls

What’s wrong with these sentences?

  • The choir was putting on its robes. This sentence describes the choir members acting as individuals rather than as a unit, so the verb and the pronoun need to be plural.
    Correct: The choir were putting on their robes.
  • The choir are scheduled to sing their first concert in April. This sentence refers to the choir as a single entity, so the verb and the pronoun need to be singular.
    Correct: The choir is scheduled to sing its first concert in April.

The rule: With collective nouns such as choir, club, committee, department and so on, use the singular when the group is acting as one and use the plural when members of the group are acting as individuals.

Here are some more subject-verb-agreement situations that can go the wrong way if you’re not careful:

  • Acoustics (the science) is studied by architects. (singular)
  • The acoustics (acoustic qualities) of the theatre are bad. (plural)
  • Politics (in a general sense) was behind his appointment. (singular)
  • His politics (as opinions) are not our concern. (plural)
    Note: In general, acoustics, politics, mathematics, gymnastics, aeronautics and other nouns ending in –ics are singular when referred to as a science or discipline and plural when referred to as a practical activity
  • Bread and butter is included. (singular; two things form one idea)
  • Bacon and eggs is a classic North American breakfast.
  • My aunt is one of those people who are always right. (plural; people is the key word here, as the antecedent for who)
  • The number of casualties has risen rapidly. (number is singular when preceded by the)
  • A number of military police were involved. (number is plural when preceded by a) Note: The same rule applies for variety and total as for number.
  • The couple were having an argument. (plural; acting as individuals)
  • A couple is given a special admission rate. (singular; acting as unit)
  • Neither his colleagues nor Lester was available at the time of the hearing.
  • Not only Shirley but also her entire family were invited to go up on the stage.
    Note: When a sentence contains not only . . . but also, either . . . or or neither . . . nor, the verb agrees with the closest subject.
  • None of the immigrants were from the Baltic countries. (None takes plural verb when it means not any.)
  • None of the shopping was done. (None takes a singular verb when followed by a singular noun.)
  • Seven contestants tried to ring the gong but none was successful. (None takes a singular verb when the idea of not one is to be emphasized.)
  • When Uncle Bob comes to visit, two weeks seems like an eternity. (singular; two weeks is a single period of time)
  • Six minutes is not enough time to boil the corn. (again, a single period of time)
  • Two or three days are all I need to complete the project. (days are considered individually)

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Problem: criteria or criterion?

Criteria, a plural, is often erroneously used instead of the singular criterion.

Incorrect: Honesty is the criteria I value most in my employees.
Correct: Honesty is the criterion I value most in my employees.
Correct: Effort and willingness to learn are two other criteria I value.

What about media and data? Media is plural; the singular form is medium, but it’s not used a lot. Media is used increasingly as a singular noun: The media is distorting our record. I still prefer to speak of media in the plural: The media occupy a critical role in a democracy. I resist tarring tarring all members of the media with the same brush. But I think it may be a losing battle. Data is now regarded as a mass noun, similar to information, and is usually treated as singular: The data tells us that . . .

Caution: Be especially careful when your sentence begins with There . . . .

Incorrect: There’s too many people in this room. (There’s = There is)
Correct: There are too many people in this room.

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Looking for misplaced or dangling modifiers

Misplaced adverb qualifiers: only, just, almost, nearly
Misplaced modifiers can confuse readers and diffuse the focus of your sentence.
--We will only meet with strong success if all partners support the direction together.
Better wording: We will meet with strong success only if all partners support the direction together. Only is now directly connected to the clause where it belongs.
--General Bouchard didn’t just wind up as a war commander because he happened to be No. 2 to a U.S. admiral in NATO’s Mediterranean headquarters. Better wording: General Bouchard didn’t wind up as a war commander just because he happened to be No. 2 to a U.S. admiral in NATO’s Mediterranean headquarters. Just is now connected to the appropriate clause.

Misplaced prepositional phrases
--Two Charlottesville detectives recovered the computer shortly after the interview with Huguely from a dumpster on Sadler Street, according to the affidavit released Wednesday. Unless Huguely was interviewed in a dumpster, this sentence needs adjustment: Shortly after the interview with Huguely, two Charlottesville detectives recovered the computer from a dumpster on Sadler Street, according to the affidavit released Wednesday.
--He was taken to a hospital where he underwent emergency surgery in a limousine. Surgery in a limousine? Not likely. Here’s a better wording: He was taken in a limousine to a hospital where he underwent emergency surgery.

Dangling modifiers
--Having stood solidly behind our promises for over 120 years, you could say we’ve earned the term trustworthy. (Manulife sign in airport) Did you stand solidly behind those promises? No. So here’s another way to put it: Having stood solidly behind our promises for over 120 years, we think we’ve earned the term trustworthy.
--After losing five major endorsement deals, Rolex climbs aboard. (subhead on newspaper story about Tiger Woods’s loss of sponsors after he admitted to multiple affairs) Rolex did not lose five major endorsement deals; Woods did. So here’s one possible rewrite: After losing five major endorsement deals, Woods finally found Rolex willing to climb aboard.

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Separating snapped-together words

Often, words are “snapped together” when they should be left separate. Here are some examples:
--A FileMaker Pro file can be setup on a network so that others can access the file at the same time. (set up should be separated, since can be set is the verb and up is an adverb)
--The strategy is an especially friendly way for [brokerage and law] firms to layoff partners and managing directors … . (lay off should be separated, since lay is a verb and off is an adverb)
--Music students will jam in rock groups to kickoff the project. (kick off should be separated, since to kick is a verb – infinitive, actually, but we won’t go there right now – and off is an adverb)

Each of these snapped-together words is legitimate in its own right, but as a noun rather than a verb:
Do you think this setup will work?
The layoff affected several hundred workers.
We plan to attend the event’s kickoff next week.

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Rooting out a few more bugaboos

Can’t help but: I can’t help but think you’ll become a stronger writer when you pay attention to details.
It’s clunky and ungrammatical. Delete but and replace with –ing: I can’t help thinking you’ll become … .
Thinking is what I can’t help doing. It’s a noun (called a gerund, made from a verb) and it’s direct object of the verb can (not) help.
Here’s another example: As leaders of the country’s biggest city, mayors [of Toronto] can’t help but feel they should be a political force to be reckoned with. The fix: … mayors can’t help feeling they should be …

Him being: I couldn’t abide him being smug about his croquet win. The sentence should say: I couldn’t abide his being smug about his croquet win. It wasn’t him I couldn’t abide; it was his smugness, darn it!
Here’s another example: Be aware that your audience values you getting to the point. No, no. The audience doesn’t value you, it values getting to the point. So change the sentence: Be aware that your audience values your getting to the point.

Try and: I will try and get that document for you. Literally, this means I both will try and will get the document, but that’s not what I want to say, which is: I will try to get that document for you. I will do my best, but all I’m promising is to try. Otherwise I would simply say: I will get the document for you.

One of those people who: Are you one of those people who goes to great lengths to avoid confrontation? Who goes to great lengths? People. People is plural, so we need a plural verb. The sentence should read: Are you one of those people who go to great lengths to avoid confrontation? You could also reword the sentence: Are you a person who goes to great lengths to avoid confrontation?
Here’s another example: An automotive engineer from Romney’s own Bloomfield Hills was among those who shot to his feet. Got it? Of course. It’s those who shot to their feet.

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Creating consistency with parallel construction

Clarity requires we organize sentences to make them as clear as possible. One of the ways we do that is with parallel construction. This sentence lacks parallel construction:
My summer chores included weeding and cultivating the garden, cut the grass, clean and organize the garage, and to wash the windows.

You probably already noticed how choppy the sentence is. We fix that by giving each object of the verb included an ing ending:
My summer chores included weeding and cultivating the garden, cutting the grass, cleaning and organizing the garage, and washing the windows.
Isn’t this version smoother and clearer? Each of these -ing words is a noun made from a verb: weeding, cultivating,cutting, cleaning, organizing and washing. They are called gerunds.

Here’s another example of non-parallel construction:
Raj loves to spend long hours in bookstores and going to jazz concerts.
This sentence seems to have hiccups as well. We can change it to:
Raj loves spending long hours in bookstores and going to jazz concerts.

This sentence employs a correlative conjunction, either/or, to join two unequal, or at least unclear, propositions:
The finance committee would either recommend doing a complete new audit or form an entirely new company. It’s a bit confusing. Would the finance committee form a new company? Or would it recommend forming a new company?

Here’s a better way to organize the sentence:
The finance committee would recommend either doing a complete new audit or forming an entirely new company. This makes it clear that the finance committee is recommending two possibilities. Often, shifting the word either will make clearer (parallel) the items connected by either/or.
The same treatment applies to the other correlative conjunctions: neither/nor, both/and, not only/but also.

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Avoiding clichés and redundancies

Clichés and other padded or useless words and phrases; avoid them like the plague
as the case may be
at this point in time
back and fill
basically
beat around the bush
between a rock and a hard place
couldn’t care less
down and dirty
due to the fact that
essentially
feather in his/her cap
few and far between
for all intents and purposes
for the purpose of
in an effort to
in my opinion
in terms of
in the near future
in the neighbourhood of
in view of the fact that
I think that
it is felt that
leave no stone unturned
literally
Monday morning quarterback
motherhood and apple pie
no love lost
once and for all
on the same page
owing to the fact that
the fact of the matter is
the light at the end of the tunnel
unleashed a storm of protest
until such time as
virtually
we are in receipt of
withering look
with regard to

Might be better to take these business clichés offline
actionable
a leading provider of
at the end of the day
best of breed
best practices
bottom line
bring our A game
change agent
drop the ball
eco-(whatever)
getting granular
going forward
impactful
line in the sand
low-hanging fruit
multi-tasking
on the same page
paradigm shift
proactive
push the envelope
reach out
seamless integration
state of the art
synergy
take offline
think outside the box
value-added proposition
win-win
world class

When one word is better than two (or more)
All these expressions are redundant. Comb your writing to distill them. Absolutely essential becomes essential. Actual experience becomes experience. Advance planning becomes planning. And so on.
absolutely essential
absolutely necessary
actual experience
added bonus
advance notice
advance planning
advance warning
at this point in time (use now)
at twelve noon
at twelve midnight
basic fundamentals
blazing inferno
boiling hot
but nevertheless
character trait
climb up
close proximity
close scrutiny
complete surprise
completely destroy
completely eliminate
component parts (choose one)
connect together
consensus of opinion
constant nagging
continue on
cozy nook
died suddenly
difficult dilemma
each and every (choose one)
eliminate altogether
empty hole
end result
enter into
erode away
exact replica
existing conditions
fall down
filled to capacity
final outcome
final result
foreseeable future
former graduate
free gift (choose one)
freezing cold
future prospects
general consensus
general public
have an influence on
HIV virus
hot water heater
inadvertent error
join together
joint cooperation
link together
low ebb
major milestone
make an assessment of
meet together
mental attitude
merge together
minestrone soup

more preferable
mutual agreement
natural instinct
necessary prerequisite
new discovery
new innovation
new record
past experience
past history
PC computer (PC = personal computer)
perfectly clear
personal friend
preplan
prerecorded
reason is because
reduce down
refer back
regular routine
repeat again
return back
revert back
rise up
root cause
safe haven
SAT test (SAT = Scholastic Aptitude Test)
serious concern
serious crisis
serious danger
sharp point
significant breakthrough
significant milestone
successful achievement
sum total
surrounded on all sides
technical jargon
terrible tragedy
tiny speck
top priority
total chaos
totally destroyed
totally unique
total surprise
true facts
ultimate goal
unexpected surprise
unsolved mystery
usual custom

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