Costs of Poor Writing: Wasted Time

Lost time is never found.

 

  • Have you ever read something that was so muddled, you had to read it three times before you understood it?
  • Have you ever received a long rambling email and spent ten minutes trying to figure out what the point of it was?
  • Have you ever received a letter or email composed of a solid block of text and decided, “Forget it! I’m not reading it”?

In all these cases, the writers contributed to one of main costs of poor writing: wasted time. When people write garbled, rambling, dense documents, they force their readers to spend unnecessary time decoding their messages.  Poor writing wastes time.

In the Worktalk trainings, we teach several tools that allow readers to use their time effectively:

Know your point before you start.

                We’ve all had the experience of slogging through a long email and finally seeing the writer’s “aha” moment --- the moment when the writer realized her own main point. There’s nothing wrong with taking a while to figure out what your main point is – just don’t drag your reader through your mental discovery process.

In reading the writing samples of hundreds of business writers, I have also seen cases when the writer never did seem to figure out his own point; he just threw a bunch of points on the page and let the reader figure out what was important. Here’s an example:

Dear Mr. Ritz,

                Downs High School is at the corner of Polk Street and Downs Avenue. I remember it well from my days a student there so long ago. The senior citizens park adjoining the school is also so lovely.  The senior center is leased to Jonesville School District, I believe.

                Someone has reported that the benches in the senior center need to be repaired. We don’t have the current lease agreements, although we do have a site map and some notes from a meeting discussing the leases from many years ago.

                Any information you can send would be most appreciated.

The point is that the writer needs the reader to send him the current lease agreements before the district can repair the benches. However, he did not make his request.

Before you start to write, take a moment and say or write, “What I really want my reader to know/do is…” That way you do not make your reader stop and think about what he is supposed to do. He will read your document once and understand your message.

Put your main point first, in most cases.

If the main point is buried in the middle of a document or email, your reader is likely to overlook it. People are paying most attention at the beginning and at the end of documents

The main point generally belongs at the top of your document.

If your main point is positive or neutral, remember the acronym BLUP: Bottom Line Up Front.

Putting your main point at the top enables the reader to just read that and then decide how much of the remainder to read.

Break up the page with plenty of white space.

What’s your reaction to a long block of text?

If your impulse is to skip that document or email and move onto something that looks friendlier, you are not alone. That is what most readers do.

It takes longer to read a dense block of text than it does to read a series of three- to four-line paragraphs separated by beautiful white space. White space rests the eye. It enables readers to read, blink, look up briefly, look down, and be able to find their place. You could put the winning Powerball numbers in the middle of a dense block of text and be confident that no one would claim the prize.

Break up the page with moderate-sized paragraphs so that your document takes less time to read.

Using these three simple tools will save your readers time:

  • Know your point before you start.
  • Make the point early in the text
  • Keep the format friendly.

The Worktalk writing trainings enable organizations to save time, reduce miscommunication, and avoid negative branding caused by poor writing. Contact Elizabeth Danziger at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to learn more about our customized programs. Visit www.worktalk.com for more information.

Email Tone: What If You Really Are Angry?

In a recent post, I suggested several ways to warm up the tone of your emails, so that you will not seem angry to your readers. A perceptive reader asked me, “What if you really are angry, disappointed, or upset? How do you express yourself when the ‘nice’ email does not get the desired response?” This post is a response to his excellent question.

What is your purpose? Venting or Problem-solving?

First of all, ask yourself what your purpose is. Do you want to vent, or to produce some desirable result?

If you want to vent, remember this caveat: Angry emails are rarely productive. Often, they fan the flames of animosity and spur the receiver to write back something even angrier, or worse, to forward your angry email to people you respect, causing them to respect you less.

Every critical word or nuance is magnified a hundredfold in the reader’s mind when it comes in an email. Think about critical or angry emails you have received. Did they make you think, “Oh, of course, I was wrong. Let me just fix that right up for you.” Or were you hurt, defensive, and resentful?

So Venter Beware: The momentary relief you get from pounding on the keys and hitting send is likely to be overshadowed by long-lasting negative consequences.

But let’s say you are angry, upset, or disappointed, and you are not indulging in the urge to vent. You have a complaint, and you want a result. What approach should you take in your email? Here are four steps to follow to get results when you are angry.

Four Steps to Getting Results When You Are Upset

1.         State the facts.  Just saying what happened should have some impact on your reader; you do not have to embellish the facts with emotional language.

  • You sent me merchandise that I did not order.
  • The product was broken when it arrived.
  • The report, which was due on Friday, did not arrive until the following Thursday.

2.         State the consequences of the mistake. What happened because of the mistake? People often fail to consider the impact of their action or inaction. They may be more motivated to make the situation right if they see what their mistake cost you.

  • Because the camera did not work, I was unable to photograph my daughter’s third birthday party.
  • The late report led me to miss an important deadline with the customer.
  • We lost the client.

3.         State your request or conditions. If you are not going to ask for some compensation, monetary or not, there is not much point writing the email. Do you just want them to know they messed up? What good will come of that? Even if all you want is an apology, ask for it.

  • Please send me a mailing label to return the unwanted merchandise and issue me a full refund so that I will not be forced to lodge a formal complaint with my credit card company.
  • I request an immediate replacement for the broken merchandise.
  • Please write to the client to take responsibility for the late report, and ask him to reconsider his decision.
  • If an important deadline is missed in the future, it will have serious implications for your future with this company.

4.         Thank or acknowledge the reader. This step might seem unnecessary if it was the other person who made the mistake. However, you rarely go wrong by thanking a person for his or her attention. You have made your request, but it still requires a modicum of goodwill from the other person for you to get what you want. Also, even if the other person was entirely in the wrong, she is a human being, imperfect as we all are, and deserves to be treated with dignity.

At the same time that you thank the person, you can remind her of the desired response.

  • Thank you for your attention to this matter. I look forward to receiving the mailing label today.
  • Thank you for sending the replacement item promptly.
  • I know apologizing is difficult, and I thank you for making the effort.
  • I trust this was a one-time error, and look forward to continuing our work together.

The emails you will write by following these four steps will not be warm and fuzzy, but they are also not bridge-burners. By sticking with the facts and making your expectations clear, you open a path for the other person to make good on his mistake, and allow both of you to continue the relationship.

To contact Elizabeth Danziger about email training or business writing training, write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit www.worktalk.com.

©2016 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

Rumma’ging through Apostrophes

During a recent road trip across southern Utah, I passed a store with the name Rumma'geI assume that the owner wanted to stand out from the crowd (which was pretty small to begin with) and dress up her store name to “Rumma’ge” instead of the dowdy “rummage.”  Unfortunately, her use of the apostrophe was laughable. 

Wherever you go, you see apostrophes used in painfully incorrect phrases, such as:

  • “Please wear shoe’s in the pool area.”       
  • “Visitor’s are kindly requested to sign the register.” 
  •  "Ask cashier for this weeks’ list.”

            

Why this compulsion to apostrophize?  Do people vaguely recall that an apostrophe sometimes goes before the ‘s’ -- so they pop them into words at random and hope they get it right?   That’s what the Rumma'ge lady did. These grammar gaffes make me grumpy. 

Okay, so when DO you use an apostrophe? 

*          To form a contraction. 

The apostrophe shows where a letter or letters have been omitted.  For example, instead of let us see, you could write, “let’s see. 

Watch out here, this gets tricky--- instead of it is, you could write it’s.

*The word its is not, repeat is not a contraction.  It is a possessive form of the word it.  Please remember to use it’s only when signifying a contraction between it and is.

 *          To show possession. 

Instead of having to write, “This shoe belongs to John,” we can write “John’s shoe.” Instead of saying, “Hey – I think that is the car that belongs to John!,” you can say, “Hey – I think that’s John’s car.” What a deal!

There is no grammatical basis for using an apostrophe-s ending to signify a plural.  One cat, two cats.  One shoe, two shoes.  Or if you want to get fancy, one company, two companies.”  But NEVER write shoe’s if what you mean is that there are two shoes. 

What if the word ends in s, and you want to show the possessive s?

This is a conundrum.  According to the Chicago Manual of Style, it is now proper to use the ‘s´ apostrophe just as if the word did not end in s.  Thus, you would have words like the princess’s tiara or the business’s quarterly report.  The stylebook goes on to say that using a simple apostrophe to signify a possessive is reserved exclusively for major cultural or religious figures.  This would leave us with words like Xerxes’ rule, or Jesus’ teaching or Moses’ law.  Of course, this opens the question of who decides whether a person is worthy of the simple apostrophe. (What about Saint Francis?)

 *          To show BOTH a plural and possession. 

If you have one cat, and the cat has a bowl, then you could write, “The cat’s bowl is in the kitchen.”

But suppose that your cat got out one night and visited some tomcat that didn’t even remember her name in the morning – and that now you have six cats.  First, you must buy a much bigger bowl.  Then you could write, “The cats’ bowl is in the kitchen.”  Many cats possess the bowl. We convey this by putting an ‘s apostrophe’ at the end of the word.

In brief:

  • Nouns that are plural have an extra  s.
  • Nouns that show possession possess an apostrophe followed by an s ('s).
  • Plural possessive nouns have the extra s followed by an apostrophe. (s')

 

I hope this lay’s to rest anyones lingering doubt's about apostrophe's.  Its simple! Apostrophes’ are only confusing when you don’t know whi'ch is whi'ch. 

 

Please email me the most galling apostrophe mistakes you have seen and remember to tell me what other writing errors gall you.

© 1999-2016 Elizabeth Danziger  All rights reserved.

 

Worktalk Communications Consulting can help you communicate powerfully and purposefully.  Bad writing is costly. Let us train your staff to write clearly and correctly, or do the writing for you.

Call us at (310) 396-8303, e-mail us This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit us at http://www.worktalk.com to learn more about how WORKTALK help you get to the point!

Writing in ALL CAPS: What are the costs?

Writing in all caps makes readers less receptive

It may seem obvious that writing in all caps is a mistake, but the following story really happened to me.

I recently taught an email effectiveness course for an accounting firm in Los Angeles. It was mandatory, so everyone in the office was there. During the program, I told the participants “Don’t write your subject line in all caps.”

A senior partner in his mid-50s, Jeffrey, practically jumped out of his chair. “But I always write my subject lines in all caps!”

A collective sigh went around the room. “Yeah… we know,” said his colleagues.

I explained that when you write in all caps, the reader feels he’s being yelled at. “But I don’t mean to yell,” Jeffrey said, “I just want to be emphatic.”

His boss chimed in. “But everyone feels yelled at. Either you can wait for the rest of the world to come to your point of view, or you can adapt to the rest of the world. I recommend the latter.”

Jeffrey would not give up. “But people get so many emails --- I have to write my subject lines in all caps to get people’s attention.”

“Yes, you can get people’s attention with all caps,” I persisted, “but it is not the kind of attention you want. It is negative attention. When you write in all caps, you are automatically irritating your reader and making her less disposed to receive your message. Is that what you really want?”

He sat back in his chair and thought silently for a long time.

At the break, many staff members came to thank me for giving this feedback to their colleague. “We get together in the break room and talk about how awful his emails are,” said one person. “I hate getting emails from him – I always put off reading them,” said another.  “His emails really make me resent him,” said a third.

When I met with Alan, the partner in charge of the office, after the training, he said he’d had no idea that Jeffrey’s email habits had had such a damaging effect on the office culture. No one wanted to complain to the boss, but everyone resented Jeffrey’s all-caps habit.  Alan thanked me for bringing this issue to light during the email effectiveness training.

A month after the training, I contacted both Jeffrey and Alan. Jeffrey had stopped writing in all caps, and his standing in the office had significantly improved.

More importantly, his readers -- both within and outside the office -- were more receptive to his messages when they no longer felt he was shouting at them.

From my 20+ years of training experience, I can tell you that Jeffrey’s story is not unique.

People use all caps to be emphatic, without realizing that others interpret it as yelling. They do not see that they are creating resentment and resistance rather than receptivity. So what do we learn from this training experience?

  • Writing in all caps offends readers.
  • Writing in all caps generates negative attention instead of positive attention.
  • One employee’s writing in all caps can poison an office culture.

For information about Worktalk’s email effectiveness trainings and webinar, contact Elizabeth Danziger: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (310) 396-8303.

©2016 Elizabeth Danziger Do not reproduce without author’s permission.

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  • About Elizabeth
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Elizabeth Danziger * WorkTalk Communications Consulting Elizabeth Danziger

Succeed by writing clearly

Elizabeth Danziger, founder of Worktalk Communications Consulting, enables people to achieve success through better writing. Improved writing means greater productivity, better customer service, quicker adoption of internal initiatives, fewer misunderstandings, faster completion of key work, and enhanced relationships.

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Get to the Point by Elizabeth Danziger

Succeed by writing clearly

Cut your writing time in half by using the simple, time-tested techniques of Get to the Point! You'll accomplish more and your readers will understand your ideas the first time they read them. You will save time and advance your career by getting to the point … no more follow-up phone calls and memos because people didn't understand what you wrote. No more doubts about the quality of your writing.

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A mid-sized publicly traded corporation was having a problem.

A senior executive was an excellent writer and editor; he found it necessary to intensively revise every key document that went out. His time-consuming edits were creating a bottleneck, in addition to generating resentment from the people who were doing the writing. The CEO finally intervened and told the executive to cut back on his editing or face the consequences.

Elizabeth Danziger was brought in.

She analyzed dozens of documents and emails so that she could see the patterns of writing errors and the situations to which the executive was responding. She met with all the main players and coached them about the process of editing and being edited. She was then hired to edit key documents before they were sent to the senior executive. She led several customized writing trainings for the staff members who were writing key documents.

The result?

The senior executive told the head of human resources that he no longer felt the need to edit as he had in the past. The editing job is handled. The first drafts of the staff members were substantially better than they had been before. Less conflict, less stress, and a better final product. Worktalk’s consulting, coaching, editing, and training expertise transformed a painful situation into a productive one.

Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
  • Customized. +

    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs and values. Ms. Danziger consults with the client, determining what kinds of issues are most important to management. She then structures the program to meet the organization's needs.
    In addition, Danziger requests writing samples from the organization and from individual participants. These examples are used in exercises and training examples, with names and identifying information removed. This enables people to see "real" work and learn how to improve.
    The email training reflects the client's culture. Danziger sends out a survey for managers asking them which email topics are most relevant to their organization. She structures the presentation according to what is most important to the executive team.
  • Energetic and entertaining. +

    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
  • Proven results. +

    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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