By Susan de la Vergne
Dare to Write Well
An Especially Challenging Project
Jose, Julio and Hannah comprise
the product design team for their company’s
highest-visibility project. Their work
developing a prototype was clicking along at a
healthy pace, right in keeping with the project
schedule, until they tried to improve the
product’s performance. Then every improvement
they attempted turned out to be a disappointment
They made an enhancement aimed
at doubling the throughput, and the results fell
far short. Back to the drawing board. Next
enhancement attempt, similar results. They’ve
re-thought, re-calculated, re-implemented
changes to the prototype and have continued to
be surprised. Now they’re working long hours,
re-thinking everything, and soliciting help from
other senior engineers experienced in
performance design. They’re also secretly
enjoying the challenge — secretly, because they’re
now overdue to deliver the prototype, and it
wouldn’t be right to be enjoying the problem too
Prototype Status Report
The project manager asked Hannah
to write up a paragraph describing their status
so that he can include it in the overall project
status report. Here’s what she wrote:
deficiencies that are impacting product
design have recently been encountered and
are the cause of delay to the prototype
delivery. Modifications to correct the
deficiencies are ongoing with participation
and assistance from senior engineers.
Improvements are currently expected to be
forthcoming, however there is no firm date
for the prototype delivery at this time.
I don’t know about you, but from
this description, I would have no idea this is
an urgent, front-and-center problem that has the
team’s full attention, or that they’re surprised
by the results, or that they and other company
brainpower are eyebrows-deep in trying to figure
a super-challenging problem. We have no idea
who’s doing the work, what the problem actually
is, or that the problem presenting itself is
unusual and unexpected.
She has loaded her description
with long words — “modifications,” “deficiencies,”
“encountered,” “participation” — perhaps to make
it look more businesslike and mature while
ensuring, instead, that it’s simply less
readable. She’s left out any reference to actual
people, saying instead deficiencies “have
recently been encountered.” By whom? Random
people walking by the building? No mention of
Jose or Julio or the “senior engineers” they’ve
ensnared in their investigations. She’s missed
an opportunity to help the reader associate
actual people with actual work.
Tip #1: Express the Action
She has also entirely avoided
describing any action because she left out all
the “action words”— that is, verbs. (Remember?
That’s what we called them back in middle
school, “action words.”) You may not have
noticed this, but the only verb in Hannah’s
paragraph is a form of “to be.” She’s writing in
English, a language that’s active and vibrant,
rich in gorgeous action words. But so often
adult business writers, when reaching for a
verb, grab “is” and “are” and “were.” Don't be
fooled by "have been encountered" and "are
expected" — think about them for a second, and
you'll see they're just forms of "to be" as
It’s like being all by yourself
in the kitchen at a fabulous gourmet restaurant.
No one’s looking, and you can have whatever you
want. So you reach for a slice of Wonder bread
instead of the caviar, chocolate decadence cake,
or roast duck? That’s what using “is,” “are,”
and “were” is like when you’re writing in
English. Wonder bread.
What could Hannah have written
The design team is
actively working to improve the prototype’s
performance, but results are surprisingly
unsatisfactory so far. We will solve this
problem. It’s our highest priority. To that
end, we have enlisted additional expertise
(Bob Smith and team) to help us figure this
out and we expect very soon to establish a
date when the prototype will launch.
Check out those verbs!
“Working,” “improve,” “solve,” “enlist,”
It’s an easy way to improve your
writing — use action-expressing verbs instead of
clunky objects (nouns). “Improve” instead of
“improvement,” “modify” instead of
“modification,” “present” instead of
Instead of …
He made a
presentation to senior management about
the proposed work.
the proposal to senior management.
modifications to the program.
made improvements to system performance,
resulting in a 10% increase.
improved system performance by 10%.
nutrition to the entire team at her
She fed the
entire team at her meeting.
conducted an investigation.
progress has been interrupted by the
vendor’s inability to deliver
modifications on schedule.
delivered his changes late. As a result,
the entire project is now delayed.
Obviously, verbs are more
efficient (that is, fewer words) but they also
make a more lively impression. “He ran to the
bus stop but still missed the bus” is more
energetic than “He was late to the bus stop
despite his expenditure of significant energy to
get there in a timely manner.”
Tip #2: Avoid Tired Language
Beyond clearing the sludge of
too many nouns from your writing, here’s
something else you can do to freshen up your
writing: avoid tired language. By that, I mean
clichés and trite expressions.
Example: “the greatest thing
since sliced bread.” The first time someone said
that, probably sometime shortly after the bread
slicer was invented, it was a charming phrase.
It no longer is. It’s become entirely
transparent. We don’t even think of bread or
slicing or even greatness when we hear this
Other tired phrases to avoid:
“jump the gun”; “ace in the hole”; “clear as a
bell” or “clear as mud”; “one in a million”;
“cut to the chase”; “dead as a doornail”; “law
of the jungle”; “20/20 hindsight”; “7x24.” I
could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Freshen up your language. One
easy way could be just swapping a word out of an
existing cliché. “Law of the library.” “Dead as
the dodo bird.” That will get you noticed!
Who Reads Boring Writing?
If you’re thinking that dense,
clunky, noun-laden, predictable language is what
business readers expect and therefore you’d
better stick to this terrible norm, let me point
out something else: a great deal of business
writing goes unread. Why? Because it’s
boring. The work isn’t boring, but the writing
about it is, and everyone expects it to be.
That’s why many of us don’t set aside time to
read documents. We don’t like to read boring
writing. Think about it — who looks forward to
sitting down on a Saturday afternoon with a cup
of tea and a bad book? No one. Who looks forward
to spending time poring over boring project
deliverables? Same answer.
But just because everyone else’s
business writing is boring doesn’t mean yours
has to be.
I once managed a $35 million,
company-wide project for a major retail
organization. My status reports went to several
senior managers every week, and of course I used
the writing techniques I’ve described here (plus
a few others). One evening, heading out into the
parking lot at the end of the day, I ran into
the manager of the Audit group, one of the
recipients of my weekly report. She recognized
me, smiled, and said, “I absolutely love
reading your project status reports! I really
look forward to getting them.” (I assure you
it’s not because the project news was always
rosy and wonderful. It wasn’t.) She went on,
“Your reports are actually interesting to read!”
When was the last time someone
said that to you? No matter. Your next project
status report can be the first to win you that
kind of recognition!
Susan de la Vergne was an I.T.
manager for more than 20 years, a career she prepared
for early in life by majoring in English in
college. Today she’s a communication consultant
working exclusively with engineers and technical
professionals, helping them become better
presenters, writers, and leaders. Her new book,
Engineers On Stage: Presentation Skills for
Technical Professionals, is due out next
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