STYLE MAKES YOU WORD CONSCIOUS
STYLE MAKES YOU WORD CONSCIOUS
But probably the biggest reason we write unclearly is ignorance."
--Joseph M. Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, p. 5
I am indebted to former and current students for many of these examples on this link. Thanks to the student who suggested he needed some extra help with passive writing.
Style identifies you as a person in writing. You create a personality with your style. You may be sad; you may be happy. You may use big words; you may use small words. Your individuality shows through your style in writing. How do your words sound on paper? Tone is very much a part of style. How durable are your words? Do they last for generations to speak or read? We still remember "Four Score and 20 Years Ago" and "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do," because these words are durable. Think of the fine, simple writing of Mark Twain and Jack London. It is probably instructive, at this point, to review E.B. White's elements of style as he enunciated them in Strunk's book(The Elements of Style, 4th edition):
- Place yourself in the background.
- Write in a way that comes naturally.
- Write from a suitable design.
- Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.
- Revise and rewrite.
- Do not overwrite.
- Do not overstate.
- Avoid the use of qualifiers.
- Do not affect a breezy manner.
- Use orthodox spelling.
- Do not explain too much.
- Do not construct awkward adverbs.
- Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
- Avoid fancy words.
- Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
- Be clear.
- Do not inject opinion.
- Use figures of speech sparingly.
- Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
- Avoid foreign languages.
- Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
Students have recently asked me to talk about passive writing in a link. That situation does not represent a grammar or punctuation problem. Passive writing is considered a style question. As we think of passive writing and style, I am reminded again of the bible of style, Elements of Writing (now in fourth edition) by Strunk (Professor of English at Cornell) and White (writer for The New Yorker). E. B. White, you may remember, wrote the famous children's book, Charlotte's Web. Both of these men, before their untimely deaths, served as editors for major publications. They knew what constituted good style. They emphatically stated about the active voice in the latest edition of their book: "Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard."
After visiting with a student a few semesters ago, I came to appreciate how students do not always understand style. Style is elusive; yet, it can be captured. Style is much more than readability. As Williams phrases the ideas in Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, style is much more than writing well. You have to possess the grace and clarity to make style work. Your words carry a message.
You have to think of the person when you are implementing style. Williams gives these guidelines for clarity in style:
We should not leave Williams' thinking quite yet. I will comment on some of his well-chosen words about style. Williams is quite concerned about bewildering our readers. We need to organize complex ideas coherently (p. 1). I listened carefully to a student who didn't know Fitzgerald's (author of The Last Tycoon style. That got me to thinking about style related to reading and writing. You cannot appreciate other people's style until you do a great deal of wide reading. It doesn't matter whether reading is your favorite occupation, or you prefer fiction or non-fiction. You need to read to write stylistically well. You need to see how others put together sentences. If there is one message I would like to give beginning business writing students, it is to read widely.
Let's now continue our discussion of passive writing. Passive writing means you do not activate the strongest verbs in your writing. You are content with verbs that "lay there" in the sentence. Such verbs usually mean forms of to be or have and had. Strunk and White tell us to use direct and vigorous writing. Practice becomes the best way to overcome passive writing. Therefore, let's try these exercises:
- In your introduction, motivate readers with a problem they care about.
- Make your point clearly, usually at the end of that introduction.
Notes: Williams could not give any more important subject than clarity. Too many business writing students forget we need to get to the point and make that point clearly. You do not want your reader asking: What is the meaning?
- In that point, introduce the important concepts in what follows.
Notes: That brings up the point of bullets. Bullets are meant for at least one single point: Clarify the message. When you have to list 1, 2, and 3, your thinking moves from fuzzy to clearer.
- Make everything that follows relevant to your point.
Notes: That sounds to me about the importance of the topic sentence and what follows. Ideas should have a coherence.
- Make it clear where each part/section begins and ends.
- Open each part/section with a short introductory segment.
Notes: The reader should know where the writer is going. Prepare the reader for what follows.
- Put the point of each part/section at the end of that opening segment.
- Order parts in a way that makes clear and visible sense to your readers.
- Begin sentences constituting a passage with consistent topic/subjects.
Notes: I listened recently a TV program about news writing. What struck me was Dave Barry's (the famous humorist for the The Miami Herald) comment about massaging his sentences several times before he finally publishes his feature article. Style involves work. Style involves massaging words until just the right message is conveyed.
- Create cohesive old-new links between sentences.
Her last option would be to accept her boyfriend's proposal.
You immediately notice in the previous sentence a form of "to be." We need to rewrite the sentence without becoming dependent on a passive verb in the future tense.
- Her last option involves accepting her boyfriend's proposal.
- Accepting her boyfriend's proposal becomes the last option.
We see two different ways to refine the passive sentence. In the first instance, we substituted involves for the more passive, would be. In the second instance, we recast the sentence with Accepting as the major subject. That recasting allowed us write an active verb without much thought. We kept the sense of the sentence, but we gave more power to the sentence.
- Communication skills are invaluable in daily life.
How can we fix the previous sentence? We have already encountered as the passive verb, a form of to be. The trick becomes to turn are into an active verb. Also, a word, such as invaluable, can be turned into its root, value.
- Communication skills increase their value in daily life.
- Communication skills provide value in daily life.
- Daily life needs communication skills.
- Communication skills create value in daily life.
You can see the four attempts to rewrite the sentence present their own problems. You always have to ask yourself: Have I kept the original meaning of the sentence? Have I added a verb just to be adding a verb? Does my sentence carry more punch than the previous effort with the passive writing? Do you see how you can take a sentence with invaluable as a predicate adjective and turn that sentence to the core word, value? One of the best sentences becomes: Communication skills create value in daily life. Why does that sentence ring true? You have given the essence of the idea without the passive writing and to be. Are you getting the idea of improving your passive writing?
It's time for those proverbial exercises. In every instance, I will flag the passive verb. The exercises now occur:
- My argument to that is that, despite the high cost and hard work, in the end, college pays for itself.
- The first stage was the mental, social, and emotional confusion and shamefulness of her situation.
- I was busy trying to keep good eye contact and not interrupt the student.
- His only concern was to pay $500 to his parents monthly, and all other expenses are taken care of by them.
- There were some significant questions the student has failed to consider.
- We had this conversation in our apartment.
- Helena was sometimes quite expressive, using her hands to gesture and explain what had happened.
When we think enough has been discussed about passive writing, consider the words of Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis. These two watchers of the English language believe passive writing hurts the good writer: "The passive voice is weak, pretentious, fuzzy, and evasive." I always think back to the Distilled Writing Seminar held in Las Vegas years ago. At the seminar the speaker gave the following example: The cat ate the rat. Was there any doubt who ate the rat? We can smother the verb this way: The cat effected the eating of the rat. Eating should be changed to ate. We could say: The rat was eaten by the cat. Why can't we be more direct? Lederer and Dowis warn that sometimes the passive voice has to be used (Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, p. 101, 1999)in the following instance:
The criminal was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison.
As the word mavens explain, it would take too many words in the previous example to change the passive to active. Instead, they offer these instances where the passive voice could be preferred (Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis, pp. 101-102, 1999):
- When two or more actions and doers are involved.
- When the doer of the action is unknow, unspecified, or irrelevant.
- When the doer is significantly less important than what is done.
- When the writer wants to, for whatever reason, wants to be obscure or evasive.
- When the writer wants to convey a less forceful message or impression.
- When the passive seems smoother, more natural, or more rhythmic.
Earlier you looked at the quote at the beginning of this website. It dealt with ignorance of the beginning writer. Williams strongly believes the reason we write so poorly is we evaluate the writing according to our standards instead of the reader's (p. 5). We assume the reader will understand our message. In business writing you have to make sure the message is clear the first time. If we write in a dense style, the reader may not interpret our message clearly.
At least one student has mentioned to me the trouble with writing too many I's within a sentence. I think students often write "I," because it is easier to follow the pronoun with an active verb. That works to a point. Eventually, I becomes an overused word in a sentence with two or three I's. Then, the reader is completely left out of the message. Let's take some typical examples of how I is spread everywhere like jam on bread:
- The reason I have chosen this person as my contact is the rapport I had built with her while employed at the company.
Analysis: Two I's and a "my" create a major problem in the previous sentence. After a while, the message gets lost. Our first concern is "I have chosen this person." Couldn't chosen be changed to choosing? Now the sentence reads:
The reason for choosing this contact . . .
Analysis: We need to deal with the issue of rapport. That is a central theme in the sentence. If you say rapport, it is assumed you built the rapport. We could say: Having built rapport with this contact became the reason for choosing this person. Now, no I's are visible. "I" is assumed as the person writing the entire memo or document. Still, we need that "while employed at the company." Let's say: Having built rapport with this contact while employed at the company caused me to choose this person. It is not still completely clear where the modifier goes. Was the contact employed, or were you employed? Did you notice how "I had built with her" is now eliminated. One last round of improving the sentence now results:
- Having built rapport with her, while employed at the company, caused me to choose this person.
Analysis: We have now cut the original sentence to 16 words from 23. We have still written the active voice and completely eliminated the I's. The commas aid the reading to explain who was employed where. Are you ready for some exercises?
- I am going to interview a person in all three companies, to compare the differences and similarities.
- This is my first semester at the university, and I plan to continue attending this campus for two and one-half more years.
- I am unsure what type of data collection methods and analysis methods I should use for this report.
- I will also investigate whom I need to contact about streetlight problems.
- I am writing this memo about the progress I am making finding a report topic.
- I began to wonder whether I lived in a neighborhood watch area.
- Although I anticipate the data gathering should go smoothly, I do expect the polling of 50 families to take at least four weeks.
When you hear the word, tone, you are definitely speaking of style. Tone allows your words to be heard. Tone means how your words sound to you and others. The words can sound aggressive, harsh, brazen, soothing, you-centered, or pleasant. It just depends on tone. Tone affects the way we conduct our daily lives in writing and speaking. I will never forget an e-mail received from a student where the student suggested to the reader: "I hope this is clear and understandable to you." That particular close to the e-mail presented major problems. Let's look at them in detail:
With these changes, the writer is on the way to presenting a communication without tonal flaws. Always think of your reader before uttering your message. Your words ring long after you have sent your e-mails.
- The word, hope, presents an indefinite tone. You may respond: "Keep on hoping."
- You never suggest to the reader the message is not clear and understandable. The reader as a busy person is not supposed to be told the message is not clear. It is your responsibility to interpret the message.
- A softer tone might have gotten the results the writer needed. The wonderful word, please, could have been employed to soften the message: "Please let me know if my message needs any clarification. I appreciate the opportunity to turn this assignment in late."
The tonal issue can reach much higher proportions of confusion. A brouhaha occurred in Los Angeles with the District Attorney, the Chief of Police, and the Mayor. The situation concerned the prosecution of "dirty" police in the Rampart Division of the City. The Chief believed the District Attorney was not moving fast enough to prosecute the alleged guilty officers. The District Attorney believed the Chief was not furnishing information to his office, only to Federal authorities. The Mayor believed the business of the city was not being delivered. The Chief of Police and the District Attorney were acting like children, according to the Mayor. Some of these issues can be traced back to tone. One of the letters sent by the District Attorney to the Chief reflects this concern with tone:
I understand from our conversation that you no longer intend to provide investigative reports and invetigative assistance to our office in our analysis of state criminal charges. Your refusal to cooperate with our potential prosecutions of crimes committed by members of your department is unacceptable and contrary to your legal responsibilities as the chief of police. If we do not receive these reports, we will subpoena them." (Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2000, p. A1).
Analysis: Do you notice how many "our's" are contained in the previous short statement of a much longer letter? What is the you attitude for the Chief of Police?
Look at the phrase: "Your refusal to cooperate." Did the Chief refuse or have a differing viewpoint about the need to bring indictments quickly for the officers involved?
Is the Chief committing illegalities? That depends on your viewpoint. The Chief is not being given any room to maneuver. The Chief is being given an ultimatum.
Perhaps I am wrong. I always thought we should in any business communication give people some room to maneuver. Sure, you want the bills paid on time and the accounts cleared. You want the documents. Isn't there a kinder, gentler way to make that request and still mean it?
The gentler, kinder way was expressed by the communication of tone when the Chief of Police spoke to the media:
"We are not pleased with the slowness of what the D.A. has done; we certainly have some lack of confidence in their ability to deal with the case. But we certainly have not let that stop us from cooperating. . . [Garcetti] has never been denied any information. We won't deny him any information, regardless of our frustration."
Do you see how the escalation of words is creating a messy situation where the tone is lost on all participants? Everyone is defending turf. Aggressive tones are being used to show who is right and who is wrong. The message is lost in the tonal rhetoric.
Tone is not something to be taken lightly. The words we utter and the sentences we write live long after us. People interpret the words to suit their own meanings. When Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of New York City and former candidate for U.S. Senate, was asked about the shooting of of an unarmed man, Patrick Dorismond, by an off-duty detective, he responded by defending the police. You would expect such a response because Mr. Giuliani has billed himself as a law-and-order candidate. Members of the Republican Party, at the time ("Elisabeth Bumiller, "Giuliani Tone over Shooting Worries G.O.P.", The New York Times, 23 March 2000, p. A1), were concerned about Giuliani's temperament and the tenor of his campaign.
Did Mr. Giuliani offer sympathy to Dorismond's family? We are not sure. You might want to hear Mayor Giuliani's words: "At least one version of the facts would suggest that Mr. Dorismond acted in a way that was very aggressive toward the police, so I don't want to give an impression one way or the other that we have reached a conclusion on this." The criticism of Giuliani continued. Some spokespeople thought he was condemning whole communities and exhibited a lack of leadership. The Mayor did release the juvenile's entire record. Some spokespeople simply said Mr. Giuliani was calling the situations as he sees them. One Republican state legislator from the New York suburbs did think Giuliani should have at least shown regret over the incident. What is the lesson for business communication? Our words have a way of being interpreted so many ways by others. We must be so precise in what we utter and write to avoid misunderstandings.
Tone governs the communication.
A student came in my office one day and commented about confidence in writing. She said confidence did not exist in writing. It got me thinking. How does one build confidence in writing?
An easy answer to this question does not exist. You build confidence in these ways:
- You write frequently with many different kinds of writing.
- You write freely without attention to details of mechanics. Those come in the rewriting.
- You study the English language and its nuances of meaning.
- You see where you make your errors in writing, and resolve to correct them.
- You let each paper you write become a learning experience.
- You realize writing is a lifelong activity with achievement at the end.
- You tell yourself you can write well.
After listing these confidence-building attitudes, we should examine our own writing. You have to overcome discouragement if you want to write well. Most businesspeople will be called on to write memos, reports, letters, proposals, executive summaries, and the like. They have to be able to compose their ideas quickly and thoroughly. Their livelihoods will often depend on their writing and speaking abilities. It is a task worth considering to say you have confidence in your writing.
When someone starts out for a job interview, for example, the confidence is not necessarily there. Have I gone over a list of possible questions? Am I dressed appropriately? Do I have confidence in meeting a total stranger? Can I expound on my resume?
The same kind of thinking holds true for writing confidence. Have I organized my thoughts? Do my sentences make sense? Have I used proper format and spelling? Are my ideas clear and coherent to the reader? Do my verbs carry a message that I know what is being talked about? Confidence comes from practice. Confidence comes from doing one's homework. Confidence comes from know-how, that intangible that you know a sentence makes sense.
First created September 9, 2000 and last updated, January 9, 2003
copyright(c)G. Jay Christensen, All Rights Reserved
Please check the home pages for additional help, including the links on grammar and punctuation, spelling, jargon and gobbledygook, and e-mail.