Are you a random ‘capitalist’?

alphabet People contributing to technical reports and other documents usually have highly specialised skills – like engineering, architecture, science, accountancy and IT.

So they don’t have time to think about pesky grammar rules – which means things can go a little pear-shaped.

Not that we’re complaining. It keeps editors like us out of trouble and means we don’t have to sell body parts to make a living…

Many of the reports we work on suffer from ‘random capitalisation’. Capitals for emphasis. Capitals to show someone’s role is important. Capitals because a word looks like it should have one.

Using capitals can be tricky, so here are some quick tips and examples to keep those capitalist tendencies under control…

Wrapping the caps

  • The first word in a sentence is capitalised
  • The pronoun ‘I’ is always capitalised, e.g. I think I can
  • Use capitals for proper nouns – names, nationalities, places, brands
  • Never use capitals for emphasis, e.g. This is correct, but This is Not Correct
  • Don’t use capitals for roles unless it’s part of the name, e.g. Mayor Bird and Mr Bird, mayor of Birdsville are both correct capitalisation of ‘mayor’
  • Unless they’re part of a title, words like ‘project team’, ‘feasibility study’ and ‘environmental impact assessment’ shouldn’t be capitalised.

Something I prepared earlier

Copyright: Dragonfly Ink Using capitals for document titles and headlines can also be a style thing, so check your organisation’s style guide to find out their preferences.

We hope this helps you eliminate those capitalist tendencies – in you or others. Meanwhile, we’d better get back to saving the world… one capital letter at a time.

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Writing a report? What clients want…

You’re pulling together a report and, as always, you’re completely overstretched. But you have to get all the sections in and collate the report by close of business this Friday.

At that thought, vaguely hysterical laughter bubbles to the surface.

To get it ticked off, you’re using what’s been done before as a guide. There’s no time for succinct information and clear conclusions.

Repetition and inconsistency have crept in, and there seems to be a generous smattering of motherhood statements and weasel words.  

It might be time to take a breath, and work out what your clients want. But let’s start with what they really (really) don’t want.

A report that doesn’t meet their expectations

They’re expecting a financial/business approval style report, and you’ve given them an engineering report. Make sure you confirm the outcomes your client wants – and meet them.

A fragmented report

Many reports have multiple authors and can end up a mish-mash of writing styles and terminology.

To avoid a fragmented report, you’ll need to have consistent language, ‘voice’, acronym and abbreviation use, and structure.

That’s where a good technical editor is worth their weight in gold. And yes, it comes at a dollar cost, but getting that ‘one author’ feel and fresh eyes means you’ll deliver a report you can build a reputation on.

Motherhood statements and more…

There’s nothing clients hate more than motherhood statements left dangling…

Safety is our number one priority. Our people are our most important asset. We have a shared passion for delivering results. Our culture of innovation drives our success.

Google a few of these key words and you’ll find hundreds of examples.

These all sound great, but only if you back them up. For example, if safety is your number one priority, then don’t bury it somewhere at the back of your report or it will look like an after-thought. Build your taglines into the body of your report.

And those ‘clear options’ you’ve given your clients? Make sure they have all the facts readily available so they can make decisions or argue a case.  

PhD required…

You may be a subject expert, but don’t expect your reader to have the knowledge to fill in the gaps, especially in study reports which involve various disciplines.

An accountant or investor, for example, might not understand a design engineer or an environmental scientist.

You might feel like you’re dumbing down the information, but you’re really respecting your audience. Making information clear to all your readers means you’ve done your job – and done it well.

Some quick tips for giving clients what they want…

  • Understand client expectations and meet them – create a report they can use
  • Be reader-focused – have short summaries upfront in every chapter or section. It will also be easy to grab those section summaries to develop your executive summary.
  • Aim for one voice – having a single clear voice in your report requires a consistent style, language, terminology and sentence structure, and your clients will love it.
  • Create a clear, logical structure – eliminate the brain dump, focus on easy-to-follow thought sequences, and avoid repetition.
  • Explain everything – don’t assume people know your subject like you do.
  • Be consistent – as tech editors, we do a final ‘sweep’ of the entire document to pick up inconsistent use of numbers, terms and abbreviations. Even something as simple as a project or client name can have several versions or be misspelt, so it pays to check (and check again).
  • Go easy on the acronyms – overloading sentences with acronyms really pulls your reader up. Who wants to have to work out that the WTFs and GPFs will be constructed with LTI and TRFIRs. Unless you’re using the term more than five or six times in the document, it’s better to spell it out.
  • Break up long, complex sentences – short really is sweet. If someone has to read a sentence a few times to work out what you’re saying, you’ve lost them.
  • Go for short pars – be mindful of the final layout for your report. What looks like a reasonable length paragraph in a Word document can transform into a huge block of text in a column.

Simple isn’t stupid. A smart person delivers their message clearly and simply. A person who respects their reader (and their reader’s time) makes an effort to create a report that’s both informative and easy to read.

And that’s what clients want…

Going forward… and other mumbo jumbo

Guess the occupation of the person who said this: “It set the platform going forward for the remainder of the…”

No, it wasn’t our PM, any other politician, or some corporate bod. It was a footy player, covered in mud and sweat and gasping for air.  

Clearly mumbo-jumbo is catching. What’s wrong with saying: “It set us up for the rest of the game”? You’ve got to worry when weasel words hit the footy field.

So leave platforms for bus and train stations, or for standing on to clean the windows of multi-storey buildings (among other things). Use remainders when you’re talking about left over stuff you’re selling off cheaply (or other valid uses).

And for the love of … language (and sanity), forget any phrase involving going forward. For a start, it’s superfluous because it’s clear you’re not talking about going backward. It’s also perfectly fine to talk about the future. Even if the Mayan Calendar runs out next year, most of us are confident we have a ‘future’, so it’s okay to mention the f-word. Or am I just an eternal optimist?

Ditto for forward planning, unless you usually backward plan and you need to make the difference clear.

Let’s all relax – mean what we say, say what we mean, and lose the mumbo-jumbo. Because simple language doesn’t mean you are simple. It means you’re quite clever actually.

It also means people’s eyes won’t glaze over before they work out whether you’re talking about the footy game or fiscal policy.

What’s not to like? Our evolving language

We dragonflies are busy tech-editing  engineering reports at the moment. We often come across words that have been made up, but are completely entrenched in engineering-speak. 

Then there are those made-up or misused words that make us smile – like incentivizing something, or disabling as in ‘disabling the operator from opening it’ (which sounds a lot like a safety moment to me!).

So where do we draw the line when it comes to inventing words?

Think about YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking tools. These have evolved from nouns into verbs, as in:

  • why don’t I youtube it
  • let’s google her
  • I’ll skype you
  • you can facebook me

Then there are phrases like ‘make it a priority’ that has become prioritize, or ‘taking action’ that, with a prefix slipped in, has become proactive and means anticipating and taking charge of expected situations.

Of course, there are those who take the linguistic high ground, and say ‘it’s just not cricket’. But where did language come from?

If we’d stuck hard and fast to the past, we’d still be grunting on about the latest antelope kill, or waxing lyrical in the flowery prose of our English ancestors.

Language evolves. For example, new words and acronyms are constantly being added to the Oxford English Dictionary — like this year’s selection, which includes hashtag, unfriend, carbon offsetting, TTYL (talk to you later) and LBD (little black dress), among others. Meanwhile, old words take on new meaning, like tweet – or cougar.

So where do we draw the line in creating language? When the words defeat their purpose – communication. 

If you don’t want to be understood, speak ‘in fine print’ – that is, laced with a good dose of jargon and deliberately designed to obscure meaning.

Language, after all, is about being understood. Using the language your audience is familiar with will create connections and understanding.

All I can say is… what’s not to like? TTYL.

KISS and tell…

42-15977462Okay, I’m finally admitting it. I’m a stripper by trade. I make no apologies and I’m not about to give it up.

 But wait…before you run screaming from the room, let me explain. I take a big, overdressed concept and start to strip it back bit by bit. I play with it, readjust it and take a bit more off.

Finally, I strip out the adverbs, fling off the adjectives – and now I’ve got something my audience will pay attention to. 

If you want to be read, you’re going to have to do a bit of stripping yourself. Most people won’t bother wading through convoluted prose to get your point, so here are some ways to make your writing sizzle:

Short is sweet: Use short sentences with one thought to a sentence. Cut long, rambling sentences into two or three short, punchy sentences.

Looking good: Keep paragraphs short to avoid big slabs of text on the page, especially if your work will appear in columns.

Stay active: Lose the passive voice. Look for ‘by’ in your sentences and rework them, and have people doing things, rather than things being done by people.

Liven it up: Turn nouns into verbs, e.g. ‘provision of’ (noun) can become ‘will provide’ (verb), and ‘give consideration to’ becomes ‘consider’.

Keep it simple: Use fewer words to get your message across, e.g. ‘close proximity’ becomes ‘near’, ‘are in agreement’ becomes ‘agree’, ‘despite the fact that’ becomes ‘although’.

What the…? Avoid tautology or stating the obvious – new innovation, future potential, mutual cooperation. And clichés – cutting edge, world beating, revolutionary.

At school, we all knew how to impress the teachers…use big words and expand one or two ideas into 800 words. In the business world, we lose marks for being complicated and long winded.

The key is to Keep It Simple for Success.

Now, where’s that feather boa…?