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Post archive for November, 2010
November 22, 2010
Plain Language Writing Workshop - Six Strategies for Cleaning the Clutter From Your Writing: December 8, 2010
In honor of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, we are offering a practical, hands-on, half-day workshop on strategies for writing in plain language. Register now to join us for this workshop on December 8, 2010 in Silver Spring, Maryland. In this workshop, you'll learn how to use clear, accurate wording that will help your reader do what you ask and understand what you mean. Spend an afternoon brushing up your own writing skills and learn how to improve the documents you edit for others.
You will learn:
- How to tailor your writing to your readers' needs
- A two-tier process for editing for conciseness
- How to make your writing scannable
- How, and when, to display information in vertical lists or tables
- How to cut word count by 10 percent, 25 percent, or even 50 percent
- How, and why, to write in active voice
You should attend this workshop if you:
- Value clarity in written communication
- Need to improve your writing skills
- Want to be able to explain to colleagues why their writing needs to be edited
- Are interested in how the Plain Writing Act of 2010 will affect writing in the government and beyond
You will receive:
- A notebook containing course exercises and resources
- Before-and-after examples that show the power of a plain language rewrite
- A plain language resource list
Contact me at 301-989-9583 or Leslie@ewriteonline.com for more information or to learn about a tuition discount for enrolling three or more people from your organization.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
November 19, 2010
Sometimes, people use e-mail to appear to communicate without actually doing so. That's the case in the e-mail exchange sent to me by my friend and colleague Deborah. Here's how she explained it. "Leslie, tonight is the annual meeting of my condo community, with election of new board members. At 1:15 today, I received the following mass e-mail from the community manager."
Subject: You can email your vote
Time: 1:15 pm
If you cannot attend the Annual Meeting tonight, you can email your vote today. Just fill out the attached ballot and email it back to me by 3 pm. It is important that everyone vote.....
Deborah then explained to me, "The attachment is a .JPG, a scan of the ballot. So, here's my response to the community manager."
Subject: RE: You can email your vote
Time: 1:45 pm
Excellent idea about e-mailing the ballot by 3 p.m., but this is a .JPG file -- a graphic. To "fill it out," I'd have to print it, mark my selections, scan it, download the scan, and then e-mail it back. That seems kinda complicated.
And here's the kicker, the manager's final reply:
Subject: RE: You can email your vote
Time: 2:00 pm
This year this is our option, unfortunately we did not have the time to simplify the process. We hope to make this simple in future years.
Deborah wrapped up by commenting "At least he was honest! I don't get the impression that they really care if I vote or not!" I think she's being nice about the manager's honesty and that she's right on the money about management not wanting people to vote. This is a clear example of using e-mail to impede communication:
- The timeframe is unreasonable. If you really want to receive the votes of hundreds of residents in a condo community, you'll ask for them more than an hour and 45 minutes before the deadline.
- Asking people to e-mail a marked-up JPG is unreasonable. The hassle factor is way too high. I wonder if the condo manager has heard of a convenient little software application called Microsoft Word. It's perfect for forms that need to be filled out.
E-mail is cheap, convenient, and immediate. It's easy for people who actually want to obstruct true communication to hide behind e-mail. Maybe the newly un-seated condo board members are behind the JPG ballot? Is this bad e-mail part of a conspiracy to retain power? (Maybe I've been living in DC too long ...)
What do you think? Would you like to share any examples of e-mail non-communication? Post them here or e-mail me.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
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)
November 12, 2010
Holiday season is upon us. Many of us will be spending big bucks ordering from online retailers. So all you companies out there that use e-mail to confirm purchases, I'm begging you - use an explicit subject line. (I don't mean X-rated ...)
Please do not send me a confirmation e-mail like the one I received yesterday from the Weinberg Center for the Arts, after I'd spent $207.50 on concert tickets. Here's the subject line:
Thank You for your order. ( WEIN - 0000000000012345 / 987654 )
For several reasons, this subject line is less than helpful:
- It doesn't identify what I ordered.
- It doesn't identify who I ordered from.
- It includes an impractically long confirmation number. Just imagine if I had to call the Weinberg Center and read them that number. "Wait, I'm counting the zeros ..."
These subject lines are much better:
- Your Lindt USA Order [Number 1234567] Confirmation [#98765]
- Order shipped - SheetMusicPlus Order #12192
- Frontier Reservation #ABCDE - May 01
- Your Amazon.com order has shipped (#002-1234567-9876543)
So, if you send me a confirmation e-mail, use the subject line to help me identify:
- Who I bought from. Of course, the sender's name helps me identify this, but the subject line should include this information too.
- What I bought.
- What has just happened or will happen with my order: confirmed, shipped, delayed, etc.
- How to refer to my order. And please don't make me try to handle 15-digit order ID numbers loaded with leading or trailing zeros. If the order number must be long, use hyphens to break it into groups, as Amazon did.
If you send me a good subject line, I can be a good customer. I will be more likely to likely to:
- Wait patiently for my purchase to arrive.
- Resist the urge to call or e-mail again just to check on my order.
- Use the order ID number properly if I do have to contact you for help or returns.
What do you think? Please comment to share the subject lines you've received in confirmation e-mails, and let me know whether you think they were effective.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
November 9, 2010
I recently presented two half-day web writing workshops for Missouri Southern State University (go Lions!). To prepare, I studied lots of university web sites. I was stunned at the range of content quality. Some university sites are well written, well edited, smooth, and focused. But others show such a lack web writing competence that I was simply perplexed.
Content competence is a new concept I've been using in my web writing courses. It means having the set of writing skills that make you suitable to the task of writing content. I'm still working on a comprehensive list of the skills that comprise content competence, but I know this set of skills is essential in today's workplace. Almost everyone contributes to the tasks of writing, editing, or reviewing the web content that represents the work they do.
Whether we can easily define content competence, we know it when we see it (and when we don't). To illustrate the range of content competence, here's an apples-to-apples comparison of how three institutions of higher learning handle their "University Honors Program" content. (Click the links, not the images, if you want to go to the live web pages.)
This FSU page is logically grouped and task oriented:
- The Welcome message is brief and friendly (though it would be better if the second paragraph came first, as most undergraduates don't care too much about faculty directives from 1932).
- The links are well named and easy to find. They make it easy for users to get answers to their questions such as "Does FSU offer special study abroad programs or scholarships for honors students?"
- The links enable users to get things done online. Users can download forms or complete a tutorial.
Semi-competent: University of New Mexico's Honors Program page
This UNM page is at war with itself:
- The green tree behind the black text makes the words nearly impossible to read.
- The content chunk "News, Events, Announcements" does not have a good name. Is there enough of a difference news, events, and announcements that all three need to be listed?
- The image-to-text ratio is off on this page. The photos are trumping the content but not in a good way. On the right, photos dissolve and reappear too quickly for the user to read the superimposed text. At the bottom, the photo of honors students frolicking in the ruins is partially obscuring the Submit Here link.
This UNO page has some of the worst web writing I've ever seen:
- The text is in four different colors.
- The chunks are separated by canyons of white space.
- The content dead-ends because there aren't any links.
- On this page, the writer explains what to do on another page ... without supplying a single hypertext link that would enable the user to follow the instructions:
- "There is a blue button on the Mavlink home page as well as the Current Students page that says "Search for Classes." Click the button, enter Spring 2011 for the class term, click Go. The next page has 5 selection buttons. Click the Special Programs button only, find Honors Program, and click Go."
I'm interested in your thoughts on the concept of content competence or any apples-to-apples comparisons you'd like to share. Post a comment here or e-mail me.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
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