Archive for the ‘Technical tips’ Category

How to Edit 4 Writing Styles

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Effective editing produces crystal-clear, highly readable documents that serve their intended goals. Editing requires an eagle eye (and some spidey senses) to spot problems and fix them—a skill that goes way beyond fixing grammar and punctuation problems.

Because editing is a large part of my “bread and butter,” I can spot “writing personalities”—and each personality, or writing style, requires different editing tactics. Here are four common writing styles, the typical problems they pose, and how to fix them.

Problem: Muddy the message with disjoint, tangential or extraneous information
Solution: Sharpen the focus. Delete information that isn’t essential to the main message.

Problem: Take too long to get to the main point
Solution: Decipher the heart of the message and ensure that every part of the discussion points to or supports the main message. Remove redundant (repetitive) verbiage. Trim sentence lengths as needed.

Problem: Think that readers already know as much about the topic as the author does (or will, after reading the author’s work)
Solution: Write to the “lowest common denominator”—that is, the reader who knows the least about the topic. Provide enough detail and explanations to convey a clear message.

Problem: Lose the message in technical terms—or write intimidating-sounding verbiage.
Solution: Know the target audience and their general comprehension level. Minimize use of technical terms when feasible; explain all first usages of terms (including abbreviations) that people might not be familiar with. Replace long, unfamiliar words with shorter, highly understandable equivalents.

Whether you edit your own work or others’, ask yourself what writing personality the author tends toward. It may be a mixture of the ones I described, or it may be one I haven’t included. Either way, effective editing includes recognizing overarching writing tendencies and knowing how to address those tendencies to produce more effective communications.

Vanishing Periods: a Punctuation Bane or Blessing?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Periods are “terminal punctuation,” mean-ing they signal “stop.”

We all know to put a period at the end of sentence. But the use of periods with abbreviations, acronyms, and other shortened versions of words is in flux.

Acronyms—abbreviations where the first letter of each word “makes” a word that’s pronounced as a word—have not used periods for ages. Examples:

  • NATO
  • OPEC
  • AIDS
  • FAQ
  • ROM
  • PIN

When acronyms linguistically take on the identity of regular words, we don’t even capitalize them any more:

  • laser
  • sonar
  • scuba

But other abbreviations that formerly required periods are increasingly going without. Is that a good or bad thing?

Well, it saves space and time. I’d much rather type “MD” and “USA” than “M.D.” and “U.S.A.”

Corporations and style guides are dropping periods after certain abbreviations called “suspensions”—such as “Dr,” “Mr,” Mrs,” and so on. Because both the first and last letter of the word are present, the trend is to drop the period afterwards. (And, some argue that not having a period after “Dr” distinguishes it from “Dr.” in an address.)

In contrast, Prof. still needs a period because the last part of the word is not there (i.e., it’s abbreviated).

Is that confusing?

It wouldn’t be, if everyone could simply agree on it.

You can see the most glaring examples of this disagreement in style guides. In academia and social science, the APA style guide still insists on periods after most everything. So, you cite an author’s name as “Smith, J. D.” in APA style—but in AMA (medical) style, it’s “Smith JD.”

Not a big deal? It is when you have big strings of author names:
APA style:    Smith, J. D., Johnson, A. M., James R. W., & Evans, D. A.
AMA style:  Smith JD, Johnson AM, James RW, Evans DA.

If it were up to me, we’d ditch APA style and universally adopt AMA style or something similar. It’s succinct, intuitive, easier to read and involves less punctuation. But something that radical might spark a turf war.

Balancing the federal budget may be impossible to agree on, but standardizing the use of periods in abbreviations should be easy.

The Cacophany of Collective Nouns

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Why do we have so much trouble with collective nouns? Staff, faculty, herd, group, team, senate, congress, cast, crew, jury, choir, committee, majority, minority … the list goes on.

Collective nouns signal a group of people or things that may act as individuals or one entity. And there’s the rub.

When we want the context to say that this group acts as a single unit, then we use a singular verb in the sentence. (“The committee is in session.”) When we want to say that the individual members of the group do something, we use a plural verb. (“The faculty are presenting at the October oncology symposium.”) Sounds simple, right?

The faculty is/are receiving raises this year.
(Could go either way, depending on the context.)

The crew is/are in charge of maintaining the sails.
(Doesn’t sound right unless you use “is.”)

The team run/runs through six defensive drills during every practice.
(That one is a no-brainer.)

So why does this get murky?

Most of the pizza is/are gone.
(“Are” would sound good in the pizza sentence if we said “Most of the pizzas”—because we’d definitely be talking about more than one pizza. But, “Most of the pizza is gone” is fine grammatically because it considers the pizza order as a whole.)

One-third of all Americans is/are overweight.
“Are” sounds good here because “Americans” comes right before the verb. But “Americans” is the object of a prepositional phrase—not the subject of the sentence. So, is “one-third” singular or plural?) Here’s where common sense must prevail. You can be grammatically correct and still leave readers scratching their heads.

Here’s an example and a “test” you can do to help you determine the right wording and subject-verb agreement:
The fourth of the 10 examples is wrong.        
A fourth of the 10 examples are wrong.

The first sentence specifies that only example #4 is wrong, so that takes a singular verb.
The second sentence means 40% of the examples are wrong.
Note the difference in the articles used in the two sentences (“the” vs. “a”). That can be a signal to tell you whether to use a singular or plural verb.

If it sounds awkward no matter what the grammarians say, then rewrite the sentence.

Some of this confusion stems from the use of the word “one.” “One” can be a noun or an indefinite pronoun—that is, a pronoun that doesn’t refer to a specific person, place or thing. “One” is always singular (makes sense), but when we see it hitched to something like “one-third,” we need to think about what type of verb to use with it.

For the record, other indefinite pronouns give us fits because they function collectively, too. “Everyone” and “everybody” take singular verbs. (“Everybody is at the game.”)

You can alleviate some of this problem by living  in a country other than the U.S. The British use the plural more frequently than we do here in the states. They say, “Parliament are in session,” while we say, “The senate is in session.”

So, bottom line: look at the context of the sentence. Is the group acting as a whole, or are its members acting individually? If it’s not that straightforward, run the “test” I suggested. And, above all else, make your writing readable!

Don’t Ditch that Draft! (yet)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Ever write something that you or your boss deemed so off the mark that you faced a major (if not complete) rewrite?

Before you consign that draft to a nearby trash can or your computer’s recycle bin, WAIT.

Take a step back.

Ask yourself where you veered off course. Let the draft teach you. (Yes, that’s humbling. But necessary.)

Did you write for the right audience?
(One of my customers recently asked me to write a DVD script geared to “clinicians in early stages of training.” When I submitted the draft, she said the script should have been for a general audience. Big difference.)

Did you convey the message you intended?
(This week I edited a continuing education article that described all the theory behind a process but failed to explain the real-world applications. Big oops.)

Did you lead the target audience through your logic by linking thoughts together?
(This is the #1 deficit that I correct in other people’s writing. When you know your subject matter well, you tend to forget that others aren’t in that same boat—and you assume logic, details or conclusions that the reader may not be able to draw unless you lead them to it through your writing. You may need to add explanations or move details around to enable your readers to “connect the dots” the way you want them to.)

Did you drown your message in details?
(This is often the #2 problem I correct when I edit others’ writing. The message is there, but if the readers have to take too much time to tease it out of details they’re wading through, they’ll miss or misinterpret the message.)

Did you give your readers a roadmap of what’s coming next?
(Make sure that you write descriptive, effective heads and subheads. Most people either don’t write enough subheads, or they use ineffective, vague verbiage.)

So, before you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard again, ask yourself those questions. Take notes. Mark up your draft or write a game plan for a new draft—whatever works best for you. Hang onto those notes as a learning tool for future projects. THEN—and only then—start on your new draft. You’ll write more efficiently and effectively. And you’ll likely wow your boss with the improvement.

Fact Checking versus Proofreading

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Several people asked me to explain the difference between fact checking versus proofreading and whether they are part of the same process. (Nope.)

First, what is fact checking? It is verification that statistics and other facts stated in the document actually are contained in the reference(s) cited for those items.

Why or when would you need to do fact checking? Any document going before any kind of review board should be fact checked. In the pharmaceutical world, all materials— whether they’re flyers, sales training materials or package inserts—go before a medical-legal department to ensure that the company can back up everything their literature says. On a smaller scale, continuing healthcare education materials undergo similar scrutiny. Other sensitive or highly visible documents in any industry warrant fact checking.

You’d be surprised at how many errors fact checking can uncover. I recently worked on a continuing education course that cited 80 references, and 11% of them contained errors—including citing the wrong journal name/issue date/page numbers. Sometimes statistics in the course didn’t appear in any reference cited. Two URLs were no longer valid. And two references were duplicates of others—but they were cited so differently that proofreading probably wouldn’t have caught the errors.

One can argue that the document’s author is responsible for the references they use. True, but no one is perfect. Occasionally I find that authors misrepresent statistical data presented in the reference—a sign that they’ve read only the journal’s abstract—or cherry-picked a statistic and interpreted it the way they wanted to. That’s like English students reading CliffsNotes of Shakespeare instead of his actual plays.

So how does proofreading mesh with fact checking? I can speak only for myself, but I spot-check references as part of my proofreading services. Which references do I choose to check? Key ones—like those that help “build a case” for supporting a certain opinion, procedure or treatment. Also, anything that gives me an uneasy feeling when I read it in context. (After a while, you develop a sixth sense for such errors.) 

What if you’re “just” writing a report for your department chair or a vice president? Does fact checking matter? Absolutely. Expect to get grilled on your report. If you don’t know what’s in the background material you used in writing your document, you could become an exec’s lunchtime fodder.

What’s Up with Adjectives?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

You can identify many adjectives by their endings:

-able achievable, capable
-al functional, logical
-ful beautiful, careful
-ic cubic, rustic
-ical anatomical, classical
-less breathless, groundless
-ous courageous, disastrous

But when do you use -ic versus -ical? Does it make a difference?

Short answer: sometimes.

English loves to trim words to their lowest common denominator. Not surprisingly, -ical increasingly is being lopped in favor of -ic. So you have a numeric advantage (not a numerical advantage). Your grandmother has a rheumatologic disorder (not a rheumatological disorder).

But, in other cases, both forms need to exist because they mean different things. “Biological” is anything that has to do with biology. However, a “biologic” or a “biologic drug” specifies a diagnostic or therapeutic entity made from a living organism or its products. Examples are vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and interleukins.

Ditto for needing to differentiate the terms “historic” and “historical.” A historic era is an influential one in history. “Historical” pertains to events in history, such as in a historical novel, a historical review of pain management treatments, and so on.

Classic cars and classic black dresses embody versatility. But classical music pertains to a certain period in time.

“Economic” relates to that field of study (e.g., economic forecasting). “Economical” depicts money-saving strategies.

The Amazon’s rainy season is a periodic occurrence—it happens at regular intervals. But “periodical” is relegated to the realm of publishing.

Some adjectives don’t have this problem at all. You can understand basic but not basical English; you can be dramatic but not dramatical. We are patriotic but not patriotical.

Finally, just to stir the pot, is the head-scratcher of “anatomical” versus “anatomic.” In med-speak, “anatomical” is still preferred—simply because it’s preferred.

So, bottom line: know your target audience, and look up the words if you’re not sure. You’ll avoid ending up with “ic” all over your face.

Good Writing isn’t Kismet or Magic

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Former basketball coach Bobby Knight once said, “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.” (Like he magically became a writer because he’d learned how to print? Not.)

If Knight had ever applied his philosophy of basketball to writing, he’d be on another page.

Why? Because Knight also said, “The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.” He also said you need four times more mental toughness than physical toughness to succeed.

Preparation, yes. Mental toughness, yes. Both are indispensable for creating good writing.

But much of the writing I edit is more of a loosely strung mishmash of information rather than a concerted effort borne out of careful preparation. As long as the writer included all the information, it didn’t matter whether the sentences were poorly constructed, hard to follow or just plain wrong—they thought that some magic would make their writing highly readable. 

“The institute’s members will be drawn from three universities.”
(I hope the artist is good.)
The author meant to say:
“The institute will include members from three universities.”

“Flash forward nearly 20 years and that little event has ballooned in size, drawing 42,000 men, women and children, as well as 5,000 employees system-wide, and bringing in $2.5 million in 2010 donations.”
Where to start with this one? Shuffle information to make it more cohesive. Here’s one option …
“Fast forward nearly 20 years. That little event has ballooned in size: in 2010, it drew 42,000 participants (including 5,000 employees system-wide), raising $2.5 million in donations.”

See how the second example seems to be a jumble of numbers until it’s reworked? That’s because the original huge sentence doesn’t provide a good hierarchy of information. The reader can’t tell at a glance what is most important to remember. Creating two sentences and enclosing secondary information in parentheses establishes a clear hierarchy. Such small, but important changes can make all the difference in the world for readability.

Writing doesn’t magically happen; fate doesn’t drop good writing into your lap. But, to borrow from William Bernbach, writing can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.

The Top Reason to Proofread

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Some of my previous posts talked about why you should proof your work. There are many good reasons to do so, but the #1 reason is to avoid potential embarrassment and misunderstandings from errors, including those that spellcheck can’t catch. I’ve also talked about how to proofread.

Today an e-mail crossed my desk that underscored this #1 reason. I just had to share it with you:
“To help you out, we have put together a series of four videos that are choke full of usable content that can be deployed immediately.”

Really. I hadn’t thought about eating the videos, but you’re right—I’d probably choke trying.

Of course, the writer meant to say “chock.” But didn’t.

This isn’t an e-mail from a tiny startup company. It’s from a massive, well-respected, nationally known marketing stronghold of a company that’s sold over 20 million books touting their techniques.

 You’d think they’d hire proofreaders.

Maybe they did.

But they got sucker-punched by their copy. They knew what it was supposed to say, so they glossed right over it. They hit “send”—and, boom! Millions of people on their distribution list guffawed the gaff immediately. To avoid such embarrassing moments, read my post, Proofreading Power Punches. It only takes one misstep like this to submarine your credibility.

 Here’s another one:
“Your cooling skills are outstanding.”

If I were in the HVAC business and had just fixed your air conditioner, that might be true. But you’re eating my muffins.

That second sentence was from a dear friend, and obviously I knew what she meant. But you have to laugh at it. Literally hundreds of words in the English languages are only one letter different from each other, and a minor slip—even though the goof is a real word—can generate some really interesting reading. Here are just a few examples:

A coping machine (A good alternative to our department’s Xerox?)
Cath and carry (Not something I’d want to do if I had one)
Cornmeal transplant (No thanks)
Chef of surgery (I hope he can do more than toss salads)
A pier review (Are seagulls on the committee?)
Half-lift of 4 hours (Not good, especially if that’s an antidepressant)
Port tenderloin (Was the pig overfed?)

Your mind can go blank or black; you might titter about a dose, but you really need to titer it; and gravy is never gray in my book.

Bottom line: Avoid such bungles! Proofread your work!

Writing a Statement of Work

Monday, April 25th, 2011

My last post discussed writing instructions. A related topic is writing a statement of work, or SOW. An SOW is a “procedure” in that it describes

  • what work you will do
  • with what people
  • within what time frame
  • using what standards
  • to produce what deliverables

If you aren’t a business owner or freelance writer, you may think you never need to deal with an SOW. But, regardless of your job, if you’re involved in project planning, writing reports or similar work, you intuitively develop statements of work—even if you never articulate them.

Say that you’re told to write a report assessing the pros and cons of instituting barcoded nametags as a security measure at your company. You’ll start thinking of the research you need to do, how long it’ll take you to collect the information, write about it and so on. That’s mentally constructing an SOW.

A written SOW ensures that everyone involved sings off the same page—that all stakeholders have the same expectations of what the final product will be. This serves as a project compass as well as a quality control roadmap.

The SOW includes a list of tasks to be done, such as research, interviews, data collection and policy reviews. It includes details of who manages, reviews and approves the work. If any particular standards, policies, regulations or guidelines need to be followed, those are included as well. For lengthy work, interim and final time frames for deliverables are defined. And, an SOW should always include contingencies—what happens if:

  • the scope of the project changes
  • obstacles arise
  • competing priorities snafu the work
  • the work undergoes more reviews/revisions than anticipated

An SOW fosters common understanding—so that if new people are brought midway into the process, they can ramp up without missing a beat. If you’re a freelancer, then an SOW includes a payment schedule as well (and the document functions as a legal contract).

Some companies, especially government agencies, use SOW templates. The main point is that an SOW can be as simple or detailed as the project demands—and you can apply its reasoning to any size project in your workplace.

For more details, see:

and google “statement of work examples.”

6 Steps to Writing Better Instructions

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

A person asked me recently why it takes her so long to write procedures for her staff. She mentioned that even simple instructions sent via e-mail seemed to take an inordinately long time to write.

Writing instructions, procedures and protocols should take a long time.


Because you want them to be so foolproof that they’re harder to do wrong than do right.

The same applies for designing any kind of form (paper or online).

To write instructions effectively, follow these six steps. 

1: Ask yourself what your audience already knows and does.
Maybe the answer is “nothing.” Maybe your audience has slipped into bad habits. Or maybe they’re following the current steps correctly, but circumstances require a procedural change. 

2. Ask yourself what your audience NEEDS to know and do.
Is it a new way to track their time? Log on to computers? File paperwork? Create reports? Use a template? Pack crates? Stock shelves? What should the audience be able to do when they follow your instructions? 

3. If instructions already exist, ask yourself what needs to change procedurally and behaviorally.
Do people ignore some of the steps? Do they have an outdated version of the instructions? Were they vague or inaccurate? When they were first introduced, were they reinforced? Are they outdated now?

4. Next, look at the procedure itself. Follow the “3C’s” of “clear, concise and complete” as you write (or rewrite) each step.

  • Clearly indicate the revision date of a rewrite.
  • Make each step truly be one step. Avoid steps with multiple parts to it.
  • Ensure that each step is in the right order.
  • Be precise about your word choices, especially verbs. Precision leaves less room for misinterpretation.
  • Quantify and take the guesswork out of every step. “Wash your hands thoroughly” means something different to everyone. “Wash your hands for one minute using XXX product” means the same thing to everyone.
  • If you need to add contingencies, do so at the end of the procedure. Example: “If your immediate supervisor is not available, then call ____.” People need to know how to do the “vanilla” version before you introduce variables. 

5. Prepare your audience.
Use a variety of ways (e.g., e-mails, meetings) to let people know what’s coming. More importantly, tell them how the procedure can help them (save time, simplify work, and so on).

6. Last, assess the procedure over a suitable time to ensure compliance and consistency among your target audience.

Careful writing and clear communications will yield the desired outcomes for your efforts.