Writing. We all need to do it -- in community postings, in email, and in the documents we create.
Writing is like walking -- it’s so automatic that you don’t think about it. But you ought to. Because if you’re like most writers, you’re using extra words that make your documents and posts far less effective.
In 30 years of business writing, I’ve identified four pernicious habits that are common to most writers -- and annoying to most readers. Transform these habits and you’ll be on the path to a more pointed and effective style. Adopt these four writing rules:
I know why you write jargon. It’s efficient. You get to use words like “cloud-compliant” and “operationalize” to show you’re a sophisticated user of technology, in touch with the latest trends. The cost is that you’re leaving your readers behind. Take these sentences from a press release by hybris, a division of the software giant SAP, about a new “billing solution.”
As the digital transformation revolution reaches maturity, companies have the opportunity to shift business models within their industry disruptively to create new sources of defensible competitive advantage. This can be through the creation of new digital services that radically change the customer experience, by building a multi-sided platform with ecosystem partners, addressing new segments of customers through new channels, or by a combination of these business model shifts.
Does that make you want to buy? Or has the disruption in your business model created a transformation that’s left you unable to interface with the multi-sided ecosystem of your platform?
Smart communicators find a way to say what they mean in simple language, even if it’s technically sophisticated. For example, here’s part of what Tim Cook recently wrote about his company’s desire not to comply with the FBI and create a security backdoor into its iPhones:
All that information [on iPhones] needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.
Qualifiers include words like “mostly” and “many” that seem to intensify language, but are actually mushy and ill-defined. You put them in because you don’t want to make a broad generalization, but the more qualifiers you have, the weaker your writing becomes. That’s why I call them “weasel words.”
For example, here’s a passage from a post in which Facebook’s Jeff Pakes tries to justify why Facebook is favoring its own “auto-play” video over video embedded from other sites. I’ve highlighted the mushy words.
[W]e know that clicking on a link to play video is not a great user experience, so people tend to interact slightly less with non-native video, and the posts get less engagement. Native video posts with auto-play tend to see better engagement, more watch time and higher view counts.
Not very convincing, is it? If Pakes told us that these posts got 27% less engagement, 30% more watch time, and 40% higher view counts, then we’d be more inclined to believe him. (I made those numbers up, but you get the idea.)
Scan your writing for these sorts of qualifiers. Then replace them with numbers or more precise statements. For a start, try removing the words like “most”; see if the remaining statement is still clear, forceful, and true.
It’s one of the key rules in the classic writer’s guide by Strunk & White: Avoid the passive voice. But what is the passive and why is it so bad?
If I tell you that “The budget was submitted,” you don’t know who submitted it. That’s what happens in a passive-voice sentence -- the subject of the sentence (in this case, “the budget”), is not the actor (in this case, the mysterious people who submitted the budget.) When you hide the actor, you set up uneasiness in the reader’s mind, since they can’t visualize who’s doing what.
Grammarians will tell you passive voice sentences include a past participle and helping verb (“submitted” and “is” in my example), but you can skip that for a much easier test. If you can add “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive, as in “The budget was submitted by zombies.”
Here’s an example of pusillanimous passives in an apology that the New York Times made after publishing an inaccurate story about the Hillary Clinton investigation. I’ve highlighted the passive verbs to make them easy to spot.
[T]he inaccuracies and changes in the story were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers, other than routine corrections. The first change I mentioned . . . was written into the story for hours without a correction or any notice of the change, which was substantive . . .
Who handled the inaccuracies and changes? Who wrote the change into the story? We don’t know. Perhaps they were handled and written by zombies. The Times would rather not tell us who’s responsible. Look how much more direct it sounds when we rewrite in active voice, restoring the missing actors:
Our editors handled the inaccuracies and changes as they came along, without explaining themselves. They wrote a change into the story without any correction or notice.
To serve your reader better, find those passive sentences, figure out who the actor was, and rewrite the sentence in the active voice.
Much of business writing hovers in this strange limbo where neither the writer nor the reader is visibly present. Combined with jargon, qualifiers, and passives, this creates a barrier between the writer and the reader.
It’s simple to fix. Just use “you” to refer to the reader, “I” to refer to yourself, and “we” to refer to your company (or your department). Again, from Apple’s letter, notice how Cook talks about what “we” will do for “you.”
The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can . . . make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. . . . While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.
People are afraid to write this way. They shouldn’t be. Your readers know you exist. Be personal and write about yourself with “we,” and your community members as “you.” They’ll appreciate it. And if you get rid of the other extra words that are coming between you and your readers, they’ll start to think of you as a person who cares about them -- and that’s great for all managers, community managers included.
Josh Bernoff is the author of the upcoming book Writing Without Bullshit.