Tag Archives: business writing

Jargon or Plain English? Weigh in.

A while back, wrapping up a conference call, I told the other meeting participants I would “ping” someone after the meeting. I immediately felt foolish.

Pinging someone is one of those buzzwords I had heard often, but never used. Originally it was a technical computer term — to ping someone’s IP address to check an Internet connection. Now it’s a generic term for e-mailing or IMing or texting someone — “I’ll ping Erika after the meeting and let her know what you need.” I could have said, “I’ll e-mail Erika” or “I’ll call Erika,” or simply, “I’ll let Erika know.” Instead, I pinged her.

I doubt the other guys gave it a second thought, but jargon is one of those things that writers are taught to be acutely aware of. Particularly with this client, who has a whole initiative around what they call “Straight Talk” and what has been around for years as the Plain English movement. Basically, it’s the idea that you simplify writing, removing complexity (like legalese — the party of the first part, and all that) and often meaningless jargon (business-speak like bandwidth, net-net, leverage, value-added) to write more clearly.

It’s true, particularly in Marketing, that you can do an awful lot of writing that says nothing (it’s a lot like blogging). Not doing it is hard because it forces you to think about what you really mean and demands a deeper understanding of the subject. Frequently, I don’t have that deep understanding, nor do I always need it. I just need to bang out something that sounds semi-intelligent and let the SMEs sort it out. When they insert their knowledge, I can go back and “plain up” the language.

People talk to each other in terms they understand. In business, everyone knows what you mean by the bottom line, by scope creep, by taking something offline. It really was OK that I pinged someone, even though I felt hesitant because I’d never put it that way before. I just wanted to fit in (sniff) — and using the common language does that. It’s saying what sounds and feels right for the audience and gets your point across.

In other (better) words: When in Rome…

After many years and many meetings, I’m comfortable in that business world. But many of my business clients — even though their clients are businesspeople as well — are uncomfortable using that sort of language in marketing materials, even though they talk to clients that way in person.

I’m torn: Clearly some informal terms are inappropriate for formal business writing. (A few years ago, a game even sprung up to make fun of the way the business world talks — Meeting Bingo or Bullshit Bingo. You can be sure “ping” is on the newest release.) But at times, I think “speaking the language,” whether jargon or not, is just fine. It’s part of the business culture, the lingua franca. Every profession has its way of talking, whether medical or construction or manufacturing or retail. (Or writing…SMEs [smees] = subject matter experts. Writers have lingo too.)

Isn’t Plain English all about writing in terms the audience understands?

What’s your take? Answer the poll to weigh in.

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Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves,
spits on its hands, and goes to work.
~ Carl Sandburg

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Make Your Writing Dollars Count

Not everyone has worked with a professional writer. Some small businesses are used to handling everything themselves; some subject matter experts haven’t been involved in developing marketing materials or writing byline articles. If you’re new to working with a writer, here are some ways to make the most of your writer’s time and skill, stretch your budget, and ultimately create a polished, professional finished product.

1. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions. “I’m not sure how this works,” some of my new clients confess. “What do you need from me? Where do we start?”

I almost always start in the same place, whether the goal is to write a fact sheet about a product, develop a brochure or Web site, ghost-write an article, or create a presentation: I start by asking a lot of questions. If I had a dollar for every time a client told me “That’s a great question,” I’d probably have…I dunno….a thousand dollars? (I once worked with a client who was a former Navy fighter pilot — he told me I could have had a great career in Naval Intelligence interrogating people. I was highly flattered.) The goal is to get what’s in your head about the topic into your writer’s head. He or she will likely never have the knowledge you do about the subject, but needs to absorb enough to put together a credible draft.

If your writer isn’t asking enough questions or the right questions, take charge and cover the points you feel are important.

2. Gather source material in advance. Source material is gold to a writer, and you can save time (time = money) by pulling it together for your first meeting. What, if anything, have you already written about the topic? What have others (colleagues, competitors, the media) written? What do you like or dislike about what’s been done? Do you have samples of other pieces you like, even on unrelated topics? Is there a template or “house style” the writer should follow? Writers appreciate any and all such information as we take a crash course in the topic and gauge your needs and preferences.

3. Follow up on to-do’s. Often the first meeting will result in some assignments. You might need to let a colleague know the writer will be calling to gather info, or you might have to track down answers to questions that came up. Your prompt follow-through will again save time and money.

4. Review with care. Depending on how involved the project is, your writer may come back to you with an outline, or move directly to a first draft. Your keen eye and subject matter knowledge is critical to see if the work is on track and to offer your insights. It’s quite a time-waster (and I’ve had this happen) to approve an outline you haven’t really read and then find the draft isn’t organized the way you want.

Direct, specific feedback is most helpful (think, “I’d like to include more product features here and discuss maintenance tasks before service procedures.” rather than “I don’t really like how this flows.”) I also like it when my clients dive in and use Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature to make edits.

In many cases, a first draft will have gaps where further information is needed, or might include questions from the writer.  Obviously, you’ll need to address these. If multiple people are reviewing, appoint one person to be the gatekeeper who will consolidate feedback and make the call on conflicting requests.

5. Share drafts as early as appropriate. You may not want to share a first draft with your boss or another higher-up approver, but it’s important not to wait too long before gaining that person’s input and buy-in. Waiting until you feel the piece is “done” can backfire into considerable rework if the power-that-be doesn’t agree with the direction or content.

6. Be persistent. You deserve to be satisfied with the finished product, so don’t hesitate to question areas of concern or to ask for rewrites when something doesn’t suit. A certain amount of back-and-forth is expected and should have been factored (and preferably specified)  in the writer’s estimate.

7. Be open. At the same time, take advantage of the fresh perspective your writer brings to the topic as well as his or her experience writing for various audiences. While something might not be worded “the way we always say it” (or even the way you’d say it), that might be a good thing.

6. Close the loop. When the draft is final, it’s time for your graphic or Web designer to take over and turn the raw copy into a finished piece. (Unless, of course, you are simply submitting an article for publication.) It may be tempting to take your writer out of the loop at this point. But keeping your writer involved in reviewing the layout helps assure the information is presented to best advantage and heads off general proofreading and typographical issues.

I’m sorry to say I’ve written many pieces that I will not include in my portfolio (no matter how much I like the writing) because layout or proofreading problems weren’t corrected before the piece was published. I don’t like sloppy work, and I’m always surprised when clients are willing to accept it for their business. A thorough review and proofing — if not by the writer, then at least by someone with good editorial skills and fresh eyes — is a small but crucial step to presenting the polished, professional image your business deserves. And isn’t that why you hired a writer in the first place?

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When something can be read without effort,
great effort has gone into its writing.
~ Enrique Jardiel Poncela

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The Right Way to Write by Committee

Most of my projects involve some form of “writing by committee.” Despite the bad connotation, it doesn’t have to mean writing that takes forever, is watered down, reads poorly, and ultimately doesn’t do the topic justice.

Unless my client is a one-person shop,  I might have two, five, or a dozen people giving up-front input before I write, reviewing drafts, and providing feedback. Even when I work with a client one-on-one, the graphic designer often weighs in on content issues. Having the benefit of multiple perspectives, different areas of expertise, and various levels of subject matter knowledge can lead to a stronger finished product…if you follow a few ground rules.

Every committee needs a Chair — appoint one. Divergent and conflicting opinions and feedback are common when multiple reviewers are involved. To keep the project moving — and keep the peace — one person needs to have final say. That may be the person with the most subject matter knowledge, the most seniority, the most marketing experience, or the most stake in the project.  The important thing is to have someone responsible for making the call (who isn’t afraid to make it).

Set and keep deadlines. More people involved means more opportunity for individual schedules to get in the way of the project schedule. Make it clear that people need to provide their input on time, not only to keep the project moving, but also to avoid having last-minute feedback undo work that’s already been done.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. No, it’s really not all small stuff, but some of it is. Someone doesn’t want to use contractions, another prefers to have this paragraph come before that one, one person out of five doesn’t understand a sentence or like a wording choice. Issues like these are best left to your writer to manage. We’re used to dealing with tone, grammar, style, content structure, and the like, and will be able to make the right call.  If it turns out to be politically necessary to accept certain feedback, just let us know — we’re used to rolling with that reality, too, and can help ensure the need to be PC doesn’t result in bad writing.

Agree to disagree. Writing, like art, is subjective. One person’s Treasure Island is another person’s so-so book about pirates. Someone is probably not going to like some of your choices. That’s fine, as long as the majority of reviewers think the writing is effective and the project is on track. Unless, of course, the unhappy “someone” has the power to pull the plug. In that case…

Head off the eleventh-hour veto. Projects often take on a life of their own. The team gets busy, works hard, and produces a draft, then another, then a “final.” Then it goes to the power-that-be for sign-off. Waiting to get a thumbs-up at this late stage is risky — I’ve seen projects derailed and a lot of effort wasted because someone at the top is surprised by the way something turned out.  Better practice is to avoid a late-stage veto by getting buy-in up front and maybe along the way as well. A quick conversation to discuss an outline, share a first draft, or confirm a change of direction can go a long way to avoiding problems later on. Sure, the boss is busy — that’s why he or she delegates to you — but most bosses I know hate wasted effort (and time and money) more than they hate the occasional “just wanted to check in” interruption.

Keep the momentum going. Getting the words down on paper is a big step, but not the last step. This is where the graphic designer comes in, takes the raw text,  and creates a layout. For those on the team who don’t create marketing materials all the time, this is also where the Word doc finally starts to make sense. Writing and design go hand-in-hand. It’s important to keep your writer involved at this stage — we had a vision for the content structure from the beginning and need to be able to work with the designer to ensure the design supports the information. Whether the full committee stays involved at this stage is your call — designing by committee is as tricky as writing by committee. But surely many of the same ground rules apply — the Chair manages feedback, the designer has final say on design issues, the power-that-be needs to be on board before the design is final.

Celebrate the birth. When you have the finished product in hand (or in PDF, as is often the case these days), acknowledge the committee’s contributions and thank them for their help. It’s a simple way to set a positive tone for the next project — and it’s always the right thing to do. Oh, and one last thing. Before you archive the project folder, jot down any lessons learned — was there a glitch that caused delays, a process that could have gone better, a procedure that worked really well? Set yourself up now for a smoother collaboration next time.

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No passion in the world is equal to
the passion to alter someone else’s draft.
~ H. G. Wells

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