Your chance to get some FREE expert feedback on your written comms is here!
So what’s the deal? If you send us a page of your written work between 5pm and 5.30pm AEDT on a Thursday, we’ll be only too happy to have a look at it and give you some general pointers!
Send samples through to firstname.lastname@example.org (and please note that we won’t be providing a full proofing service – it’s simply an opportunity for you to get some general tips).
This week we’re looking at ways to achieve the deceptively simple goal of plain language in written comms.
One key way of doing this is to use active (rather than passive) constructions.
We see the overuse of the passive construction all too commonly in written communications – probably because at some point, someone decided that more words meant better, and the employment of passive constructions is a sure-fire way of achieving more words! Because we now recognise that more doesn’t mean better when it comes to text, it’s essential to be able to distinguish between active and passive constructions end employ each as required.
Compare the following:
“The lawyer wrote the letter”
“The letter was written by the lawyer”
The former is concise and direct: it is the active construction. The latter is the passive construction (and SO often preferred by lawyers!). If you want to get super technical – and if you don’t, skip this part! -, in the active construction the subject is the agent (ie the person who performs the action of the verb); in the passive, the action is performed upon the subject by the agent.
While it’s certainly true that the passive construction is sometimes preferable to the active (for example, when the person who performed the action is unknown or unimportant, or you want to direct attention away from their role), in many cases it can lead to less clear and strong text.
If you feel like the passive construction is overused in your own writing, stay tuned for our new initiative, Thursday Happy Half Hour, launching this Thursday to give you the opportunity to get some tailored tips to improve your written comms!
C.S. Lewis: the original advocate of plain English
Something we see a lot of confusion about is the correct use of “affect” and “effect”. If distinguishing between these two does your head in, learn to remember the acrostic poem “RAVEN” and you’ll never be confused again!
So “Affect” is a verb – an action word. Here’s an example that lot of us can probably relate to at the moment! “Melbourne’s weather affects my mood terribly”.
“Effect”, on the other hand, is a noun – a thing: “Melbourne’s weather has a terrible effect on my mood”.
But there’s one important caveat: this holds true when we’re using “affect” or “effect” as synonyms of “impact”. When “effect” means “to cause” or “to bring about”, it’s a verb: “The legislation effected a significant change in the target group’s behaviour”.
Recently, a client asked us to proof a proposed advertisement. The client had retained a marketing firm to prepare the ad (paying handsomely for the firm’s services), and was about to send it off to be printed.
Fortunately, because we’ve proven the value of our proofing services to this client before they knew to come to us first. This time, for a fractional additional cost (about 5% of what they’d paid the marketing firm) we were able to identify and rectify four errors in an ad of less than 200 words – common errors, as it happens (a malapropism, incorrect verb form for the subject, wrong use of a semicolon and a missing possessive apostrophe).
By ensuring that its text was perfected before printing, the client was spared the dilemma presented when errors are only picked up later on – that is, do you go ahead with an ad containing mistakes – which no one wants to do! – or do you incur the cost of having the ad reprinted once it’s correct? Neither option is great.
So there it is. The proven value of proofing. Perfected text for a fractional additional cost – why wouldn’t you?
“The fashion crimes people make“. You read it and it jars…but why?
A pitfall that non-native speakers in particular have to be careful to avoid, this headline contains an error of collocation. In English, “crime” collocates with “commit”, not with “make”. That is, people don’t “make” crimes, they “commit” them.
Aside from the fact that getting your text right enhances positive perceptions of your work or your brand, choosing correct collocates also has consequences for communication effectiveness.
In short, it means text that’s more easily readable – text that doesn’t make your audience disengage while they notice that something’s awry and try to figure out what it is. And that’s worth aiming for.
“A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life” – Winston Churchill
To communicate with authenticity you don’t need the most words; you need the best ones – and often, these just happen to also be the most simple and honest ones.
Here are our top tips to help you select the best words for your text:
1. Don’t be scared of simple!
Writers sometimes seem scared of simple, equating it with the feared “simplistic” and running into those well-known traps of verbosity and hyperbole. Embrace simple – your audience will love you for it!
Leave behind misconceptions that more and bigger words mean better text. Take time to seek out the right word. The word that conveys precisely what it is that you want to say, not some approximation of it. True, this requires more time than throwing some words together haphazardly, but it pays off with gains in communication effectiveness.
2. Check it once, check it twice
If you’re not entirely sure about the meaning, spelling or connotations of a word you’re tempted to use, check (or risk ending up with “slithered almonds” instead of “slivered almonds” in your book of recipes and that is most decidedly not a good look on anyone…).
3. Proof it
Finally, it’s essential to have someone independent cast an eye over your text. Have them confirm that it says what you want it to say – not just what you think it does!
For businesses looking to go global, there’s so much big-picture work to do that it would be easy to overlook the seemingly small detail of getting text for new target markets just right. But this small detail is exceptionally important: if the text is wrong, messages can fall flat and fail to resonate – or, in the worst case scenario, cause a business to end up the subject of ridicule.
So what can businesses do to give their text the best chance of connecting with their new market?
1. Be aware that not all concepts translate between languages (or really, cultures)
We see a lot of businesses which have had their original materials translated directly into English in order to break into an English-speaking market. Sometimes this can work; often, it doesn’t (after all, not all concepts translate in all languages).
2. If you’re going down the translation route, use only native speakers of the target language
The number one rule of translation? You should only translate into your native language. Don’t be tempted to use the services of a translator who isn’t a native speaker of the language spoken in your target market.
3. Consult an expert proofer in your target market
Whether you opt for 1) or 2), it’s well worth making the invaluable investment in having your materials proofed by someone based in the market you’re seeking to enter. They’ll be able to identify anything that sounds plain wrong or unnatural, and present appropriate alternatives that give you the best chance of engaging with your new audience.
Premium brands come with a premium price tag, and conveying a sense of luxury is critical to their success. Yet all too often, the language employed in their advertisements is one-dimensional and fails to evoke the luxury they’re trying to sell.
Consider this recent example from an advertisement for a luxury fashion house. The phrase “classics like cashmere, silk and cotton” was a lost opportunity to conjure in readers’ minds the divinely tactile nature of the premium fabrics used in the collection – an opportunity to create in them a desire to touch the fabric, to imagine how the pieces could work in their wardrobes.
A simple improvement like “cosy cashmere, sensuous silk and crisp cotton” would have been vastly more evocative, recalling for the reader the indulgent sensation of these fabrics against the skin. Which one would be more likely to entice you to engage with the brand?