by Barbara McNichol
When polishing your sentences, pay attention to the nuances of word order. Yes, it matters!
Here’s a simple example from a recent book I edited:
“He was well respected and loved in the academic community.”
I changed it to:
“He was loved and well respected in the academic community.”
Because “loved” is 5 letters and “well respected” is 13, it makes for a smoother read if the longer phrase follows the shorter word. See if you agree.
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, financial resources, or opportunities.”
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, opportunities, or financial resources.” This shift creates a tidy parade of words from short to long.
Word Order in Lists
In addition, a list is visually easier to follow when the line length goes from short to long. This example is from a leadership newsletter:
It would be counterproductive if you:
- Take the time to plan your day, but you don’t follow the plan.
- Hire people to do a job but don’t take time training them to do that job.
- Have slow-moving products in your inventory that generate low margins.
- Conduct an employee engagement survey and do nothing with the results.
- Attend a trade show to network with customers but spend your time on the phone.
To get a feel for how adjectives line up best in a sentence, this blog post summarizes it beautifully: http://barbaramcnichol.com/2017/11/02/order-place-adjectives-sentence-explained/
For even more tips, go to http://barbaramcnichol.com/2016/03/06/5-writing-tips-to-improve-your-readability/
Key message: Better writing means paying attention to the best use of word order!
by Barbara McNichol
Incremental learning makes a difference when you set any goal for yourself, including becoming a better writer.
Why would you desire to have better writing? To get hired or promoted, to attract more clients, to build your reputation and boost your book sales–to name only a few benefits.
Your action item: To reap these benefits, set aside time for 18 days to improve your writing, whether it’s for book chapters, reports, or sensitive emails.
In each of those days, you would study one of these easy, effective tips to hone your writing craft. Using them habitually, you’ll find you get better results and your confidence will grow. Any time you might spend in a writing WordShop (including those I offer) is reinforced by the ideas in this e-guide.
Your assurance: These practical, immediately usable tips have been compiled over years of editing nonfiction books and conducting business writing classes. You can feel assured writers have tested them thoroughly!
Your goal: Make a point of integrating a fresh tip into your writing every day. You’ll see how perfecting the communication loop through improved writing benefits your readers, your coworkers, you clients, and ultimately your career.
Your Key to Better Writing
This e-guide can be purchased for only $14.95. Click here to order. Use code 18DAYS to receive a $4.95 discount! Any questions? Contact me at email@example.com
Have you already worked with this e-guide? If so, please leave your comments here. How did it help you? Inquiring minds want to know!
by Barbara McNichol
In wanting to cover many aspects of a topic, business writers sometimes throw down so many variables that readers have no way to gauge the importance of each. They feel weighed down trying!
Look at these examples in business writing:
- The professor included and provided a methodology for continuing the effort.
- The state and local leaders developed and drafted numerous statutes.
- We need to appreciate and understand the factors affecting the time and place.
The “Pick One” Principle
You can lighten your readers’ load by applying the “pick one” principle. You’ll find it works for all kinds of business writing—emails, reports, manuscripts, and more.
The “pick one” principle asks: “Which word better describes what you want to say—the word before or after the and?” Then pick the one that adds more emphasis and accuracy to your meaning.
In Example 1, which word better conveys the meaning—included or provided? In this context, provided can cover the meaning for both—that is, if something is provided, we can assume it’s included. Pick one: provided.
The professor provided a methodology for continuing the effort.
Example 2 has the word and in two places, making the sentence long-winded. For developed and drafted, the more apt word is drafted because something can’t be drafted without being developed first. Pick one: drafted.
“Pick one” also applies to making a single-word substitution. For example, state and local could be changed to government without altering the meaning in this context.
The government leaders drafted numerous statutes.
In Example 3, because appreciate and understand are so close in meaning, using both is like saying it twice. “Pick one” to streamline the writing. For time and place, we could substitute a single word: situation.
We need to understand the factors affecting the situation.
Rule of Thumb in Business Writing
When you reread anything you’ve written, find all the places you’ve used and, then apply the “pick one” principle wherever possible. That way, you won’t dilute the meaning of your message or needlessly weigh down your readers.
Give them a break. Pick one!
Want more tips like this to hone your writing skills? You’ll find 18 Days to Become a Better Writer an easy-to-use e-guide. Start your journey today by clicking here. Use code 18DAYS at checkout for a discount.
Share examples of “pick one” from your own writing here.
In the ’60s, a movement started to encourage people to share in conscious expressions of Gratitude on one day of the year. World Gratitude Day was born. How can you celebrate World Gratitude Day this September 21st?
I suggest setting aside time to express appreciation for your family, your community, your friends, your business associates, and anyone or anything that makes your life better—even animals and technologies.
Express gratitude to people who source, prepare, and serve your food and deliver your mail. Thank community leaders and employees who imagined, built, and continue to provide the systems that serve you. Thank those customers who put money in your pocket so you can live well. What would you add that’s specific to your life?
I am grateful for opportunities to spread light, love, and kindness every day. And I’m especially grateful to you for allowing me to help you make your dreams stronger through better writing.
Happy Gratitude Day.
P.S. Don’t forget to celebrate National Punctuation Day on September 24th!
by Dianna Booher (reprinted with permission)
Tim, a friend of mine back in college, had the weird habit of setting his alarm to go off at 7:00 am on Saturdays when he had no intention of getting out of bed early. “Why?” I asked him one day when we were complaining about studying late for exams and getting up early for class during the week.
“Oh, I don’t get up at 7:00! I just love the feeling of slapping off the alarm and knowing that I can roll over and go back to sleep for another 3 hours.”
Often, during the last three decades as I’ve coached, consulted, trained, and keynoted throughout organizations across myriad industries, I hear a similar sentiment. It’s just worded a little differently: “That department sends so much paperwork and nags us for so much information. It feels good just to ignore them.”
You have an essential mission, of course. And certainly you need to recruit, develop, and retain top talent to accomplish your goals. That involves educating your team about budget, resources, regulations, and compliance matters. Yet it’s not uncommon to hear complaints like these:
- “They’re nonresponsive; they move too slowly.”
- “Getting pre-approval just muddies the water.”
- “They’ll tie your hands. They’re not risk-takers. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Could better—but fewer—emails close the gap between those negative perceptions and your essential mission?
Stated another way: Do you say too much, . . . about too little, . . . too often? And does this habit bury critical communication your team needs to hear?
The Stats About Overload
Wherever we go, most of us are still tapping away. At the airport. At the gym. At the beach. From a hospital bed. At sunrise. Over lunch. During dinner. Chances are, email habits drain you and your employees, both mentally and emotionally. That spells lost productivity for your organization, stress for you and them, and ultimately the need to tune out periodically.
We were told more than two decades ago that email would revolutionize the way we work and save us an enormous amount of time. While email has many benefits, it has also engulfed us and created other productivity drains.
My organization, Booher Research Institute, recently commissioned a survey of email communication habits and productivity from the Social Research Lab at the University of Northern Colorado. Here’s what a representative sampling of knowledge workers across multiple industries reported about their email habits:
–42 percent spend 3 hours or more per day reading and writing email
–55 percent check email either hourly or multiple times per hour
–34 percent say the email they get is redundant (meaning they receive duplicate copies) or irrelevant to their needs
Send Fewer Emails to Get Quicker Action
When you send multiple emails regarding the same issue (reminders and follow-ups), people start to tune out—to that specific message and others you send. In essence, you are “training” readers to ignore “first editions.” As with those who hit the snooze button on their alarm clocks multiple times, people become accustomed to ignoring required action until they get several email reminders.
Many conference planners have communicated through this typical “cycle” and learned this principle the hard way. For example, their annual convention ends in August. They began sending periodic emails: “Sign up now for next year to get a big discount.” Then to speakers, they start a different email series: “Propose to speak.” Then, it’s “The proposal deadline is coming.” Then, “The deadline is about to close.” Then, “We’re extending the deadline to give you longer to propose.”
Then the next series starts: “Submit your materials by X date. Then, “This is a reminder to submit your materials by X date.” Then, “This is your last reminder to submit your materials by X date.” Then, “We’re extending the submission deadline.” Then, “We’ve changed the date for you to submit materials to give you adequate time. The new date is Y.”
You get the idea. Such communication habits sound like a parent’s saying to the four-year-old, “This is the last time I’m going to tell you this last time to pick up your toys.”
Lighten your load and stress: Don’t train your employees to ignore you.
Engage Fewer People to Get More Responses
Culling your distribution lists for emails you send will likely increase engagement on important projects. As with meetings, the larger the group, the lower the individual participation. When you’re emailing a group for input (for example, a group of engineers about their training needs for the new year), the same principle applies: When you copy a large list, people feel anonymous, and fewer feel obligated to respond.
If you want/need input, cut your list, and you’ll increase response—not to mention clearing inboxes for the uninterested.
Clarify and Adapt to Standard Response Times
Eighty percent of the participants in the UNC survey said typically expect readers to respond to “important” outside emails within four hours or less; 24 percent expect a response within an hour or less.
What’s the expected response time in the culture of the team you’re serving? Four hours? Twenty-four hours? Should you adapt to it? Are there exceptions to these standards? If so, what? If you don’t know, find out from the organizational leader. (If you are the leader, communicate that standard to your team.) Protect your organizational brand and your personal brand by living up to the expectations.
Slow responses suggest many things—most of them negative.
- You’re overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the pace.
- You’re puzzled by the decision or action required.
- Your system of handling daily inquiries is ineffective.
- You have a staffing problem.
- The situation, decision, or project is unimportant to you.
- You need to gather more information or input before replying.
- You need time to deliberate before responding.
Can you routinely afford to be considered the bottleneck?
Email can be an enormous time saver–unless poor communication practices diminish its benefits and create an untamed monster. To tame the beast and reclaim your time, send fewer but better emails to engage team members to act on the essential.
Learn more ways to tame the email monster in Faster, Fewer, Better Emails: Manage the Volume, Reduce the Stress, Love the Results. Click here for details.
How would Dianna’s advice–send fewer but better emails–make a difference in your world? Share your comments here.
By Dianna Booher (used with permission)
In today’s world, we work, live, and die by email. Okay, I exaggerate. But it’s hard to get through a week without weeding your way through an overflowing inbox. How do you make your emails stand out—positively rather than negatively—from competitors?
For starters, correct these problems…
3 Common Email Mistakes
Vague Subject Lines
Subject lines should be a condensed version of your message and the action you want. They should be informative, not mysterious—unless you’re an email marketer. And even then, marketers often find that vague headlines don’t always intrigue buyers.
A quick scan of a week’s inbox reveals subject lines like these:
A Quick Question (About what?)
Following Up (On what?)
Last-Minute Details (Is the reader asking for them or giving them?)
Can you imagine reading newspaper headlines as vague as these: “Stock Market.” “Taxes.” “Blizzard Conditions.” You wouldn’t know where to begin reading. Unless you’re a novelist—a mystery writer at that!—turn your subject lines into informative headlines.
Subject lines should be specific, useful, brief:
How to Register for the Upcoming RW Conference & Expo
New Dates for Denver New Product Orientation: Aug 12-13
Stopping Work on FTD Coding: Glitch in Step 7
Available Friday for Call About Licensing Extension?
Unclear Actions and Timeframes
Don’t hint or imply. State exactly what you want the reader to do and when. You can soften a request by stating the action as a question or by adding a courtesy word. For example: “Would you please send me your feedback on the demo equipment by Friday, May 6?” Such a statement sounds friendly, yet still sets expectations.
Never equate courtesy with vagueness. Phrases such as “at your earliest convenience” or “as soon as possible” simply leave your reader guessing. You can be both pleasant and precise.
Openings That Close Doors
In the classic movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise barges into his home after an argument and long separation from his wife, starts an explanation meant as an apology, and makes a romantic plea: “You complete me… You…”
She interrupts, “You had me at hello.”
In case you don’t recall the movie plot, let me just say the similarity to email greetings stops there: Your email readers are not in love with you. (Okay, maybe your family members love you. Possibly a few favorite customers love you.) But even if emailing best friends, chances are they already have an overflowing inbox and may not want another email from you.
So your email greetings should warm clients and prospects up—not put them off.
Another thing about greetings: Stand out by “mixing It up.” My colleague Bill Lampton has mastered this principle well. Every email from him sounds as though he has just walked into my office with a fresh comment of the morning. Here are some recent greetings from his emails:
Very good, Dianna. The next thing….
How about Tuesday, Dianna?
Good morning, Dianna!
For sure, Dianna… Mid- to late-May fits my schedule…
I totally agree, Dianna, about the need to …
See how these greetings pull you right into the email as if we’re in a relationship and the conversation is just continuing?
That’s exactly the feeling you want your customers to have as they see your email in the preview window—that they’re in an ongoing relationship with you and should respond as if face to face.
So how to break through the email barrier and get quicker responses? Be specific. Say it in the subject line. Make sure your greeting warms buyers up—not puts them off.
Learn more ways to improve your email communication in Faster, Fewer, Better Emails: Manage the Volume, Reduce the Stress, Love the Results by Dianna Booher. Click here for details.
by Barbara McNichol
Suppose you’re composing a sensitive email, article, or letter—one that’s extremely important in your world. But the message must be as clear and concise as possible.
Ask these five writing questions and follow the examples. From there, make changes that will immediately improve your prose and ensure you’ve written what you meant to write.
- Have you put in filler words that don’t add meaning to your sentence? E.g., Starting a sentence with “there are” or “here is” or a variation. “Here are excellent points to consider” becomes “Consider these points.” More direct!
- Can you spot and eliminate extraneous phrases? Omit “the fact of the matter is…” or “it’s important to remember that…” or “it’s all about…” Like filler words, they take up space without adding meaning.
- Where can you use noun modifiers to be more concise? E.g., “Tips on writing” becomes “Writing tips” and “Details regarding the conference” becomes “conference details.”
- How can you streamline sentences without changing the meaning? Look for “who” and “which” phrases. E.g., “Dee, who is our new manager, just had surgery” becomes “Our new manager, Dee, just had surgery.” “Our report, which we finished, is on your desk” becomes “We put our finished report on your desk.” Bonus: It uses an active verb.
- How can you use commas sparingly but also when needed to clarify the meaning of your sentences? E.g., “You can overlook punctuation rules and people will have trouble reading your writing and your ideas will get lost.” Without a comma after rules, this can be misread to say: “You can overlook punctuation rules and people…” That’s why you need the comma after rules. Even clearer would be: “If you overlook punctuation rules, people will have trouble reading your words, and your ideas will get lost.”
What writing questions would you add to these five that would help hone your writing to perfection before saying, “I’m done”? Note them in the comments section.
Want more tips like this to answer your writing questions and advance your career? You’ll find 18 Days to Become a Better Writer an easy-to-use e-guide. Start your journey to #betterwriting by clicking here.
by Barbara McNichol
The play Fiddler on the Roof recently came through my city, and my friend kept singing her dad’s favorite song from that hit: “If I Were a Rich Man.” My comment? “I’m glad the lyricist got the grammar right!”
Why is the use of “were” (not “was”) correct in this song title and similar phrases? Consider the conditional meaning associated with using an “if” clause. In this case, the lyrics “if I were a rich man” reflect a wishful condition, not a true statement.
You may recall how Tevye, the character in Fiddler on the Roof who sang this song, lamented his lowly position as a milkman and wondered what wealth would bring to his life.
If at one time he had been rich, he could factually say, “When I was a rich man.” But in the context of Fiddler on the Roof, he could only hope to be rich.
What about the song “If I Were a Carpenter”? Here, the lyricist correctly uses “were” to depict a hope or dream, not a current fact.
When It’s Correct to Use “Was”
So when would you use “was” (not “were”) in an “if” clause? When it introduces an indirect question or statement of fact. Examples:
- The boss asked if I was (not “were”) finished with the report. This factual statement is based on what’s true or possible, not something hypothetical.
- If he was (not “were”) guilty, he would have remained silent. This states a fact that’s likely true, not something conditional.
In the statements you write, remember to use “were” when the situation calls for being conditional, hypothetical, or wishful. And like Tevye, that’s how you can make a plea for the wealth you wish for!
Want more tips like this to hone your writing skills and advance your career? You’ll find 18 Days to Become a Better Writer an easy-to-use e-guide.
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