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Methods & Tools

How to make your readers happy: writing lessons in 5 quotes

March 19, 2018 Natalie Frei Methods & Tools, SDC Experiences

Rating: 4.3 out of 5

Christina Stucky P7230789 hoch smallWriting is rarely a pleasurable experience for SDC staffers: how much information is necessary, how to structure a text, and what about jargon? Writing in English has its own particular pitfalls if you’re not a native speaker. A recent writing workshop at SDC in Bern recommended ways to improve the readability of texts produced for internal and external audiences and highlighted mistakes frequently found in texts written by second-language English speakers.

 By Christina Stucky
There you are, sitting in front of a blank page (or more likely, a blank template). The cursor is blinking, reminding you of the looming deadline. Reams of documents are piled up on your desk. How to begin your text? What to put in, what to leave out? You want to make your readers happy, but who are your readers? What do they need or want to know? You’re beginning to think that Ernest Hemingway was right when he said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Anyone who works for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) will know what happens next. You take a deep breath. You open electronic versions of the documents. You select paragraphs and sentences and paste them into your document. Time is precious and, surely, that is why the copy&paste functions were invented.

This is how writing most often happens at SDC. Unfortunately, the results rarely are shining gems of prose. Instead, many of the texts are bogged down with jargon and long sentences; they lack a clear message and provide more information than the readers want or need. In the hope of finding strategies to improve their English writing skills, 15 intrepid writers attended a recent workshop at SDC in Bern. The workshop focused on achieving clarity and understanding their readers’ needs. Here are five writing lessons you can apply in your own writing.

 “If you can’t explain it simply enough, you don’t understand it well enough.“ Albert Einstein

christina2

The issue: A lot of smart people work at SDC and in the FDFA. They know their subject areas and can expound endlessly on international human rights law, gender mainstreaming or the difference between grey and black water. They can fill reports, briefs and fact sheets with terms like “social inclusion”, or “pro-poor growth”. They can turn documents into alphabet soup with acronyms like “ICT4D” or “SDGs”. But can they explain key concepts from their area of expertise to their niece, best friend or even to a work colleague who is an expert in a different field?

The solution: To ensure that your readers heads don’t explode or they nod off before they have reached the second paragraph, put your audience first. What is their level of understanding of the topic you’re writing about? What do your readers need to know (shifting away from what you as the writer want to tell them)?

First, answer these questions honestly. Second, write. Third, edit ruthlessly. Fourth, check the readability score of your text and edit some more. You can do this by googling terms like “readability” or “Flesch Reading Ease Score” and pasting your text in the window on a readability site. The score will tell you whether an educated 18 year old can read your text or if it requires a PhD. Note: you should aim for the educated 18 year old for texts targeting laypersons or someone with a college education for internal documents, but even then, go easy on the jargon.

(By the way, the Flesch Reading Ease score of this blog post is 67.5 putting it squarely in the category “Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.”)

 

When writing about science, don’t simplify the science; simplify the writing.” Julie Ann Miller, former editor of Science News

 

The issue: Writers often think being simple means being simplistic. They have slogged through years of university, spent several more years amassing knowledge through hard work and now they want to dazzle their readers with their intelligence. They live by the credo: “The longer the sentence, the more syllables a word contains, the more likely readers will be impressed.” Being simple does not mean being simplistic, or “talking down” to your readers. Being simple is all about making your readers happy. So please…

 

christina1

The solution: Do your readers a favour by

  • cutting down on jargon. If you’re no longer sure what constitutes jargon, check the BBC’s Guide to DevelopmentSpeak . Of course, sometimes it’s OK to use “capacity building” or “social inclusion”, but little red lights should go off in your head every time you see jargon in your text. Stop and ask yourself if your audience will understand it, if your message is clear. If not, find another word.
  • choosing a more common word over one that would give you a high Scrabble score but confound your friends
  • shortening sentences and paragraphs
  • thinking of what they want or need to know and not what you think they should know. (Yes, I’ve made this point already above, but it’s important, so repeating it doesn’t hurt.)

 

 The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out. Voltaire

The issue: You’re unsure of what your readers (i.e. your bosses) want to be included in the text you’re writing and since you aim to please, you include everything. That way you make sure that your readers (i.e. your bosses) won’t come back at you and say, “But where is this vital piece of information X?”or “Why haven’t you included this essential term Y” By piling everything into a text, you risk losing focus. You also risk boring your readers (possibly even your bosses). Remember the wise words of Winston Churchill: “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.” Why agonise for hours writing a text that is so long and/or dull that no one will want to read every one of your precious sentences? The solution:

  • Before you start writing figure out what you want to say. If you are unsure of what you want to say, get together with a trusted colleague and talk about what you have to write. This can help you clarify the main message of your piece of writing.
  • Put what is important or new in the lead (first paragraph of your text). The lead will help you to stay on course, because it informs the reader what will come next. Leave out of the text whatever is not relevant to the promise you gave your readers in the lead.
  • Be your own toughest editor. Be brave.

 

“So what?“ pretty much every news editor and writing coach on the planet

The issue: This question is all about relevance. The problem is that often development experts are all about process. You may find it fascinating that “innovative monitoring instruments and risk mitigation measures allow for a transition from humanitarian interventions to sustainable development support in three zones of Somalia”, but I doubt your readers will. If this is an important aspect of the project and you’re writing for an internal audience, add a paragraph explaining why these instruments and measures are key to this transition process and how they will make a difference in people’s lives, but don’t bang your readers over the head with a sentence like this in the lead. Note: Find out why “interventions” is a tricky word at the end of this blog post!

The solution:

  • Ask yourself this question all the time when you are writing. Being your own toughest editor requires you to ask tough questions like these.
  • Your text should answer the 5Ws and H (who, what, when, where, why, how), but readers are most often interested in Why and What. Why is this significant or relevant? What has changed, what difference has this project made?

 

Good trees died so that you could write. Respect that.“ fortune cookie for writers

If none of this advice can convince you that when it comes to writing less is more, that your readers will kiss the ground you walk on if your text’s main message is clear and if you cut away all unnecessary information and words – well, if none of that works for you, then at least honour the trees that have been sacrificed for every page of your report.

“Writing in English for the FDFA”

 

Paul Frank, head of the English Language Unit of the FDFA’s Language Service, gave a short presentation on frequent mistakes made by non-native English speakers when writing in English. Here are some of the key points:

– The Federal Chancellery has produced an “English Style Guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the Federal Administration”. Order a copy and use it: terminologie@bk.admin.chWhenever possible write in German or French and have your text translated into English.

– The FDFA (and the entire Federal Administration) uses British English. When writing in Word, change the language setting because the default setting is US English.

– You work for “the SDC“ not “for SDC” but your colleague works “for SECO”, because SECO is an acronym that can be pronounced as a word and SDC is an initialism pronounced as three separate letters.Use short words. For example, use “under” instead of “within the framework of”, or “as” instead of “in view of the fact that”.- Use verbs not nouns. For example, use “review” instead of “conduct a review of” or “evaluate” instead of “carry out an evaluation”.

Use gender-inclusive English. Rather than writing “chairman” write “chair” or “chairperson”. You can omit the pronoun in this sentence: “The chairperson expressed dissent” instead of “The chairperson expressed his dissent”.

Use the “singular they” or make the subject plural. Both of these are correct: “A researcher has to be objective in their findings” or “Researchers have to be objective in their findings.”

Use commas not apostrophes for numbers: 8,000 households not 8’000 households

Use the decimal point not the decimal comma: 5.6 kilometres not 5,6 kilometres

Abbreviating million or billion: Use the letters m and bn without a space. 30bn (=30 billion) or 5m (=5 million)

– Avoid “so-called”. It doesn’t have the same meaning in German (“sogenannt”) or French (“soi-disant”). “So-called” has pejorative connotations in English.

Avoid false friends like “actual” (it does not mean “current or topical”), “adequate” (it does not mean “suitable”) or “to elaborate” (it does not mean “to draft, develop, produce”). Also be careful with “perspective” (=”standpoint” and not “prospects, outlook”), “respect” (=”to value or honour” and not “to comply with”) and “sensitise” (=”make sensitive” and not “to raise awareness of”)

Careful with “intervention”! The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “intervention” as “interference by a state in another’s affairs” or “action taken to improve a medical disorder”. In most texts, activity, action, operation or initiative will the correct choice.

 

Christina Stucky is a media, communication and writing trainer based in Bern (Contact: christina.stucky[at]gmail.com)

 

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