Monday, February 23, 2015

How to avoid awful committee writing: Go back to the beginning

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” That’s been attributed to more than one person, and it’s an excellent way to describe written documents that get approved by authorities who are more concerned about things other than the content of the documents themselves. In other words, documents produced by corporations and governments.

Recently, I’ve found some especially great examples of terrible writing. I’ve changed a few words to protect the guilty, without affecting the weight of its awfulness.

Many participants in consultations expressed the view that fostering a change in attitudes and behaviours is necessary to counter the culture of instant gratification and its impact on health.

That sentence is overloaded, cramming several ideas into one string of words: changing attitudes, which are distinct from behaviours; instant gratification as a culture; and health. As if that’s not enough, the Select Committee of Awful Writing Creation and Promotion (SCAWCP) jammed in the superfluous phrases “participants in consultations,” “expressed the view” and “fostering a change.”

Committees that review and approve writing seem to prefer passive sentences—the kind of sentence that doesn’t tell you who or what performed the action. I think that’s because the people on these committees either don’t want to take responsibility for the actions described, or don’t want to give anyone else credit.

Take this example:
Some positive results were reported from initiatives that help individuals reflect on personal values, set goals and take concrete steps to align their behaviours with their values and personal goals.

Committee writing often shows chains of words and phrases, placed so that readers cannot tell which is most important. Again, this probably results from the competitive nature of committees—no one is willing to let another’s idea take prominence over their own.

Participants in the consultations noted that many people are uncomfortable talking about colon health and that there is a stigma associated with getting help to improve health understanding, which has been a barrier to building their health knowledge.

What is that sentence about—the consultations, colon health, a social stigma, understanding of health or barriers to knowledge?

Here’s a string of adjectives. Maybe they’re all equally important to the plan, but SCAWCP apparently thinks a subject is not important:
With a focused plan that is inclusive, relevant and accessible, the aim is to help patients understand the Internet and take steps that will enable them to use online resources to their best advantage.

I feel sorry for the documents I took these sentences from. I imagine they began as good sentences, and then successive approvers stretched, contorted, twisted and mangled them beyond recognition. I don’t know what they even mean, anymore.

That’s the problem—neither did the committee. The people who had approval authority over these documents did not have the same objectives. The committees expected a single document to achieve different, sometimes competing goals.

What’s the solution? As always, go back to the beginning and get a GRIP:
  • Goal—why are you writing this sentence, this paragraph, this document? What do you want your readers to do after they read your document? Before you start writing, state the goal clearly. Keep it in mind while you are editing, reviewing or approving any document.Examples of goals: 
    • propose a strategy 
    • sell more products 
    • explain how to save money.
  • Reader—whom is this document for? What do they know, what do they need to understand, what motivates them?
  • Idea—the thesis statement, the most important idea in your document. Try this: “You have to only one sentence to tell me what your document says.”
  • Plan—the other ideas that support or prove the main idea. Put them in the order that will take the reader from your thesis statement to fulfilling your goal.

If your goal is to improve understanding of colon health, for example, you need to know who your readers are, what they know about colon health now, what they need to learn, and what would interest them in reading about their colons. Then you need to organize the information so that these particular readers can follow it.

However, getting an executive’s approval on your idea for a strategy to improve the public’s knowledge of colon health takes a very different document. Its goal would to get a signature or an approval to spend some resources, the reader would be one person or a small group of people, and the thesis would be something like: “We need to spend X dollars on this strategy so that this organization will benefit in the following particular way.”

Writing well is not easy, but it’s not complex, either. It’s a matter of keeping the basic rules in mind. The next time you submit your writing for approval, remind the review committee about your goal, reader and thesis.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Do on-screen keyboards change the way we write?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons
(Caleb Roenigk) 
Image via Wikimedia under by Creative Commons
by  Matt Buchanan.
 Originally posted to Flickr

On the bus last week, I was standing behind someone typing on a tablet. She was using the on-screen touchpad keyboard. Not that I was spying or anything (honest!), I watched how she typed an accented é: she touched the e “key” for an slightly extended time—less than a second—until a menu of accented characters appeared on the screen above the keypad, then slid her finger to her choice.

Seeing it in action started me thinking: is on-screen typing, as done on touch-screen computers, changing the way we write?

We all learn to write, or print, with a stylus directly marking a surface: pencil on paper, crayon on colouring book, brush on parchment. 

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, the technology of writing has been a kind of remote control, separating the action of our fingers from the results. Press a key on a typewriter, and the attached type bar strikes the ribbon and impresses it onto the paper. 

Since then, typing technological development has progressively increased the distance between actions and results. To create this post, I am tapping my fingers on a wireless keyboard. I can’t imagine how many digital transformations occur to make the characters I am typing appear on the screen in front of my eyes. It’s only after I hit the Print button that the printer, two metres from the keyboard, puts marks on paper.

But I won’t print this particular essay. I’ll edit and proofread it on-screen, and then post it on this blog, hosted on a server hundreds or thousands of kilometres from this screen and keyboard. Or maybe it’s next door—I have no way of knowing. 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons
(Stan Wiechers)
Closing the gap between action and consequence
Typing on a touch screen brings actions closer to results. There is still a separation, of course, as the keypad is at the bottom of the screen and the words may be at the top, but still, it’s closer than the typewriter allowed.

Standing on the bus in rush hour, I was fascinated by the woman typing on the touch-screen. I wondered: is her writing experience different?

Personally, I don’t like typing on a touch screen. There is no physical or kinetic feedback from a touch screen, unlike with a keyboard, where I can feel the key depress and spring back. 

Also, using the touch pad on my iPad shrinks the display of the writing I’m doing. I like to be able to see the words I’ve written. So I have a Bluetooth keyboard to write with my iPad, re-establishing that remote action of the old-fashioned typewriter.

An area to research
Does bringing the result, the mark on the writing surface, closer to the motion of our fingers make typing on a touch screen closer to writing with a pencil on paper?

And if it does, will that have an effect on the way that we write? Will it affect the words we choose, the way we construct phrases and sentences?

Will we be able to tell a book written on a touch-screen from a book created with a typewriter?

I can imagine someone getting a doctoral degree on this by analyzing documents written with a stylus on paper with those created on a computer using a standard word processor, and others written using a touch screen. And I’d be fascinated to see the results.

What do you think? If you use a touch screen for anything, do you find the writing experience different? Do you like typing on a touch screen?

Do you think that the touch screen changes the way you write?