Why Parallel Structure Matters
You’re unlikely to be praised for writing lists using parallel structure. Yet fail to do so, and people will take note. It’s easy to recognize lists that are not parallel because they don’t make sense or sound right. As a result, your writing will come across as sloppy and confusing. Conversely, when each item in your list follows the same grammatical structure, your writing will be easier to read and understand.
An Obvious Example
Consider this list of work responsibilities from a job resume:
- Designed and developed promotional materials
- Processed customer orders
- Documented customer complaints
- Good team member
Notice how the last item in the list breaks the pattern of beginning each statement with an action verb. The problem quickly becomes apparent if you read just the first word of each statement:
- Designed …
- Processed …
- Documented …
- Good …
The last item disrupts the flow of the list and feels out of place. This seemingly subtle inconsistency can detract readers from the importance of your message.
The Impact on You
Though your readers may not recognize a job well done, they’ll be quick to notice irregularities in your writing, which can reflect on you and your professionalism. When writing lists, ensure that each item follows the same grammatical form. This small change can make a big difference in how you’re perceived by others.
When writing procedures, a surefire way to create confusion is to assume that your readers can complete multi-step activities without explicit instructions. When you make this assumption, you risk creating confusion, frustration, and inaction. You’ll also burden other employees, subject matter experts, and/or help desk workers with unnecessary questions. This defeats the purpose of writing procedures.
Consider the following example:
Notice how the last step in this sequence is really a whole bunch of steps. When you consolidate steps, readers tend to become paralyzed with confusion and are therefore unable to continue
The key word here is assume. If you know that everyone who will ever follow the procedure can complete a multi-step activity, e.g., every reader is a skilled Access database programmer, you can then consolidate steps. Procedure writers often make unfounded assumptions about the knowledge of their audience.
When in doubt, assume that your readers need explicit instructions to complete multi-step activities. Though you’ll invest additional effort on the front-end, your procedure will offer greater long term productivity gains.
This is a “hurrah, we’ve been waiting for you” tribute to the new and final edition of The Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, Usage, and Formatting Tribute Edition published in March of 2010. Its coming is bittersweet.
William A. Sabin (1931-2009) devoted his life to editing The Gregg Reference Manual (GRM). He finished reviewing the 11th Edition with his daughter, Margaret, from his hospital bed on December 29 and died two days later.
GRM has been the gatekeeper of business grammar for over 50 years. First published by John Robert Gregg in 1893 as Gregg Shorthand and later published as the Reference Manual for Stenographers and Typists in 1951, it became the choice of grammar reference used by typing pools—the last guard at the gate of correct business grammar—in corporate word processing departments. Bill Sabin became the sole author in the early 70s and changed the name to The Gregg Reference Manual, 5th Edition, in 1977.
As business professionals began using computers to type their own documents, The Gregg Reference Manual was passed from word processing departments to workstations across America. It has provided thoughtful analysis and clear direction on grammar usage ever since.
There are many good reasons for its popularity over the years:
- It’s current with revised editions published every 5-6 years.
- The Table of Contents, Index and page layout make it easy to use.
- It’s clearly written with many examples as backup.
- It’s a joy to read. Sabin made GRM his life-long, daily expression of love for grammar and usage. You can easily see this love in his prose throughout the book, but it’s especially visible in his passionate Essays on the Nature of Style. My favorites are “The Comma Trauma,” “The Plight of the Compound Adjective–Or Where Have All the Hyphens Gone?” and “The Semicolon; And Other Myths.”
- It’s honest. Bill’s famous posture in matters of grammar: “It’s correct, lady, but it ain’t right.” While earning two degrees in English from Yale University, Bill was no pedantic follower of esoteric rules. He was great for laying out the rules and then encouraging writers to follow their instincts. What is more brilliant, beautiful and right?
I was not surprised to learn that Marie, his beloved wife of 50+ years, found one of Bill’s passwords soon after his death: “I love GRM.” How fitting! Millions of us have used GRM as a password into a world of succinct answers to sometimes confusing or controversial grammar issues.
Thank you, Mr. Sabin, for sharing your love of language and being a guiding light for all these years! We love you, too.
It Works Like Magic
When writing procedures, an ample use of white space can transform a cluttered confusing mess into a beautiful set of instructions. By increasing the readability (reading ease) of your procedures, you reduce confusion which helps your readers be more productive. The simple step of adding nothing (empty space) can magically create something (greater productivity).
White Space is Not Wasted Space
White space is like a pause in conversation – it gives your eyes a place to rest. As in conversation, it’s good to take a breath now and then. White space makes the page inviting and pleasurable to the eye so readers don’t become overwhelmed. As a result, your instructions will be easier to understand, remember, and apply.
Consider the following examples:
Here’s how to use keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste text within or between documents (Windows computers). First, position your cursor at the beginning of the text that you want to copy. Next, highlight a block of text by holding down the Shift
key while pressing the Down
and/or Right Arrow
keys. You can then copy the highlighted text to the Windows clipboard by holding down the Control key while pressing the letter C
(there will be no
indication that anything happened). Next, position your cursor where you would like to copy the text. Finally, paste the copied text by holding down the Control
key while pressing the letter V
Here’s how to use keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste text within or between documents (Windows computers):
- Position your cursor at the beginning of the text that you want to copy
- Highlight a block of text by holding down the Shift key while pressing the Down and/or Right Arrow keys
- Copy the highlighted text to the Windows clipboard by holding down the Control key while pressing the letter C (there will be no indication that anything happened)
- Position your cursor where you want to copy the text
- Paste the copied text by holding down the Control key while pressing the letter V
Notice how ordering this procedure under a forecasting sentence adds white space to the left margin and gives your eyes a welcome rest after each step. Though commonly used, a procedure in paragraph format is hard to follow. Which would you rather read?
Make it Easy for Your Readers
Remembering that we read from left to right and top to bottom, you can help your readers by adding white space in both directions. Ample side margins and indents make it easier to read left to right, while spacing between lines and paragraphs creates a comfortable flow from top to bottom. Don’t feel constrained by standard margin and paragraph settings. Procedures need more white space—often much more.
It’s All About Balance
The key to the effective use of white space is balance. Too little white space makes a page look busy and uninviting. Add too much and your page will appear desolate with questionable value.
When in doubt, add more white space and then step back to view the page as a whole. If it looks clean and inviting, you may just have made something from nothing.
Getting quick answers to grammar-related questions can be a challenge. Here’s a great free online resource called Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians. Brians is an Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University- http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html
Many grammar guides offer lengthy convoluted descriptions of grammar rules. I especially like this one because of its practical nature. If you have a question about, say, using semicolons, use the search engine or click the letter “S” and you’ll find a concise explanation of how and when to use semicolons.
This is a helpful link for times when grammar questions arise. Near the bottom of the home page are links to additional online grammar resources recommended by the author.
The Hard Way
The correct use of who and whom, like all personal pronouns, depends on how the pronoun functions in the sentence. Pronouns either function as the subject of the verb or the object of the verb. The difficulty of who and whom, unlike other personal pronouns, is that it’s not easy to see how who or whom functions.
The Easy Way
By using a three-step process you can avoid the need to understand all this grammar jargon in the previous paragraph. Let’s use this example to see how this process works:
Intelligent citizens will vote for whoever they think is best qualified.
Here are the three simple steps:
Begin with the words that follow who or whom to find the gap. With our example, we’d be left with:
they think is best qualified.
Step 2. Plug the gap with either he/she or him/her, whichever one makes sense, and we get:
they think he is best qualified.
Step 3. Use a simple substitution:
he/she = who
him/her = whom
A Small Investment Now
Well written procedures (instructions) are worth their weight in gold, so to speak. Think about it. A single set of instructions can be used over and over by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of employees (or customers) over a period of many years, with no additional effort or expense. By quickly and efficiently completing the task at hand, they can then focus on other priorities, i.e., get things done.
Writing clear easy-to-follow instructions is a skill that anyone can learn and master. Few activities offer such a spectacular Return on Investment (ROI).
Photo used under Creative Commons from Neil T
The Hidden Cost of Confusion
Conversely, poorly written procedures create a huge drain on productivity. Confused readers waste time through trial and error, searching online for better instructions, and troubling other busy employees, subject matter experts, and help desks. Though cumulative productivity losses can be staggering, they are often hidden and difficult to quantify.
Great Things to Come
In the coming weeks we’ll provide a number of instructional posts on how to write clear, easy-to-follow instructions, using key principles from our Writing and Polishing Effective Procedures seminar. Become skilled in the art of writing effective procedures and you’ll generate an impressive ROI every time.
An engineer at the United States Norfolk Naval Base asked, “Why are so many procedure manuals impossible to read?”
The answer is two-fold. First, most instructions are written from the wrong point of view:
- Users want a reading as I work viewpoint that answers the simple question, “What do I do next?” (Think recipe for making bread.)
- Content experts, and their wannabes, write from a reading for knowledge viewpoint. This answers the complex question, “How does this system work?” (Think explanation for how yeast interacts with flour.)
When writing instructions, reading for knowledge viewpoint is the wrong kind of information. Take this example of motorcycle safety training. Instead of instructing a rider on how to manage the risk of road hazards, the content expert explains the combustion mechanics of a Harley Davidson engine. This will explain what creates the percussion-rumbling sound, but it won’t help save the rider’s life.
Second, reading for knowledge viewpoint also lends itself into displaying procedures in a paragraph format, like what you find in a textbook. This in turn promotes:
verbose, technical language.
In short, this document only makes sense to other content experts who can recognize the process buried in the prose!
Reading as I work viewpoint makes the organization of the procedure visually apparent to the users. The writer chooses the appropriate format based on the whether the process is linear or non-linear and the juxtaposition of four factors: how many steps, conditions, doers, and screens/forms are interacting within the procedure.
A “reading for knowledge” viewpoint—not a good idea if you want to get things done!
A Sure Way to Confuse Your Readers
In school and throughout our lives, we’ve learned to write using the academic model, i.e., introduction, body, and conclusion. In business writing, this approach greatly limits our ability to get things done.
We can think of the academic model as a movie, where the plot gradually builds before reaching the exciting final conclusion. Communicating background information first works well in the entertainment industry (and in academia). In the fast-paced world of business, it creates confusion, frustration, and inaction.
The Academic Model
Photo used under Creative Commons from crabchick
The Readers’ Perspective
Busy employees don’t have time to wade through background information to uncover your important action item. They have many other pressing priorities, which means they immediately want to know how your email affects them, and whether they have to do anything. The more difficult it is to answer these vital questions, the greater the risk of inaction.
Writing to Get Things Done (WGTD)
How to Give Your Readers What They Want
When you make it easy for your readers to find the most important part of your message, you do them, and yourself, a favor. Effective business writing is written from the readers’ perspective. To quickly answer their questions, “How does this affect me? Do I have to do anything?” put what you want to get done in paragraph one. They’ll love you for it—and you’ll love the results.
Vague Niceties Lead to Inaction
When a friend ends an email with a vague statement like, “We should get together sometime.” what happens? Nothing! Until someone offers a more specific suggestion, e.g., “Are you free on Saturday?” any talk about getting together is just a nicety.
Business Writing is No Different
The same is true in business writing, where vague closings are the norm. For example, if you end an email with the phrase, “Please advise at your earliest convenience.” you’re asking to have your message placed in their good intention pile. Instead, offer a sense of urgency and a reason for the urgency, using a tone that encourages cooperation. Consider this example:
“Would it be possible to provide your data results by Friday? That will allow the development team enough time to complete their recommendation for senior management.”
A Sense of Urgency Leads to Action
Busy employees are constantly juggling priorities. Vague closings inherently communicate a low priority, and, therefore, offer little hope of meaningful action. Instead, try this: Tactfully suggest a deadline, timeline, or sense of urgency. This one simple change will make a huge difference in your ability to get things done.