Warning: this blog is interactive. It contains suggestions which some readers may find embarrassing.

But to help you to be clear with your message, it’s worth a go.

It’s about the power of short words and phrases. What some call ‘plain English’.

In an earlier post, I wrote about how to engage a short attention span by breaking up sentences and paragraphs. There’s quite an art to it. But if you get the words and phrases right, the sentences and paragraphs shouldn’t need too much tweaking.

Sadly, too many businesses produce writing that is long-winded.

Main culprits tend to be office-based businesses: estate agents, training providers, financial services, etc. And it’s probably because many people think longer words and complex sentences sound more intelligent and professional. In websites, leaflets, emails, reports… ‘office-speak’ is taking over.

Be honest – could this be you? Are you squirming a bit?

Here’s a selection of words found in a single business report (there were more… many more):

Words used Meaning in plain English
demonstrated shown
uplift growth
road map plan
meet up with meet
in comparison to compared with
have impacts on affect
a piece of analysis analysis
at which point when
is comprised of has

Now comes the interactive part…

It’s time to count syllables.

In primary school, children are taught to clap through words to help them count syllables. You can do that if it helps (I’m sure no-one’s watching really).

Look at the left column. Dem-on-stra-ted.  Four syllables. Add up the number of syllables on the left. Now do the same for the substitute words in the right column.

I’ll give you a minute or so…

Well, I make it 35:15.

It’s very simple: if your words take less time to read, your message will reach people more quickly.

If you still need convincing, have a look at a sentence example from the same report:

A further piece of analysis on the summer marketing campaign will be completed once more understanding of the current situation is realised.

This means:

Further analysis of the summer marketing campaign will be done when more is known.

You can see how much less space this uses.

If you still think this is fussing about nothing much, humour me some more. Tell your family/colleagues/ fellow commuters that this is important business research, and get ready to read out loud.

Reading aloud is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing. Whatever it sounds like is what your readers’ brains will have to process to understand it.

Read out the first sample sentence above, and then imagine page after page of this kind of thing. You can see how important information could get lost.

It’s not rocket science

What do you think of the following sentence?

It is this rapid X-ray variability which makes NLS1s so important for the study of the inner regions of active galactic nuclei.

No, I don’t know what it means either. But I know who wrote it, and she knows her audience. Science and technical writing often uses clusters of words like inner regions of active galactic nuclei, because that’s the most efficient way to describe complex things accurately.

Although the sentence is long, there are no unnecessary words. It would be hard to edit it to make it mean the same thing in a shorter way. So it’s good writing, in its context. Most people won’t ‘get it’, but that’s OK– it isn’t trying to sell or persuade, so most people don’t need to.

If you want most people to ‘get it’, take a look at politics. What do successful politicians and speech-makers do when they want their message to be clear to large numbers of people?

They make most words short. At any rate, those are the parts people remember. Here are some famous examples:

 “…we shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills…”

“I have a dream…”

“Read my lips: no new taxes.”

On the other hand, when they want to hide something, the words they use are longer:

terminological inexactitude; economical with the truth; alternative facts; collateral damage

As a guide, try this: if you find yourself using words with three or more syllables, stop. Try to think of a shorter word that means the same.

Sometimes there isn’t one – that’s fine. Carry on and don’t worry.

Sometimes you want to be a bit more creative for style purposes – that’s fine too.

But bear that business report in mind. A good editor could have reduced it from 16 pages to 12 with no loss of meaning. With a bit more thought from the writer in the first place, it wouldn’t have needed much editing.

Have a look at what you’ve written. Will your clients get the message?

Catherine Legg

Catherine Legg is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website

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