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Writing Style – Do you treat your readers like sheep?

If not, you should.

C.S. Lewis once said, “I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road, if there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it.”

This statement is particularly true in the world of business writing. As our readers are impatient, pressed for time, and overloaded with things to be read, they skim documents. As a result, they often jump to conclusions. If the writer has not taken time to explain him or herself clearly, readers will often take “the wrong gate.”

Here are six tips to ensure your reader gets the right message quickly.

1. Keep your sentences short. The ideal average length is about 18 words. There will be fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

2. Use verbs over nouns. It will shorten your sentences and make them more powerful.

Example (Original)

We intend to bring it to completion by the end of the quarter.

Example (Revised)

We intend to complete it by the end of the quarter.

3. Be precise in what you need from your readers. Tell them what they are going to see and what you want.

Example

I’d like your input on the following five recommendations I wish to present to the board. As my presentation is later this week, can you get back to me by Wednesday?

4. Get to your main point quickly. Avoid starting with a “bed time story.”

Example (Original)

Last week I attended a seminar in Winnipeg. It was highly informative.

Example (Revised)

At last week’s seminar in Winnipeg, I learned of new scheduling software that would make our salespeople more productive.

5. Keep your paragraphs short. Lengthy paragraphs intimidate a busy reader. Keep paragraphs to less then eight lines in a print document and less than five lines in an email. The first paragraph in any business document should never exceed three to four lines.

6. Provide subconscious reading instructions to the reader by using connecting words. Examples of connecting words are in addition, however, first, therefore, and in conclusion. In informal letters and emails, you may use and and but. These words help receivers to read documents faster and to quickly understand your thought processes.

These simple rules will keep your sheep/readers on the path you want them to take.

Grammar Tip – Commas — are they important?

Some people don’t see the necessity of commas. However, a telecommunications company has recently had a $2 million lesson on why they are so important.

It seems that, in 2002, a telecommunications company contracted an infrastructure company to string cable lines across the Maritimes for a fee of $9.60 a pole. The telecommunications company believed the deal was for five years, and that it could be potentially renewed for another five years. However, the infrastructure company backed out halfway through the first period, and it was supported by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The sentence that allowed for the cancellation read as follows:

“This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

Grammarians agree that when you enclose words between two commas, the words are not essential and can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Therefore, the infrastructure company is correct in interpreting the sentence as “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

If the comma had been deleted after the word “terms,” the contract could not have been broken.

The telecommunications company is now no longer protected from the rising costs for stringing the cable, and it is estimated the comma problem may cost them over $2 million.

This story, sent to me by a BizWritingTip reader, is a wonderful example of why punctuation is so important. How much care do you take with your commas?

Incidentally, in this example the numbers for the years are written two ways: five (5) years. This is because it is a sentence in a legal contract. In standard business writing, you would never write numbers both ways.

Grammar Tip – Hyphens with Numbers and Nouns

Jan’s question: “When referring to a 21 bed unit or a 2 year term contract, is it 21 bed or 21-bed? And is it a 2 year or two-year contract?”

BizWritingTip response: Again, great questions — taking two different rules into account.

First, when a number (e.g., 21) and a noun (e.g., beds) form one thought and come before another noun (e.g., unit), you do two things: 1) make the first noun singular (bed), and 2) place a hyphen between the number and the first noun.

Examples (correct)

21-bed unit

24-hour day

60-kilometre-an-hour speed limit

If the number and noun construction does not have a noun following it, omit the hyphen.

Examples (correct — no nouns following)

The unit has 21 beds.

We will meet in 24 hours.

The speed limit is 60 kilometres an hour.

Second, according to The Canadian Press Stylebook if the number is under 10, write it out – if over 10 use the figures.*

Examples

We have a two-year contract.

Please sign the 10-year agreement.

Three-week vacation

Five- or 10-page document (There is a hyphen after five because the word “page” is understood.)

Exception to the rule: Do not hyphenate percentages or money.

Examples

12 percent increase

$2 million loss

* For more information on whether to write out numbers or use the figures, please visit the earlier BizWritingTip blog on The Rules for Numbers.

Writing Style – International Numbers

Just wanted to point out a truly Canadian company – Tim Hortons.

Tim Hortons ' Roll Up The Rim" CupIf you ever participate in their Roll-Up-the-Rim-to-Win contest, you will notice the numbers on their disposable coffee cups do not have commas to indicate thousands.

This is the metric way of writing numbers and also the international style. Canada went metric in the 1970s with the disclaimer that it was phasing in the metric process. Now some organizations and provinces are encouraging the rest of the phase-in.

Under the metric system, large numbers are not separated by commas but are written as groups of three with a space separating each group. A four-digit number may be grouped together:

1000
5000
25 000
47 000 000

When it comes to dollar amounts — according to international style — a comma is used to replace a decimal point and the currency symbol is placed after the amount.

Example

16,17$  instead of $16.17

Note: Quebec fully adopted the international standard in the ’70s, and metric measures are more consistently used there than anywhere else in Canada.

Will Canada ever go completely metric? I don’t know. The CP Stylebook still uses commas rather than spaces. However, in Ontario the commas have been removed from many of the blue population signs. And many elementary school teachers are teaching the international method.

I would love to hear what is happening in other provinces, the U.S. and other parts of the world.

But remember: Follow your organization’s style guide!

Word Choice – Its and It’s

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: “A topic that is confusing to me is the correct use of the apostrophe in the word it’s. I have seen it written as it’s, its’ and its. What is correct?”

BizWritingTip Response: This is an easy question to answer. First of all — never use its’. It’s wrong, and it has always been wrong.

Now, let’s look at its. The problem with English is that for almost every grammar rule, there is an exception. We have had it drilled into our brains that to show possession you must use an apostrophe. The exception is the possessive pronouns: his, hers, ours, yours, theirs, and its. These words are already possessive. They never require an apostrophe.

Example

The firm must protect its assets.

“It’s” means a missing letter: it is or it has.?When I proofread, I check the word by inserting it is. If I can say it is, then I know to use the apostrophe.

Examples

It is certainly hot this evening.

It’s certainly hot this evening.

If you can’t insert it is, then you can’t use an apostrophe. Now, try the quiz.

A quiz

1. It’s/its time to stop emailing. Phone them.

2. It’s/its a difficult decision.

3. The report fulfilled it’s/its purpose.

4. The company will give all of it’s/its employees a bonus.

5. It’s/its easy to understand now.

Answers: 1) It’s, 2) it’s, 3) its, 4) its, 5) it’s

It’s our intention to stop people from misusing its.

Writing Style – Metric or Imperial

When should I use metric as opposed to imperial measurements?

Although the Canadian style is to use metric for most measurements, there are a few exceptions, such as personal weights and heights, two-by-fours, quarter-inch screws, some sports, etc.

Example

A three-kilogram packet costs $4.

She is 5 feet 8 inches tall. (Always use numbers rather than words for dimensions, sizes and temperature readings.)

Normally, when you are using measurements, spell out terms such as foot, hundredweight, kilogram, and metre.

Some common terms — mm, m.p.h., c.c., km/h — may be used when mentioning them a second time. The only exception is C (for Celsius), which can be used on first reference.

Example

The temperature was 40 C.

Use this style for imperial abbreviations, both singular and plural:

In .   ft.     yd.    mi.    oz.    lb.

Example

Her golf drives are normally 250 yd. long.

There are no abbreviations in metric, only symbols. Therefore, use this style for metric measurements, both singular and plural:

mm    cm      m       l      kg      km

Notice: There are no periods in these symbols – only for the end of a sentence.??The boardroom is 6 m x 10 m. (Technical usage)

The boardroom is 6 x 10 m. (General usage)

Grammar Tip – Single Quotes or Double Quotes

I am noticing a tendency for writers to use single quotes in their documents. However, this is lazy. Double quotes should be the norm. Single quotes are used in two places.

1. Use single quotes to set off material already inside double quotes.

Example
At the last strategic planning session, the chair said, “We should review our mission statement and incorporate it in the new brochure ‘The Company That Grew.’ ”

Note: When a sentence ends with both single and double quotation marks, separate them by a space.

2. Use single quotes within a headline of a document. This allows you to save space.

Example (Newspaper Headline)
UN’s ‘mission impossible’

Mission impossible has quotes around it to indicate the words were being used ironically. Single quotes were used to save space on the line.

Readers of previous columns will remember that periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks and colons and semicolons go outside. Yes, the placement of periods within quotation marks is a change. It occurred about 10 years ago.

Grammar Tip – Text Style Guide

Carlene’s question: “I am trying to find a good reference for a text style guide. I want to address readability of word-based text documents. Are you aware of a guide that provides information on how to use headings, bolding, font size, etc.?”

BizWritingTip response: Design is a very personal thing, and many organizations have even developed their own style guide.

You might find my article  Twelve Ways to Increase the Readability of Your Business Documents helpful.

These thoughts are based on my own research, experiences and discussions within my workshops. If your organization has a style guide that differs — follow it. (Always go with whoever pays your salary.)

In terms of a reference guide, I like  Looking Good on Paper by Garrett Soden. Writing in Bullets by Kim Long is also interesting. They are both available through Amazon. However, I am sure there are other guides out there. If anyone has a favourite book that deals primarily with fonts and layouts, I would love to hear from you.

Jane’s onsite workshop  Writing for the Web also explores the differences in writing for print as opposed to screen.

Word Choice – Thank you versus thank-you

Thank you is an important word, but it’s too bad it is often misused. There is thank you and thank-you. However, these two forms have three different uses:

Thank you = verb form

Thank-you = noun

Thank-you = adjective

Thank you is from the verb “to thank.” The object is “you.” You can tell if thank you is the right word, if you put the pronoun “I” in front, which is the true meaning. (This meaning is shortened today to the familiar thank you. It is always two words.)

Examples

Thank you for attending the meeting. (I thank you for attending the meeting.)

Thank you for answering my questions. (I thank you for answering my questions.)

Thank-you is a noun. An article, such as a or the, will precede it.

Example

I want to give you a big thank-you for your invitation.

The conference is nearly over. It is time for the thank-yous.

Thank-you can also be used as an adjective. A noun will follow.

Examples

I must send him a thank-you note.

The thank-you speech went on forever.

Thank you for reading this BizWritingTip on the rationale for using the thank-you.

Writing Style – Titles and Capital Letters

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: I often see titles written without capitals, for example, Joe Blow, pharmacy manager, … . I would normally use capitals on these words but maybe a rule has changed, and I missed it!

BizWritingTip response: The style today with regard to capitalizing words within sentences is called modified down. In other words, lowercase words are generally preferred.

Therefore, if a title follows a name and is separated from it by a comma, use the lowercase for the title.

Example

Joe Blow, pharmacy manager, chaired the meeting.

Tony Clement, federal health minister, attended the conference.

If a formal title directly precedes the name, then it would be capitalized.

Example

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

However, if the title stands alone or is plural, write it as a lowercase,

Example

The mayor was re-elected.

Two premiers, Gordon Campbell and Gary Doer, met to discuss the issue.

Don’t forget that occupations are always lowercased: nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, etc.