Insult your readers only, if insulting is your objective

Have you ever been irritated at someone because they misspelled your name in an email? Have you ever snuffed your nose at someone because the got your gender wrong? For some people it is quite irritating to be addressed that way. It interferes with the message itself.

Pardon!

In business, we fight for attention. We do not want anything to interfere with the message. The message must get across.

If you agree with the above, try using gender-neutral writing. Gender-neutrality is a way of sending your information in a form that the audience can understand and use. It avoids anything that interferes with receiving and understanding the message. This means, it does not distract readers from the real issues.

For that purpose, gender-neutral writing uses language that does not stereotype either sex. For example, it does not appear to be referring to only one sex when that is not the writer’s intention.

To write in a gender-neutral way, do the following:

Bypass the problem of gender whenever possible

  • Imperative mood (Do this.).
  • Second person (you) instead of third person (he, the user).
  • First person plural (we)

Use plural nouns and plural   pronouns

  • Do not write: To log in, the user must enter his login name and password.
  • Do write, e.g. in a user document:  To log in, enter your login name and password.
  • Do write in other documents):  To log in, users must enter their login names and passwords.

Avoid pronouns completely when you can

  • Do not write: Technical documentation exists for the reader. You are writing it for him, not for your ego.
  • Do write: Technical documentation exists for readers. You are writing it for readers, not for your ego.

Use “a” or “the” instead:

  • Do not write: The writer should know his reader well.
  • Do write: The writer should know the readers well.

If nothing else works, rewrite the sentence or passage.

  • Do not write: Each user has his own login name and password.
  • Do not write: Each user has their own login name and password.
  • Do write: Each user has a personal login name and password.

Don’ts

  • Do not use “he” as a generic pronoun; use it only to refer to men and boys.
  • Do not use “she” as a generic pronoun; use it only to refer to women and girls.
  • Avoid phrases such as “he or she” and “he/she” or made-up words like “s/he.”
  • Do not use a feminized noun (e.g., manageress) when the normal noun (manager) covers both sexes.

Credits: The tips and some of the examples are based on stuff from http://www.jeanweber.com/newsite/

Consider translators an important target audience

Translator with tourist

A lot has been written about target audience analysis. It is, after all, vital to know who you write for in order to meet their expectations and level of expertise. Many of us, however, forget that our documents are translated into other languages, for example presentations for a congress, press releases, etc. If translation is one part of the text creation, consider the translators as target audience: If they do not understand the text at first reading the way you intended it, you may get grave errors in the translated text.

I give you an example of a perfectly good German to English translation. The original German sentence reads:

Bitte ggf. nicht zutreffende Kommunikationskanäle löschen.

The translation came back as:

Where possible, do not delete relevant communication channels.

If you are a German native, you may understand that the translation does not reflect the meaning of the German sentence. However, consider that translators translate into their native tongue, not from their native tongue into the acquired tongue (except in rare cases). This means, the translator parsed the “nicht” and chunked it with the “löschen” – which is a perfectly good interpretation of the sentence. What the writer intended to say, however, was the following:

If necessary, please delete non-applicable communication channels.

Now that is the exact opposite of the above translation! How can you as writer ensure that the translator catches your meaning?

Do exactly as the second translator did: include a hyphen to clarify the chunking of “nicht” with “zutreffend”, which reads as “nicht-zutreffende”.  This requires some skill and a lot of training.

If you think “Well, the translator’s German should have been better.” Think again: In many cases your readers mis-interpret you writing just as badly as the translator. They may not be native speakers either; they may be in a hurry; they may not be overly motivated to read that text. The only difference is: With your readers you usually do not get the kind of feedback as you do from a translated text.

Technical writing is simple but never easy. If you do not make the effort, your readers may not either. It all comes back to your motivation: How much would you like someone to read and understand your text?

 

Example of ambiguous text

The following sentence can be interpreted in two ways with vast difference in meaning:

“The structure of the new invoice is copied from the invoice selected as template in the section Invoices.”

It is possible to interpret the sentence as either of the following meaning:

  • The structure of the new invoice is copied from the invoice, which you selected, and is created as template in the section Invoices.
  • The structure of the new invoice is copied from the invoice template, which you selected in section Invoices.

The reason for this ambiguity is the shortened relative clause “selected as template in the section Invoices”.

Tip: Do not shorten relative clauses!

Smolle

Write without ambiguity

In this article you learn about ambiguity and double meanings that are caused by  verbs in the -ing form. My conclusion is, not to use verbs in the -ing form at all.

Two different grammatical phenomena use verbs in the -ing form:

  • Gerunds
  • Present participles

(See explanations of gerunds and present participles at the bottom of this article).

However, gerunds and present particles are often confused unintentionally. Depending on how readers interpret them, their meaning may change the sentence drastically. This means:

If you use a verb in an -ing form, your chances are high that the text is ambiguous or contains double meanings.

Double meaning

Some double meanings come from the intentional use of the similar look of the gerund and present participle. Clever word plays use the fact that a phrase can be interpreted as noun form (gerund) but also as verb form (participle clause). Depending on whether you read the following slogan as gerund or a present participle, it has a different meaning:

“Building blocks”

“Building blocks” is the  slogan of a building society, i.e. a company that builds houses. Their slogan plays on the two possible interpretations of the word “building”.

  • Interpretation as gerund, i.e. a noun: “a part of something larger, i.e. a building block of a house”
  • Interpretation as present participle, here as continuous form of a verb: “Someone (the society) builds blocks of houses”

This is a clever play on words and intended. If your target audience understands English well enough to get the double meaning, all is well. If they get just one meaning, it is not a great loss.

In other contexts, the double meaning is not quite as clever. In fact, many writers do not see that they give room for unwanted interpretation. Consider the interpretation possibilities of the following example:

“Hunting lions can be dangerous”

The sentence “Hunting lions can be dangerous” has two meanings. It means the following, depending on whether you interpret it as gerund or as present participle:

  • Hunting as gerund:
    Lions is the object. The sentence means: “It can be dangerous to hunt lions.”
  • Hunting as present participle:
    The word “hunting” functions as an adjective and further describes “lions”. The sentence means: “Lions that hunt can be dangerous.”

(Source: http://www.grammaring.com/the-difference-between-the-gerund-and-the-present-participle)

The above example shows that the verb in the -ing form can be read either way with totally different meanings. Mostly, writers are unaware that they write something with a possible double meaning. Most writers I know, do not want any double meaning. It makes your text harder to understand.

If you have ever read a sentence that made you stop in your tracks and start reading again, this kind of double meaning may have been the cause of your confusion.

If you are the writer and your proof-reader has not caught a double-meaning, your audience may struggle with it. Mostly, however, we do not notice this kind of problem until our texts are translated. A translator may have interpreted the sentence just one way and – without thinking – translated it in the unintended way. Talking from experience, this is a common issue: Customers come back to us and complain of bad translation.

While I agree that translators should catch double meanings and check which one is intended, the proof-reading is actually not their job. You may want to consider getting a review before you have a text translated to avoid this kind of problem.

Ambiguity

Often, ambiguity arises if you shorten a relative sentence, as I explained previously in http://monikamack.de/two-sisters-re-united-after-18-years-at-checkout-counter/

It is also possible to shorten a relative sentence with a present participle, i.e. a verb in the -ing form. Consider the following sentences and try to identify who does what:

  • Annie walked past a student carrying a satchel laughing as she came from the warren of bedsits and flats inside the student houses.
    • Who is carrying a satchel?
    • Who is laughing?
  • Alabama QB draws strength from his brother fighting ISIL
    • Who is fighting ISIL?

Why is it so hard to find out when o does what exactly? Because the words “carrying”, “laughing”, and “fighting” are short forms of  the following:

  • “carrying” of “who was carrying”
  • “laughing” of “while she was laughing”
  • “fighting” of “who is fighting”.

The present participles are used to shorten a relative sentence. I believe it is never a good thing to shorten a relative sentence in writing. In this case the present participle makes it even harder to see through the muddle.

My advice: Do not use verbs in the -ing form. It is just simpler that way.

Background information:

A verb that ends in -ing is either a present participle or a gerund. These two forms look identical. The difference is in their function in a sentence.

Gerund

A gerund is a noun form that is formed from a verb by adding –ing. The gerund has the function of a substantive but shows the verbal features of tense, voice, and capacity to take adverbial qualifiers and to govern objects. Example: “The running of the deer”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Present participle

A participle is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun, noun phrase, verb, or verb phrase, and thus plays a role similar to that of an adjective or adverb.

The present participle is a participle that ends in -ing.

A present participle is most commonly used as part of the continuous form of a verb, as an adjective, of as part of a participle clause.

Examples:

  • Used as the continuous form of a verb: You must be joking.
  • Used as an adjective: The survey revealed some worrying results.
  • Used as part of a participle clause:
    • The man driving the car was not injured.
    • Opening the envelope, I found two concert tickets.

(Sources: http://www.grammaring.com/the-difference-between-the-gerund-and-the-present-participle, Wikipedia)

Further reading:

The brain parses a sentence into meaningful chunks. Some grammatical phenomena make it very hard to chunk correctly. See an explanation of chunking at http://www.businessinsider.com/why-this-sentence-is-hard-to-understand-2015-3?IR=T

 

What you write is not always what you mean

Recently I found a sentence in a company’s communications policy, which really impressed me:

„The decisions and actions of our company are communicated in such a way that the respective target audiences can always understand and potentially accept them”.

To communicate in such a way that target audiences “always understand” is an admirable goal. A goal most of us fall short of. We notice that things aren’t easy to understand in our daily work: when we read company policies, guidelines, instructions, e-mails, sometimes even when we listen to another person.
It helps to become aware that we all fall short of this goal to “make understand”. It also helps to understand why we often fall short of making people understand.

Write from a target audience point of view

How can you achieve understandability? Through thinking and writing from a target audiences point of view! All “good” writing considers the cultural and knowledge background of the target audience.
Often, we assume that our readers know and understand just as much as we do. However, they may lack the background, the precise software development background, the experience, the language subtleties,… You get my point.
Within a language, we often miss the double meanings and the impreciseness. Translations are a great way of finding out, if all target audiences have understood the text.

Remember: If you get a translation, the translator is the first target audience you write for!

Let’s take a look at a German source text that is translated to English:

“Durch diesen Prozess erzielen auch Teams, die dezentral arbeiten, immer das gleiche Verhalten der Software.”

The literal translation for someone who is not familiar with EB’s structure and background, or the writer’s intentions, is:

“Through this process it is possible to achieve the same software behavior, even for teams that work in de-centralized mode.”

However, the author of this line meant to say something different:

“Through this process it is possible to achieve the same software behavior, even for teams that work from different locations around the world.”

As a translator and without having worked for the author’s company for a while, would you have guessed the correct meaning? Let’s be clear: it is a matter of guessing. Our aim as writers must therefore be to write as precisely as possible – and to omit all room for interpretation.

Explain complex facts in simple language

We talk and write about complex matters. To motivate readers, make the text as easy as possible: Use simple language to explain complex facts.
Simple language means:

  • Short sentences: Shorten long sentences.
  • Simple words: Write as you would speak. Use words from everyday language.

Let’s take a look at a long and hard sentence:

At present the recessionary cycle is aggravating volumes through your modern manufacturing and order processing environments which provide restricted opportunities for cost reduction through labor adjustments and will remain a key issue.

Is this a complex sentence? http://www.checktext.org/ says it is hard to read. Let’s see if shortening and using simple words eases the reading:

Output and orders have fallen because of the recession but there is little room for reducing the workforce.

Now the text is of medium reading ease, comparable to the comprehensibility of a newspaper article. Is the meaning the same? I think so.

Some may say: “But the short sentence doesn’t cover the subtleties of the longer one!” Remember what your true objective is: Showing off your vocabulary, or getting your idea across? I recommend “getting the idea across”

The understandability toolbox: Verbs and active voice

Nobody wants to read complicated emails. Use the following understandability tools to get your message across. You may notice that your readers read faster, understand better and no longer ignore vital parts of what you write.

Decoding the message

Your language RAM is tiny. It is so tiny, it cannot remember more than seven semantic units. Semantic unit can be: a word, a name made up of several words, etc. The actual size of your brain-RAM is unimportant, however, it is very small.

You are able to understand what I write because your brain works hard to decode what I write. To decode what I mean, your brain tries to predict and categorize the words that follow. It runs ahead of what you actually read. To predict meaning in English or German language, your brain needs a full verb. The earlier this verb occurs in the sentence, the easier you can predict what I am going to say. The earlier you can predict how I finish my sentence, the easier you decode the meaning of my words.

However, expressing and understanding are not the same thing. While I write, I try hard to provide good content. Mostly, my brain is busy with content rather than with expressing the content adequately. One of us will have to do the hard work of decoding, or making understandable: either you or I.

If I do it, I must rework my sentence and give you a verb early on. However, I am concentrating on content, so the first thing I think of is content, i.e. nouns. I must switch the order of how I say things.

Move the verb to the front

If I were to write a sentence down straight from my brain, it may come out as the following:

“Now complex function such as complete surroundings models or network management and transport protocols can be emulated on the hardware.”

Easier for you to understand is the following:

“Now it is possible to emulate complex functions, such as complete surroundings models or network management and transport protocols on the hardware.”

Note the position of the verb “to emulate” in both examples. At first writing, we tend to use the passive voice and list nouns first, then a verb. To get your meaning across better, it is essential that you move the verb toward the beginning of the sentence. Note how that almost automatically changes the passive voice into the active voice, too.

In the first example, your brain cannot easily remember the information “complete surroundings models or network management and transport protocols”. In the second example, you were able to predict the meaning and decode the sentence structure much earlier. Once that is done, it is easier to concentrate on the following information.

Use the active voice

I already mentioned that a verb toward the front of the sentence almost automatically rewrites your sentence into the active voice. The active voice is a great thing to help your brain’s tiny RAM: It tells you who does what. Together with a full verb, the “doer” makes your sentence almost effortless to read and decode.

For an example of how the active voice improves understandability, read the following:

This is how I might draft a sentence in the passive voice:

“In this guideline, the purpose of data collection, the tools for data collection, and the usage areas of the software tools are explained.”

If I were to rework the sentence, I’d name the doer, i.e. the guideline, and the verb, i.e. “explains” as first parts of the sentence:

“This guideline explains the purpose of collecting data, the tools for collecting data, and the areas that use the software tools.”

To improve what you write and how your writing is perceived, remember these two rules of thumb:
• Move the verb to the front
• Use the active voice

Offener Brief an Krautreporter

Hallo Alexander,

darf ich Alexander sagen? Ihr duzt mich immer so schön, auch wenn wir uns gar nicht kennen – vielleicht ist das aber auch nur ein etwas bemühter Versuch euch mir anzunähern.

Ich habe deinen netten Brief erhalten. Er war etwas lang, ganz ehrlich, ich habe ihn nicht lesen mögen. Aber im Grunde hast du es auch schon in der Überschrift gesagt – meine Mitgliedschaft verlängert sich nicht. Deine Frage muss ich momentan (!) leider mit nein beantworten. Du darfst nicht weiter auf mich zählen.

Der Grund ist ganz schlicht: ich bin stinksauer auf euch. Ihr habt mir gut recherchierte Inhalte versprochen, neutrale Berichterstattung, spannende Reportagen in voller Länge. Gerne hätte ich diese auch gelesen. Aber ich kann es schlicht und einfach nicht sagen, ob ihr da Wort gehalten habt oder nicht.Als ihr gestartet seid, hattet ihr einige Darstellungsprobleme im Browser und in der Navigation und habt gebeten, euch Feedback zu geben. Habe ich getan. Einige Male, subjektiv viele Male. Ich habe euch gesagt: Ich lese am iPad, weil ich viel unterwegs bin, eure Seite ist nicht navigierbar, Seiten klappen auf und zu ohne Rücksicht auf was ich gerade mache. Bilder werden eingeblendet, wenn ich mitten im Artikel bin und die Seite hüpft und klappt irgendwo auf oder zu und schwupps ist der Artikel weg.

Ich habe mich sehr bemüht mitzuarbeiten (Merkst du was, Alex? Vom zahlenden Kunden bin ich nun zum zahlenden Mitarbeiter geworden ohne zu murren).

Ihr habt meistens nicht geantwortet, aber auch nicht mit Verbesserungen reagiert. Einmal habt ihr geantwortet – das hat mich sehr traurig gemacht. Ich bin lieb und sage mal, die Kollegin hat ein Textmodul aus der Standard-Schublade geholt und eingefügt in meine Nachricht. Leider hat sie das falsche Modul erwischt und etwas völlig anderes (schlecht) beantwortet, als ich gefragt habe. Ich habe geprüft, ob mein Deutsch schlecht sei, oder ich Chinesisch geschrieben habe – aber es war eine recht schlichte Beschreibung der Probleme, die ich habe, mit einigen technischen Angaben, die helfen können, das Problem zu identifizieren. Wenn ich böse wäre (aber sowas tue ich nicht) könnte ich auch behaupten, sie hat sich keine Mühe gegeben, zu verstehen, was ich schreibe oder wie sie mir helfen kann. Hauptsache, der Vorgang ist gelöst und der lästige Kunde ist erstmal weg.

Deswegen habe ich irgendwann bemerkt, dass es euch gar nicht so ernst ist mit unserer guten Freundschaft. Dass ihr mich zwar duzt bei jeder Gelegenheit, und mir erzählt, wie ihr die Welt bewegen wollt und wie ihr im Kontakt mit euren Lesern bleiben wollt (mir!), aber euch im Grund nicht mal darum schert wenn ein Mitglied eure Artikel nicht oder eklig schlecht lesen kann.

Also habe ich nochmal eine Nachricht geschrieben und meinem Frust Luft gemacht. Habe euch gekündigt, gesagt “ich komme nicht mehr, bis ihr das Problem gelöst habt” und dass ich nicht mehr lieb mit euch bin. Ihr habt das ganz fein ausgesessen, wie man das eben mit lieben Freunden (oder war ich jetzt doch eher nur Kunde?) macht. Also habe ich ein, zwei Nächte geheult, mir die paar blöden Euro die ich euch in den Rachen geschmissen habe nochmal gegönnt um mich zu besaufen und habe meinem journalistischem Leben einen neuen Sinn gegeben. Ich bin jetzt wieder gute befreundet mit den klassischen Anbietern – die kann man im Gegensatz zu Krautreportern nämlich am iPad lesen, am kindle lesen, auf G+ lesen, usw. Ich habe seitdem keine roten Pickel mehr am Hals, wenn ich Zeitung lese.

Deswegen, lieber Alexander, dürft ihr jetzt nicht mehr auf mich zählen. Ich werde keine 5 Euro im Monat spendieren für großmaulige Ankündigungen und Luftblasen – ich will die Reportagen lesen, die Hintergründe verstehen und vor allem, ich will lesen können ohne dass mein Blutdruck steigt weil ihr die Technik nicht im Griff habt.

Sobald ihr ein Format findet, dass ich mobil mit dem iPad lesen kann, werde ich das mit dem Abo nochmal wohlwollend prüfen.

Damit wir uns richtig verstehen: Ich werde keine weitere Fehlerbeschreibung senden – ihr müsstet euch dazu bitteschön einfach selber mal ein iPad anschaffen. Die sind zwar sehr teuer, aber netterweise haben diese Leser dann üblicherweise auch statistisch gesehen das Geld, euch finanziell zu unterstützen und ein Abo zu kaufen. Ich jedenfalls habe es und bin jederzeit bereit für Inhalt Geld zu zahlen.

Deswegen also meine Gegenfrage an dich: Kann ich auf euch zählen, lieber Alexander?

Freundliche Grüße,