Archive for the ‘Evaluating Your Writing’ Category

Weasel Words

How do you respond to weasel words? Do you find them useful, annoying, or deliberately misleading? (Click image for credit and source)

Ah, weasel words.

People often use weasel-speak in business to create the impression that they have said something important, meaningful and to the point when, in fact, their claims are ambiguous, their assertions little more than assumptions, and their statements vague and misleading.

When you hear weasel-speak, don’t you just want to raise your eyebrows in alarm and mutter What sesquipedalian tergiversation!

Here are a few common weasel phrases as examples:

Studies show …

The vast majority …

People say …

Critics claim …

There is evidence that …

Experience shows …

If you use such phrases, you can avoid weaseldom in one of two ways:

  • Substitute the exact figures, names or details in place of the weasel phrase in the body of the text.
  • Use footnotes or appendices in which you give exact figures, details, names, places, and so on.

Notice that the key idea in both suggestions is the same: Prefer language that is concrete, factual, specific and detailed. Substantiate all claims. Provide supporting evidence for all assertions. Avoid the clutter of bureaucratic phrases. Simpler language almost always communicates better.

You can also use what is known as the “general-concrete” pattern. In this method of writing, general and abstract statements are followed by a concrete case. Use specific examples, illustrations and detailed explanations to get your exact point across to your readers. Don’t just present concepts and sweeping generalities. Clarify each one with a concrete case, specific figures, or detailed examples to convey what you mean and help prevent weasel-speak from creeping into your writing.

Now let’s take the example weasel phrases above and remove the smoke screens. The following examples banish the empty weasel words and restore substance and specificity:

Two studies, the 2003 Hirt Report on Nicotine Use and the 2007 CDC Mortality Rates Report, show …

89 percent of respondents said …

People we interviewed agreed that …. Here is a list of their names and departments …

The movie critics of the following newspapers claim … (provide the names of the papers and critics)

The 26 supporting studies we cite in the appendix offer evidence that …

Based on the self-reported experience of the following 10 people … (give their names, describe each person’s experience in detail, and how each person’s experience supports your point)

Oh, it’s so easy, isn’t it? A little weasel here, another slithery weasel there, and before you know it, clear, substantive speech can find itself on the slippery slope to puffery, devoid of all real content.

To help you maintain sense and meaning in your writing, here is a list of handy resources I think you will enjoy:

Now it’s your turn: What weasel phrases do you dislike the most? How do you avoid using weasel words? Please share your thoughts in the comments – thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas


Meet two of my pet peeves in word usage: trooper and trouper

I am currently on a linguistic rampage about how to distinguish one from the other, because lately I’ve noticed an outbreak of misuse and misunderstanding involving these two words. Whenever I come across such an unfortunate lapse, it causes me to raise one eyebrow in dismay while staring at the offending noun through gimlet eyes.

The guilty know who they are (or, worse, maybe not).


Trooper - State Police

Are you a trooper? (Click image for credit and source)



Troop refers to a throng, crowd, herd or group. For example:

  • a troop of State Police officers
  • a troop (group) of friends
  • a troop (flock) of birds



Trooper typically designates a member of a military unit or a police force, or a member of a Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop.

Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary lists the following as examples of troopers:

  • enlisted cavalryman
  • paratrooper or soldier
  • mounted policeman
  • one of a body of State police, usually using motorized vehicles
  • Girl Scout or Boy Scout

By extension, “to be a real trooper” has come to mean “to show bravery and courage, especially in the face of adversity while on duty.”


Trouper - Member of a Theatrical Company

Are you a trouper? (Click image for credit and source)



Troupe refers to a company or group of performers on the stage: a company of actors and actresses; a theatrical troupe.



Trouper typically designates someone who is a member of a troupe, that is, an actor or an actress who belongs to a particular acting company.

By extension, “to be a real trouper” has come to mean knowing “the show must go on,” whatever it takes. Thus, a “real trouper” is a professional you can count on to help achieve the group’s goal, especially when the going gets rough. “Real troupers” will come through for you, no matter what, because they are committed, reliable and tenacious.

Once more then: Are you a trooper or a trouper?

Now it’s your turn: What are your pet “word pair” peeves? What sorts of homonymic misusage get under your skin, prompting you to think that civilization is irreversibly in decline? What confusions of meaning goad you into reaching for your red pen? What sorts of linguistic pratfalls provoke your inner editor to sally forth? Tell all in your comments – thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Many proposals miss their target. Why?

Are Your Proposals Missing the Target?

Are your business proposals missing the mark too often? Have you been told they are “nonresponsive”?

Although you can encounter many pitfalls and hidden traps in responding to an RFP (Request for Proposal), perhaps the most important is this one:

Many companies simply do not meet the requested requirements, as stated in the SOW (Statement of Work).

The SOW describes the product or service a company, government agency or organization wants to buy. It is the key to a successful proposal.

And yet, amazingly, many companies submit proposals that do not adequately respond to the requirements given in the SOW.

Fitting the Pieces Together

Crafting a Successful Proposal Is Like Fitting Together a Puzzle

Crafting a Successful Proposal Is Like Fitting Together a Puzzle

To win the business, your company must be able to:

  • Meet the requirements set forth in the SOW.
  • Write the proposal in such a way that every requirement in the SOW is thoroughly addressed.

Can Your Company Meet the Requirements?

Whether the SOW is general or specific, vague or concrete, long or short, pay attention to every issue and detail it contains.

Before you do any work on the proposal at all, study each section to be sure your company can actually deliver the product or service, or solve the problem. And if so, can you deliver the goods in the manner requested?

If you have any misgivings, contact the company or agency to discuss your questions. You may want to do more research, including on-site, to clarify any doubts or uncertainties about what the project entails.

Additionally, RFPs can contain errors and omissions. If you think you have found any, get in touch with the person in charge of the project to discuss acceptable modifications or work-arounds.

While you are talking with the procurement agent, keep in mind that a tone of voice or a revealing comment on the part of the agent could provide you with insight about the RFP and the project. This information could prove very useful in deciding how to design your proposal – or even whether to submit a proposal.

You may also find it helpful to find out who will be evaluating your proposal. After all, technical experts in a field will have different evaluation standards than accountants or business executives. Knowing who is on the source  evaluation board can help ensure that the solution your company proposes will satisfy the requirements of the SOW.

Write to the Requirements of the SOW

As part of your proposal strategy, review the vocabulary and style of the company, government agency or organization for which you are writing the proposal. You must use their terms and jargon. Your language and style must reflect their practice and their context. Know your audience!

The wording in your proposal should reflect the language used in the RFP, especially the language used in the SOW and the evaluation standards. Repeat key words, phrases and sentences, because doing so will help the evaluators recognize that you are responding to the criteria given in the RFP. If you can, write in such a way that they are able to tell which criteria you are responding to, just by reading your words.

Pay close attention to the relative importance assigned to the evaluation criteria. The weighting values of the various categories help determine the scope, level of detail and amount of discussion to give to each issue in the SOW.

For more information on writing proposals, check out Deborah’s Proposal Writing Blog.

You may also want to check out this Boot$trapping Blog page on writing business proposals.

Make It a Winner!

The SOW Is the Key to a Successful Proposal

The SOW Is the Key to a Successful Proposal

Remember, the SOW is the critical document in the solicitation package. It is a statement of the work your company must perform to deliver a product or service, or solve a problem.

To craft a proposal that stands a good chance of resulting in a contractual relationship, you must address the issues in the SOW in a responsive and relevant manner.

What other advice would you give to readers on how to write a successful proposal?   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

In any document you write, your overriding objective is to make the content immediately understandable and usable by your audience.

If someone tells you that your work is not clear, the problem typically falls into one or more of these categories: planning, conceptual design, information, and language usage. To analyze the problem, start by asking the following questions:

Planning. Did you complete a thorough planning phase at the beginning of the writing project? Did you use the results in writing the document? For example, do you understand the purpose of the product? The purpose of the document? Do you know who your audience is? Do you know how your audience will use the document? You should have answered these and other planning questions at the outset, and then implemented the answers as you conceptually designed the document, gathered the information to be included, and wrote and reviewed the material.

Conceptual Design. Did you answer all of the important design questions? For example, do you know what your audience is looking for in the document? What is the most important part of the document? What are the key requirements that the document must meet? What are the editorial standards you are to use in your work? And so on. Further, did you establish page and text formatting guidelines? And, critically, did you build an outline based on your planning and design decisions?

Information. Did you scope out the content to be included in the document? Content to be excluded? Did you keep in close touch with your subject-matter experts and have them review the document, giving you feedback? How much do you yourself know about the subject matter? How good a researcher are you? Do you have the right material for the document, based on your outline?

Language. Do you have the necessary knowledge and grasp of the craft of language: spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, vocabulary and word usage? If you feel you need to improve in this area, do two things: read and write. Read good writing by good writers, and practice writing. Make both a daily habit. If you want regular critiques of your writing, join a local writers’ group, or check out classes for adult learners at your local university, community college, or online.

A final tip on analyzing problems involving clarity of writing: be careful of telling stories or going off on tangents when you write. All content and how you handle it must serve the purpose of the document, based on your planning and design decisions, and your outline. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with these suggestions? What would you add?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas  lexpower

At the very moment you think your document is ready for your audience, stop. Don’t send it or publish it just yet. There is one final step in the writing process that you should take, the step that can elevate your message above the rest and help your document command the attention of your readers. It is this:

Read your words aloud.

No matter how pleased you were with what you heard in your mind’s ear as you wrote the document, listening to the actual, out-loud sound of your words will probably inspire you to edit, trim and rewrite. Why is this so?

Reading aloud gives a writer a much better appreciation of the structure of a piece, its pacing, rhythms, word usage, and logic flow. You will find out if your sentences are strong and well formed, or not. You will hear how they fit together. You will feel the storyline more acutely and sense whether it is tight, moving with force and conviction, or weak and rambling.

To gain an interactive perspective on your work, see if you can rustle up a live audience to read to. Perhaps you could round up a few colleagues or the reviewers on your project team. Their response could prove invaluable in assessing how successful your document is likely to be with your target audience.

Remember to listen to the voice of your document before you send it to your customers, prospects and other audiences.

Well, dear reader, what do you think about this idea? Do you read your words aloud before you publish a document?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas

Somewhere along the way in nearly every person’s life, there comes a time when it is necessary to write a letter of complaint to someone. A time when you feel you have exhausted all other reasonable avenues, yet still cannot get the offending party — merchant? neighbor? government agency? family member? colleague? — to cooperate and work toward a satisfactory resolution.

Now, assuming you truly wish to find a workable solution to your dilemma, let me share with you the most important secret you need to know and absolutely must use in writing your letter: Avoid emotionalism.

Emotional words are loaded words. They can be loaded with accusations, expressions of anger or hatred, insinuation, libel, spite, self-righteousness, sarcasm, condescension, sneering, blaming, and name-calling. They can be loaded with assumptions and indignation. They can be loaded with fact-free imaginings and derogatory statements.

Think such an emotional approach will help you win your argument? Surmount the problem? Resolve the issue? Enlighten the other person and help them see the error of their ways? Make them realize you are not someone to trifle with? No. Rudeness will only decrease the other party’s sympathy for you and reduce your chances of success. The road to disaster is often paved with emotionalism.

So before you pen the REAL letter, sit down and write the I-Accuse-You-Horrible-Person-Rant-Cant-Whack-‘Em-Smack-‘Em-You’ll-Never-Forget-This-Letter missive. Take out your verbal flame-thrower and scorch the earth. Discharge all your roiling emotions, so that your mind will be free to deal with the facts of the case in a cool, calm and equable manner.

Now, place another sheet of paper before you, and write the real letter, the one in which you methodically and logically state your case in a polite and businesslike way:

  • Explain the problem clearly.
  • Get to the point.
  • Be as brief as possible (save the over-wrought narrative, and do not go into excessive detail).
  • Use objective, neutral words to present the facts as you see them.
  • Stick to the issues.
  • Be honest in your descriptions.
  • Be clear in your objective. What action do you want your reader to take?

Keep the letter overnight, and review it the next day. Delete any shred of emotionalism. Remember, you want to win, and loaded words will not help you achieve your goal.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas   lexpower

How does a writer measure performance against intent?

Start with a general review of the document to get a sense of how it flows. Does anything in the document puzzle you? Does everything have a purpose?

To help answer those questions, check the document against the project requirements and specifications — remember those? You and the project team established them way back during the planning phase, and you have been using them to guide all of your work on the document. Now is their moment to shine as the indispensable “yardsticks” they are in measuring the results of your work. If the document meets all project requirements, it is one large step closer to success.

Next, compare the approved outline to the document’s table of contents. They should be identical, or very similar, in their content and sequencing. As you read through the document, you should get the feeling that information is presented in a coherent, meaningful pattern.

Another vitally important checkpoint is to have a qualified reviewer try to use the document for its intended purpose and report the outcome to you. For example, if the document is a user manual for a software application, can the reviewer successfully complete all tasks, procedures or other operations as explained in the document?

A “test drive” or two will help you discover any deficiencies in your document (before your customer does!) and give you the opportunity to make improvements.

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