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   OCTOBER 2012     



cogent communicator
Dare to Write Well

By Susan de la Vergne

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 instead.

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 much.

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:

Product design 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 out 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 well.

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 instead?

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,” “launch.”

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 “presentation.”

Instead of …

Try this.

He made a presentation to senior management about the proposed work.

He presented the proposal to senior management.

We made modifications to the program.

We modified the program.

The team made improvements to system performance, resulting in a 10% increase.

The team improved system performance by 10%.

She provided nutrition to the entire team at her meeting.

She fed the entire team at her meeting.

They conducted an investigation.

They investigated.

Project progress has been interrupted by the vendor’s inability to deliver modifications on schedule.

The vendor 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 phrase.

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!


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


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 month.  susan@susandelavergne.com

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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