by E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan

Post archive for August, 2009

August 21, 2009

Customer Satisfaction Surveys: It's All in the Writing

Well, maybe not all in the writing, but many common mistakes made in developing surveys come from inexact wording of questions. This is according to Fred Van Bennekom, principal of Great Brook Consulting, who gave an excellent presentation—The Dirty Dozen of Common Survey Mistakes—at this month's meeting of the Capital Area Chapter of HDI, a membership association for people who work in IT support.

Here are some of the common writing-related survey mistakes Fred described:

  1. Double-barreled questions. Here's an example from a local government's land use survey: "Our town should ensure the protection of critical natural resources and wildlife habitats in land use decisions and policies." If a respondent agrees we should protecting resources but doesn't think we should protect habitats, he's stuck. With this double-barreled question, he has to answer yes or no to both.
  2. Overuse of open-ended questions. These questions invite, and require, a lot of writing. Too many of them will tire respondents out. Besides, the information you gather in open-ended questions is harder to compile.
  3. Poor instructions on how to show a response. Should respondents check a box, circle a term, or rank options in order of importance? If you aren't very clear about what to do, respondents will do things the wrong way and you'll have to toss out their feedback.
  4. Questions written in loaded language. You may already know what survey results you're hoping for, but, among other sins, loaded questions waste respondents' time. Here's a biased example Fred shared, drawn from the land use survey: "Agree or disagree with the following statement: 'The population growth in our town is stressing town services and educational facilities.'" Hmmm...I wonder whether they want me to agree or disagree.
  5. Questions not worded to the scale. If the survey offers respondents an Excellent-Satisfactory-Poor scale, it should not ask yes-no questions such as "Was the audit conducted in a professional manner?"
  6. Incomplete response options. Some surveys fail to offer the range of options a respondent will need. Fred provided this example of a customer satisfaction survey he completed after a stay in a luxury hotel. One of the items he was asked to rate: "Ability of the staff to anticipate your needs." The survey should have included a Not Applicable option, as guests may have had all their needs met without any evidence that staff had anticipated them. And honestly, how would guests know that staff had anticipated their needs?


Does the
Macys.com/tellus survey avoid common mistakes?

With Fred's advice still resonating, I rifled through the huge collection of receipts in my wallet to find one that listed a survey URL so I could weigh in on my experience as a customer. My Macy's receipt led me to this survey. At first glance, I thought the Macy's survey generally followed the guidelines Fred provided. The questions are clear enough, the response options match the questions, and I'm given the chance to provide comments. On closer inspection, Macy's could improve the writing a bit:

  • The capitalization is inconsistent (see technician)
  • The question about scheduling in-home service is double-barreled, asking about both promptness and satisfaction.
  • The choice of the word quoted is interesting. Was the survey too timid to use the word promised?


Now that we've opened the topic of survey writing, we're inviting you to share. Send us examples of well-written, or badly written, surveys. We're especially interested in online surveys that solicit customer responses.

-- Leslie O'Flahavan

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August 20, 2009

Fact Checking Health Care: Truth or Truthiness?

Death panels. Government take over. Revenue neutral. The frenzy over health care reform is a potent reminder that the Internet provides a staggering amount of information—and misinformation. How do you separate the truth from what political satirist Stephen Colbert terms truthiness —what we “know” without regard to evidence, logic or facts? 

Turns out, it’s not easy to ferret out the truth. Googling “facts about health care reform” turns up 5,320,000 hits! Where do you begin?

Start with the source of the information. Who owns the website or blog? What are the credentials and biases of the website owner? One of the pillars of good web writing is credibility. It doesn’t matter how well written the web content is if the credentials of the individuals or organization responsible for the content are dubious. 

Take Snopes.com, for instance, which appeared near the top of my Google search results. Snopes stamped this fact as false:

“The health care bill currently before Congress mandates that seniors be given euthanasia counseling every five years.”

But who is Snopes? I had to drill down deep (5 clicks) to find information on the site owners, Barbara and David Mikkelson. Browsing their press clips turned up a Reader’s Digest article that identified them as "the Internet’s preeminent resource for verifying and debunking rumors.” Do good press and prominent search engine listings make a site credible? Despite agreeing with the Mikkelson’s conclusion, I didn’t have sufficient information to judge their credentials.

One person’s facts are another person’s falsehoods. The White House has created its own fact checking site: Health Care Reform Reality Check.  So has House Republican Leader John Boehner: Top 10 Facts About House Democrats' Health Care "Reform Legislation." It hardly seems like the two parties are talking about the same legislation.

  • White House: “Your Medicare is safe and stronger with reform."
  • House Republican Leader: The Democrat’s plan will result in Medicare “benefit cuts and premium increases.”

Truth or Truthiness?  Since the site owners are clearly identified, you can factor in their biases in weighting their claims.

Are there any trusted, impartial fact checking sites? The St. Petersburg Times Politifact.com buttresses its claim to the truth with a Pulitzer Prize. That goes a long way toward establishing credibility with me. I like PolitiFact’s simple, uncomplicated Truth-O-Meter on health care reform.

President Obama’s claim: “We’re not talking about cutting Medicare benefits.” (Truth-O-Meter rating: half true).

Also scoring favorably on my trustworthy score card is FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, whose research I’ve found to be sound and unbiased. Their analysis of The 60 Plus Association TV ad saying Congress plans to cut $500 billion from Medicare: “Senior Scare."

As for the other 5,315,000 sites that Google turned up? Information overload on the Internet makes the job of fact checking—regardless of the topic—complicated and time consuming. It is wise to view all facts with skepticism, and carefully check out the source of information, the site owner’s credentials and biases. The hard truth is that it takes a lot of work to find the facts. 

It makes me nostalgic for the days when there was one indisputable source for the truth: Walter Cronkite.

-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)

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August 17, 2009

Will They (Tweeters) Change Grammar?

It’s not news that language evolves. Nor is it news that the Internet has accelerated the evolution. So no wonder grammar has become a hot topic among Twitter users.  

The conversation is focused on a grammatical oddity: we have a gender-neutral plural pronoun they but not a gender-neutral singular pronoun.  If you are talking about more than one person you’d write: “They all keep in touch by texting.” But if you are referring to just one person, you’ve got to be gender-specific: "He (or she) keeps in touch by texting."

Perhaps it is Twitter’s limit of 140 characters per tweet that has pushed this debate to the forefront. Why spend nine characters writing he or she when you can do it with four (they). Twitterers are asking: "Why can’t we have a gender-neutral singular pronoun?Among the nominees: s/he, he/she, shhe.  Or why can’t we use they as a singular and plural pronoun? “Anyone who thinks they qualify for the bonus should contact their supervisor."

Of course grammar traditionalists say we already have a gender-neutral singular pronoun: he.  But since the 1970s, we’ve been making language gender neutral. Chairperson has replaced chairman, mail carrier has replaced mailman, flight attendant has replaced stewardess. And: Each applicant will have his or her loan documents reviewed.”

Some grammarians have thrown in the towel on the they-as-singular-pronoun debate: R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, writes that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English. The Chicago Manual of Style straddles the fence. Though some writers are comfortable with the occasional use of they as a singular pronoun, some are not, and it is better to do the necessary work to recast a sentence or, other options having been exhausted, use he or she.” 

I’m not about to weigh in on this grammar controversy. (If you think the health care debate is nasty…) Instead, I’m offering three character-light options for editing this sentence: Each applicant will have his loan documents reviewed by the committee. (71 characters)

Three Twitter-Friendly Work-Arounds for the Singular/Plural Pronoun Problem

  1. Use a plural noun.
    Applicants will have their loan documents reviewed by the committee. (68 characters)
  2. Eliminate pronouns when possible.
    Each applicant will have loan documents reviewed by the committee. (66 characters)
  3. Use second person pronouns you or your.
    The committee will review your loan documents. (a slim 46 characters!)

What’s your opinion on the they-as-singular-pronoun debate? Please post your comments.

-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)

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August 13, 2009

76 Online Opportunities to Build Your Punctuation Skills

Who says resolutions have to be made in January? If you've vowed to become a better writer or editor, use some of your downtime this summer to complete these free online grammar, punctuation, or usage exercises offered by the writing labs at various colleges. You'll spruce up your skills with hands-on practice and instant feedback.

NOTE: I've used the exact title of each online exercise, so there's some inconsistency (but not mine) in capitalization, etc.


From Purdue University's Online Writing Lab's Interactive Exercises Index:


From Capital Community College's Guide to Grammar and Writing, a
List of Interactive Quizzes:


From Empire State College's "Writer's Complex," a list of online exercises:


From D'Youville College's Online Writing Lab, a list of punctuation practices:


From University of Otowa's Writing Centre:


From Towson University's Online Writing Support site, a list of punctuation exercises:


Oh my. That's a lot of practice. I dare you to misuse a comma now!

-- Leslie O'Flahavan

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August 6, 2009

Crimes Against Clarity: Marketese and Malaprops

"These people really need you."  That's what I hear just before a reader, client, or other word lover shows me some buzzword-loaded, abstraction-choked paragraph of marketese she's found online. And that's what Writing Matters reader Jill Leahy said to me when she forwarded this spectacle of bureaucratic PR verbiage published by the Federal Reserve in a press release last spring:

The TALF is designed to catalyze the securitization markets by providing financing to investors to support their purchases of certain AAA-rated asset-backed securities (ABS).

But "catalyze the securitization markets" pales in comparison to this dreadful clump of Frost & Sullivan marketing copy submitted (but not written by) by reader Jennifer Plath.

The sales of machine vision (MV) systems witnessed continuous growth until mid-2008 due to strong fundamentals - rapid innovation rates and the deployment of machine vision in an ever increasing range of  applications. However economic recessionary trends affecting the manufacturing sector adversely have triggered a decline in the vision systems market since the last quarter of 2008. Nevertheless high innovation rates and new applications development continue to open up new vistas of growth for the machine vision industry. Cutting down vision system integration and development costs, acquiring strong core technology capabilities in vision systems integration, and diversification of business to new applications and markets are key requirements for sustenance for players in the MV market.

Jennifer was right on the money when she described this paragraph as terribly
wordy, indicted its tortured sentences, and commented that it is "... hard to read, even though there isn’t that much being said."

And while we're on the topic of writers' "word stumbles" (or outright word crimes) we've started a running list of malaprops and hope you'll add to it. Reader Barbara Hughes, who has an eye for these things, sent us:

  • a gluten for punishment
  • for all intensive purposes
  • Wa-lah! (instead of Voila!)

Krista Molino (via Twitter) has contributed:

  • mute point

My two malaprop finds for the week are:

  • just my two sense
  • all the sudden

And Marilynne has contributed what has to be this week's winner:

  • flash in the pants

Let's keep the list growing. Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ... I mean send me your examples of marketese or malaprops or post them as a comment. I can't wait to read what you've found.

-- Leslie O'Flahavan

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