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Posts within the category: Editing
April 21, 2011
Recently a friend shared her chagrin at discovering that the closure in an email she sent with her resume to a prospective employer contained an obvious typo. The closure!
What would you have advised her to do? Nothing? Apologize for the typing mistake in a second email? Or...?Here's the answer I sent to Heather.
Hello, Heather -
Thanks for contacting me. My heart goes out to your friend; I have made similar errors, in my resume, no less! (Thankfully, I spelled my own name right, which isn't easy.) Actually, it's a tiny bit less embarrassing, in my opinion, to make a typo ("htat" instead of "that") than an actual misspelling ("recieve"), though either error makes the reader mumble "Ever heard of spell check??"
I've found that people fall into two categories when it comes to others' typos or misspellings. One is the "This error is a blight and an indictment" category. These folks regard a single typo in another's writing as evidence of incompetence or a character flaw. If the prospective employer is in this category, an apology will not make the situation better. The second is the "Everyone makes an occasional mistake" category. These folks would probably be open to a quick, charming apology from your friend.
So, I guess I would advise her to jump in and offer an apology and a corrected cover letter. It would be best if she could call the prospective employer to let him know she's sending an updated version, even if she has to leave a voice mail. That way, she can put a smile into her apology and maybe even turn this error into an advantage. After all, a person who goes to these lengths to remedy a typo is likely to be a tenacious worker!Have you ever discovered a typo in your cover letter or resume? If so, how did you handle it? (Just curious - did you get the job??) Do you agree with my advice to Heather's friend? Comment here or let me know what you would do.
February 8, 2011
If you're a web writer, an editor, or a plain language advocate, you've probably encountered this frustrating situation frequently. You're editing a web page or document, and it's loaded with jargon. You flag the terms you know readers won't understand and ask the authors to provide plain language substitutes. "Why simplify?" the subject matter experts ask. "Everyone knows what that term means."
Sarah Shepard, Senior Engineering Research Editor for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), may have come up with the best strategy ever for showing her colleagues that jargon can compromise clarity. She's intent on gathering quantitative data that will show that, in fact, not "everyone" gets DEC's jargon. Sarah is testing DEC's jargon on DEC itself.
Here's how she's doing it. Sarah (and the wordsmiths in the Division of Public Affairs and Education plus other DEC divisions) read through lots of DEC documents and content to identify jargon they're pretty sure many readers don't understand. They came up with hundreds of terms --riparian, mitigation, effluent, appropriation authority -- then whittled the list down to the top 50. Then Sarah set up an anonymous online survey that asks DEC employees to choose the response that best represents their familiarity with each DEC jargon words or phrase:
- I'm not familiar with this word
- I've seen/heard this word, but don't know what it means
- I think I know what this means, but I'm not sure
- I know the meaning of this word
That's right. It's a brilliant strategy. Sarah is asking her colleagues "Do we even understand each other? Because if we don’t get it, our readers -- citizens -- probably don't get it either."
So far, Sarah is pleased and surprised by how many people have responded to the survey, which has been open for only 5 days and already has 521 respondents. (DEC has 2800 employees, so the survey's closing in on a 20% response rate!) And leading the survey as the three least familiar jargon terms: anadromous, down wood, and viewshed. (Could someone pass me a dictionary?)
Many thanks to Sarah for letting me interview her about the DEC jargon survey. I'm looking forward to sharing the survey results, and Sarah's reflections on the survey's outcomes, at the end of this month or the beginning of March.
If you have questions about the jargon survey or DEC's plain language initiative, e-mail Sarah who told me, "I love connecting w/other Plain Language fans."
November 16, 2010
I recently came across an article about 115 forbidden words and expressions compiled by Randy Michaels, CEO of the Tribune Co. The company owns the Chicago radio station WGN, and Michaels forbid radio anchors and reporters from using these words. Among forbidden words and expressions are some that make me cringe as well.
- 5 a.m. in the morning
- at this point in time
- close proximity
- fatal death
- in harm’s way
- completely destroyed, completely abolished, completely finished or any other completely redundant use
Following up on Michaels' directive, WGN’s news director Charlie Meyerson circulated the list to on-air talent. He directed his staff to report co-worker infractions, noting the precise time and date on "bingo” cards.
That got me thinking about overused and misused words and expressions that I’d like to outlaw. Here are my baker's dozen. Some of them have been around for a long time and are worn out. Others have worn out their welcome in just a short time. (None are on the WGN list.)
- Special. You’d have thought that Dana Carey’s SNL parodies of “isn’t that special,” in the 1980s, would have put this on the endangered list. But despite The Church Lady, it's now applied to almost every person, gift, event, activity, organization, and promotion. The result: special is no longer special.
- Awesome. The Grand Canyon and Taj Mahal are awesome. Most everything else is not.
- Absolutely. Perhaps the most overused expression in the English language. Explains CNN'S John Blake: "It's a verbal virus that's spreading unchecked on TV, radio and in print. Want to sound certain? Want to remove all doubt? Want to be a commentator on TV? Absolutely."
- Issues. A nicer way of saying problems: I have issues with this plan. He has commitment issues. She has health issues. Why not just say problems?
- Cool. This is a relic from the 1950s. Beatniks were cool.
- Guys. You guys. Those guys. This expression jumped genders and now refers to any group of people. I particularly hate it when my waiter says, “I’ll be serving you guys.”
- Throw under the bus. Shorthand for sacrificing a person for political gain. Among those who were or weren’t thrown under the bus by President Obama were Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and Obama’s grandmother. Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was thrown under the bus for an out-of-context remark then pulled out from under the bus when it became known that she was a civil rights activist. On the Republican side, Scooter Libby was thrown under the bus by Vice President Dick Cheney.
- Not so much. Edgy satirist Lenny Bruce used this phrase in the 1960s. But the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart popularized it. When asked which Democrat he saw stepping forward to lead the party: "I like this guy John Kennedy. Since him, not so much."
- My bad. This one grated on me from the time I first heard it, and it continues to feel like chalk on a squeaky board. (Talk about outdated expressions! Marking pen on a white board?) While historians trace this back to Shakespeare, it came into the mainstream with the 1995 movie Clueless. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) swerves to avoid hitting a bicyclist. “Whoops, my bad.”
- It is what it is. This bit of Zen philosophy has come to mean whatever you want it to mean. Among the meanings: screw it, that’s the way it is, nothing we can do about it, and que sera, sera. It normally puts the brakes on discussion. What can you say in response?
- Not that I’m. . . (prejudiced, racist, homophobic, sexist). This almost always precedes a statement that shows prejudice. Explains Rational Wiki, "These words are spoken in the mistaken belief that simply saying 'I'm not prejudiced' is enough to exempt the speaker from responsibility for the offensive comment they are about to make."
- Get it. He gets it. She doesn’t get it. These phrases express exasperation at someone's failure to understand something. It owes its popularity to the great communicator Ronald Reagan. In a 1980s presidential debate, then candidate Reagan chided his opponent, President Jimmy Carter: "You just don't get it, do you?"
- Shellacking. Okay, this is a preemptive strike. President Obama used it to describe the Democrats' heavy losses in the 2010 mid-term election. But I’ve heard it enough times since then to merit its inclusion in the list.
Alas, I’m not the head of a large media conglomerate. I don’t have the power to enforce or humiliate those who use my outlawed expressions. Compliance is voluntary; I can only plead.
What's on your list of overused and abused expressions? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I'll compile the list and post it.
-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
August 29, 2010
Sometimes the best solution to a problem is the simplest one. Overweight? Eat less. Low on funds? Sell the flowery china you inherited from your great aunt.
Flabby, non-engaging web content? Cut it in half. Sometimes the best thing you can do to your web content is just make it shorter by half.
My experiment: halve the word count at consulting company's web page
Through a random Google search, I found Blue Jay Consulting's "Approach"
page and decided to use it test my edit-with-machete technique. (Full disclosure: I don't know anyone at Blue Jay Consulting or anything about the company; I'm not a hater or a fan.) Here's the original content at 153 words:
Our goal is to optimize the performance of every organization with which we work. We figure out how to maximize the capability of systems and personnel alike. Our techniques are proven, our consultants are respected and our clients benefit from quantifiable results.
We base all of our efforts on the following general approach:
- Conduct a thorough assessment of the department. What's not working, what's not making sense? Where are the problems, where are the opportunities?
- Dive into day-to-day operations to gain insight into your organization's performance.
- Present a set of recommendations for department-wide improvements.
- Partner with personnel from all areas of the hospital -- including administration, physicians and front-line staff -- in problem-solving efforts.
- Remain in place during the implementation of new process and system improvements in order to manage the change and provide support.
- Maintain ongoing contact with clients to ensure sustainability of achieved successes.
My 50-percent-shorter version (76 words)
We improve your organization’s performance by maximizing the capabilities
of your systems and personnel. Our consultants employ our proven six-step approach to gain you quantifiable results:
- Assess the department to discover problems and opportunities.
- Analyze day-to-day operations to understand the department’s performance.
- Recommend improvements.
- Partner with administration, physicians, and front-line staff to solve problems.
- Provide support while you implement new processes.
- Maintain contact so you can sustain your successes.
What I learned from my cut-content-by-half experiment
- This was hard work, which I couldn't accomplish in one sitting. I had to do this word whittling in several rounds.
- I may have inadvertently altered the meaning of this content, so if you're cutting your own content by half, be careful.
- Shorter isn't always better. I kind of liked the original sentence "Our techniques are proven, our consultants are respected and our clients benefit from quantifiable results." My version is shorter, but it doesn't have the rhythm of the original: "Our consultants employ our proven six-step approach to gain you quantifiable results..."
Are you game? Try this 50-percent-less experiment on your content and let me know whether the task was difficult and whether you like the shorter version. If you'd like, we'll link to your new, streamlined content here (especially if you'll show us the longer version too).
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
July 11, 2010
We recently evaluated the correspondence of a major insurance company and its competitors. Using a benchmarking tool we developed, we rated their e-mails and letters to customers on seven Standards. One Standard that we carefully looked at was tone: "Correspondence is written in a personal, professional tone."
While the topic of the correspondence frequently involved complex legal and regulatory issues, the insurance companies did a very good job of creating a personal and professional tone. Exactly how did they do this? We've identified the excellent strategies they used and provided some examples. We've also flagged some lapses in tone that you may find creeping into your own correspondence.
We think these do's and don'ts provide guidance on creating the right tone in any industry or organization.
Strategies That Create a Personal, Professional Tone
1. Do use personal pronouns.
- You will receive your ATM/Debit Card by mail within seven to ten days.
- You're automatically enrolled in our free online bill paying program.
2. Do use active voice.
- Send your payment to the address on your billing statement.
3. Do use action verbs.
- You can pay bills, transfer funds, request your auto ID card, place stock trades, set up alerts and more.
4. Do use plain, simple language.
- We’re letting you know about those changes so you can take advantage of today’s earning levels and rewards. You will not lose points, and you have until March 31, 2010, to redeem your points at the current level.
5. Do use words that show respect for customers.
- You are a valued customer, and we thank you for banking with us.
- For more information, please call a customer service representative at XXXX. We apologize for this inconvenience and look forward to continuing to serve your financial needs.
Tone Lapses That Make the Writing Stiff and Bureaucratic
1. Don't use passive voice.
- No action is necessary unless this activity occurred without your knowledge or permission.
2. Don't use bureaucratic language.
- Our records show that on 5/12/09 at 11:44 AM, you accessed your online account and established or updated the following information: Password
- The disclosed and corrected information is as follows:
- We are enclosing an "Important Information About Damage Caused by Flooding" notice, which you should also keep with the above referenced policy.
3. Don't use inflated and clichéd words and phrases.
- Rest assured that you will continue to enjoy unparalleled value from our rewards program.
- Due to the new regulations
- These are challenging economic times for everyone.
4. Don't use caveats and legalese.
- Based on the information you provided and certain assumptions we made (such as assumptions about the credit report information we obtained) to calculate this estimate, the estimated cost for the auto insurance we discussed with the coverages, limits and deductibles shown below is $407/6 months.
What did we learn by evaluating insurance industry correspondence? It doesn't take a gecko to communicate with customers. The right tone is not a matter of accent or species. It's choosing the right words.
-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
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