Specific tips for writing the way you talk

To talk on paper, you may have to change your writing. For example, when you write:

• Do you normally use words like commence instead of begin, and prior to instead of before?

• Do you normally avoid all marks of punctuation except the period and the comma?

• Do you normally avoid using any personal pronouns— like I, we, and you ?

If so, you're a typical bureaucratic writer. Get ready to take the most important step in your writing career. Here's what I suggest:

• Use a variety of punctuation.

• Use more personal pronouns.

• Use contractions.

If you're like me before I began writing plain English, these suggestions may seem like heresy, like crimes against the English language. Now, though, I think I committed my crimes before I followed these suggestions—not after.

Let's examine those four suggestions in more detail. Use ordinary words

Which column do you normally choose your words from when you're writing?

advise tell assist help commence begin furnish give prior to before

If you're the way I used to be, you probably choose from the left-hand side.

In fact, when I first saw a list like this, I was shocked to find that I chose most of my words from the left-hand side. And I could have given you very good reasons, too—something to do with nuances of meaning.

Then I noticed that when I spoke I consistently used words from the right-hand side. Why were the nuances so important when I wrote but not when I talked?

After serious soul-searching, I realized that the so-called nuances weren't really there at all. Instead, I had come to believe that I needed to write with a formal tone—that was the real reason I was choosing the more "impressive" words. As a result, I'd stopped writing with my most important vocabulary: the words I use in speaking each day.

So here's my advice on words. Do as the good professionals do:

• Good professionals use ordinary words unless they need something more precise—which happens fairly often.

• But bad amateurs use impressive words all the time— unless they can't think of them.

To see what I mean, let's look at writing by a successful professional, Russell Baker. This is the first paragraph of one of his books, Growing Up (which won the Pulitzer Prize). He's telling us about his mother, who's in a nursing home but doesn't realize she's there. She's living in the past.

As you read, notice that the passage says extraordinary things with ordinary words:

At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, arid after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this, she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and an ease beyond the gift of physical science.

Absolutely terrific, isn't it? And where are the "impressive" words? About the only one is presided—a good choice that gives us the sense of the matriarch, the woman in control. As I said, such choices help with preciseness.

But ordinary words are precise, too. Do any of Baker's phrases stand out as especially nice? I like "her mind wandered free through time." Where's the "impressive" word there? There isn't one—yet the idea is far from ordinary or simple. And preciseness? The word wandered—a perfectly plain word—is right on target.

Writing with ordinary words doesn't mean writing with kindergarten language or producing only simple-minded ideas.

Writing with "impressive" words does mean making the reader's job harder. Even though we know all the words in the left-hand column, we have more trouble reading them, particularly if many appear in the same sentence or paragraph. And they usually do if writers consistently choose their words from the left-hand side.

For example, let's look at a sentence with mainly impressive words:

Subsequent to the passage of subject legislation, it is incumbent upon you to advise your organization to comply with it.

And if we rewrite that sentence with ordinary words:

After the law passes, you must tell your people to comply with it.

Would you rather read pages of the first version or the second?

By the way, the second version keeps the phrase "comply with it." It could have said something like "follow it," but the word comply seems to make the message a little more urgent. So I don't suggest you always choose the ordinary word. But—to use a word from computer terminology— make ordinary words your default. Choose other words if preciseness demands, just as you do when you speak.

And ask yourself what words Russell Baker (the professional who wrote about his mother) would choose if he were writing your document.

For a list of simpler words and phrases, see Appendix A.

Use a variety of punctuation

The second suggestion on style is to use a variety of punctuation. Too often business writers use only periods and commas.

Have you ever heard anybody speak in a monotone? Well, people who write with only periods and commas are like speakers who speak in a monotone, forcing you—the audience—to do too much work: "What was important in that sentence? What's going to be carried over to the next sentence?" The audience has to figure that out because the speaker, using a monotone, isn't helping.

Good speakers do help, though. They use hand gestures and voice inflection to help their listeners along. Good writers, using spoken English, allow punctuation to replace those hand gestures and that voice inflection.

This chapter doesn't cover all the important marks of punctuation you need to learn. A later chapter does that. But this chapter does look at one easy punctuation mark— the question mark—to illustrate the need for more than periods and commas.

A number of years ago, someone asked if I ever used questions in my writing. I realized that I never did, and I didn't know why. So let me ask you now: "Do you use questions in your writing? If you look at the last ten pages you've written, will you find any?"

If your answer is "yes," you know one of the secrets of effective writing. If your answer is "no," that means you're generating your sentences very differently when you write and when you talk—undoubtedly, you use questions often in your talking. And the sentence structure in good talking is better than the sentence structure in typical bureaucratic writing.

So let's look more closely at when to use questions in writing. One time is when you really have a question:

• When does the new copying machine get here?

• How far is Santa Fe from Albuquerque?

Too often, though, people "write around" the question: "Request this office be informed of when the copying machine will be delivered." The shift away from the question is a shift toward writing in a monotone. Your question—often the very purpose for writing—loses emphasis, doesn't it? So don't avoid the question mark when you're asking for something. The reader will more likely take notice of the question because of the emphasis it receives.

Now let's focus on another time to use the question: the question that you, the writer, will answer. Such questions focus what you're saying and emphasize your answer—-just as vocal inflection and hand gestures do when you're talking. In other words, such questions draw the reader in.

Let's look at an example. Here's some writing in a monotone (without questions):

The main point is that the defective computer disks are not the responsibility of the manufacturer, as we first suspected, but of the wholesaler, who stored them at a 130 degree temperature.

Now let's add questions:

Just who's responsible for the defective computer disks? Is it the manufacturer, as we first suspected? No. The wholesaler is responsible—he stored them at a 130 degree temperature.

See the difference questions make? I know. I cheated. In addition to the question mark, I also used a really short sentence ("No."), italics, and a dash.

You don't need to use these techniques in every line you write. But if you're not using them at all, then you're probably communicating with far less emphasis in writing than in speaking.

So the message is to use a variety of punctuation to control your emphasis and replace the hand gestures and voice inflection we all use in speaking. The question mark is one easy way to start. Chapter 8 tells you about other important marks.

Use more personal pronouns

Now for an even more important question: "Do you ever use personal pronouns in your writing?" In some audiences I speak to, about half the people say yes. In others, almost everyone uses them. In still other audiences, almost no one. Yet the value of using them is immense.

In fact, I've never worked with an organization that avoided pronouns and wrote clearly.

Here are the important pronouns for plain English:

Second person: you, your, yours

Many of us learned at some time not to use these personal pronouns. That idea comes partly from the outdated notion that important business writing must be formal.

Yet the notion of what makes good writing is changing, and a more personal, informal tone is gaining wide acceptance for all kinds of writing.

Another reason people write without personal pronouns is to seem more objective—as though removing pronouns (especially first person) somehow removes all human fallibility. I remember asking one of the top executives in a federal agency what he felt about his people using first person pronouns.

The conversation went like this:

Me: "Some of your people feel they shouldn't use first person—/, me, we—in their writing because they'd seem to be giving their opinions. What do you think?"

Him: "I hire people for their opinions! Persona! pronouns are an excellent way for them to express their opinions—to me and to anyone else."

Don't bosses often hire people for the judgment they can exercise—in other words, for their opinions?

Not too long ago, some organizations even objected to the second person pronoun, you. For example, can you imagine reading a book telling how to do something if the book never used the pronoun you? The early computer manuals did just that:

The monitor must first be turned on and then the computer must be turned on. A menu with the ..

The computer industry learned that manuals need to be user friendly. And user friendly means talking on paper to the users. Now you're more likely to find a computer manual saying this:

First, turn on the monitor. Then turn on the computer. You'll then see a menu with ...

The differences in these two short samples are few, but users of entire computer manuals certainly noted the change in approach (and so did the writers of those manuals and the sellers of computers and computer products!).

One reason for using pronouns is that you will more likely use active—instead of passive—voice. The passage from the old-style computer manual, for example, uses passive voice for both verbs.

Chapter 6 discusses passive voice in detail, but you've certainly heard of its bad reputation. Passive sentences are usually harder to read, especially if the content is complex or if several of them appear in a row. So one reason to use personal pronouns is that your sentences will more likely be in active voice and, thus, easier to read.

Another reason to use pronouns is that you can write more easily with them. Can you imagine talking without ever using personal pronouns? I try that experiment during my classes, giving a volunteer a topic and then asking the volunteer to tell us about it without using I, me, you, and so forth. The volunteer immediately becomes uncomfortable, stays silent a few seconds, and then begins with something like this: "Uh."

Without exception, the volunteers say that trying to talk without personal pronouns is extremely difficult. They also report that when they do find words to speak, those words usually express different ideas—not quite what the volunteers wanted to say in the first place but only what they could say.

In other words, not only was communication harder, but the content changed to meet the artificial requirement of not using the pronouns.

In business, how often do you want your people to alter their content to meet the same artificial requirement?

When we try to write without using personal pronouns—as many people do—we have to put a "mental editor" between our thoughts and the page (or computer screen). That mental editor tries desperately to strip out personal pronouns and restate the ideas without them. Writing with that mental editor is hard work. And, as most professional writers have discovered, it's unnecessary, too.

So the next time you write, talk on paper, and let the personal pronouns come naturally.

Must you always use pronouns to be a good writer? No. Some writing—-just like some speaking—simply doesn't call for them. For example, if you're describing a disk drive (instead of telling how to use it), you probably won't need personal pronouns at all: "A disk drive has three major components: the housing mechanism, the drive head, and the...").

The key, then, isn't really to use personal pronouns: the key is to stop avoiding them. You don't try to use pronouns when you're talking, but you certainly don't try to avoid them, either, do you? Just use the same system for your writing.

So get rid of that tyrannical mental editor. And start "wnavoiding" a few pronouns!

Use contractions

What about contractions? Will using words like can't and we'll really help your writing? In the past, I pushed contractions only very gently. This time, I'm going to give a stronger message: Yes!! Contractions can make a significant difference in your writing.

You're much more likely to write plain English if you use contractions. In fact, it's hard to use a contraction in a sentence and have anything else in the sentence be bureaucratic.

That is, if you're in the mode of using contractions, you're also in the mode of using ordinary words, pronouns, and the entire arsenal that makes up plain English.

In fact, if you're a boss, try encouraging your people to use contractions freely. You'll be surprised how much else in their writing changes for the better.

A concern people have is that the tone of their writing will be too chatty if they're using contractions. I don't think so. We read contractions in professional writing all the time without feeling that the tone is chatty.

For example, look at the Wall Street journal. You'll see contractions throughout. Look at the motto of The New York

Times: "All the news that's fit to print." Some people say, "Newspapers. So what?" Well, in my experience, most newspaper editors try very hard to use a correct yet readable style. They're often a good source for usage. But, also, most other writing you enjoy—like books you pay money for—uses plain English, complete with contractions.

One agency I worked with, however, just couldn't bring itself to use contractions. We finally got to plain English, but we had to take the long way around.

Here's what happened: When people who weren't used to writing plain English tried writing without contractions, their writing reverted to typical legalese. They stopped talking on paper. So we had them start over, writing their drafts with contractions. The writing improved.

Then, after writing with contractions, the writers simply ««contracted later (with help from computers). The result was plain English. But, I confess: the tone was rather stiff.

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