LexPower

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Principles

They flouted their disregard for the laws concerning proper disposal of hazardous waste.

Oh, he’s just playing politics. He’s flaunting the state’s constitution to push a political agenda, but what he’s trying to do won’t hold up under legal scrutiny.

In the examples shown above, flouted should be flaunted, and flaunting should be flouting.

Recently I’ve run across these and many similar misuses of the words “flout” and “flaunt” in print, online and on the radio. It seems as though a lot of people have only a fuzzy idea of the difference between flout and flaunt, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to talk about them.

asd;

Flout

Flout

Unfortunately, dogs can't read ... This one enjoys taking a stroll at Kerrycroy near a sign that states “No dogs.” Where is the dog’s rule-flouting owner? (Click image for source and credit)

To flout is to ignore or defy authority, or to treat laws with contemptuous disregard and scorn. It can also mean to mock or insult someone, or treat someone with contempt.

Brazen defiance and deliberate offense are contained in the notion of flout. If someone chooses to flout a rule or law or social convention, for example, their act shows a certain brash arrogance toward others. Why? Because to flout is to challenge and to affront, all while in the act of making one’s disdain plainly evident.

You can see, then, that the sentence beginning with “they flouted their disregard …” makes no sense, because it means the people in question ignored their disregard or treated it with contempt. By contrast, the correct word, flaunted, means they proudly or ostentatiously displayed their disregard in front of others in a way that indicated they mocked the laws.

as;a

Flaunt

Flaunt

Do you flaunt what you’ve got to inspire envy in others? (Click image for source and credit)

To flaunt means to ostentatiously display oneself or something, or to parade in a showy and public way, often with the intent to inspire envy in others.

Flaunt contains an element of strut and swagger, of grandstanding and shameless spectacle. Those who flaunt engage in a theatrical, flashy exhibition that is intended to impress others in some dramatic way.

Consider the sentence that opens with “he’s flaunting the state’s constitution ….” In that case, the rest of the sentence indicates that the politician in question is not trying to show off or pretentiously parade any part of the constitution to his advantage. Rather, by attempting to defy or ignore it in order to further his agenda, he is flouting the state’s constitution.

Writers, readers and listeners, are you among those who have been flouting when you should flaunt, and vice versa? If so, maybe now is the time to draw a clear distinction between the two in your own mind, and then do your part to stop the epidemic of misuse of flaunt and flout.

Talkback: Have you found examples of misuses of flout and flaunt? Do you have any favorites? Now is your chance to weigh in on this topic and share your insights, anecdotes and stories by leaving comments. Thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas

Advertisements
Semantics: The Meaning of Words

Let’s untangle the meanings of “nauseous” and “nauseated” without having a cat fight. They share the same root word, but have different meanings. (Click here for image credit and source.)

Lately I’ve been spotting many misuses of nauseous and nauseated, which is unsettling, to say the least. And also kind of humorous.

While the two words both stem from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, they have different meanings.

The careful writer makes a distinction between them.

as;df

Nauseous

Something that is nauseous causes nausea.

For example, if you smell a nauseous odor, it makes you feel sick to your stomach.

You can also use the word figuratively to mean sickening, disgusting, or loathsome. For example, a nauseous idea or statement is one that disgusts you.

A perfectly fine synonym for nauseous is nauseating.

asfd;

Nauseated

If something makes you feel sick to your stomach, you are nauseated.

Figuratively, the word can also be used to mean you feel sickened or disgusted.

asdf;

Common Misuse

The most common misuse seems to be something similar to this: “I feel nauseous,” which actually means: “I feel I make other people sick to their stomachs.”

Hey, could be. But probably the speaker means to say: “I feel nauseated,” meaning: “I feel sick to my stomach.”

Now it’s your turn: Has the misuse of these two words caught your eye? Do you have any examples to share with us? Thanks for leaving a comment!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

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).

asdf;

Trooper - State Police

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

asdf;

troop

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

asdf;

trooper

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.”

asdf;

Trouper - Member of a Theatrical Company

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

asdf;

troupe

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

asd;f

trouper

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

 

Does Your Documentation Satisfy or Perplex Your Customers?

Does Your Documentation Satisfy or Perplex Your Customers? (Click the image to see credits and source.)

 

Does your company’s documentation provide excellent customer service, cut down on the costs of customer support (those call-center calls are not cheap) and help bring in qualified leads?

Is your documentation just a cost center or a smart investment that helps drive revenues?

Does your documentation help you win repeat business and attract new customers?

Really great product and services documentation can (and should) be an important part of your company’s business strategy. If you’ve always thought of documentation as just something you had to do, because every other company does, well, you’re missing out on a powerful tool that can help you lower costs and increase revenue.

What Makes Quality Documentation?

While quality documentation has many characteristics, the net-net result is that it provides a superior experience when your prospects and customers interact with your products and services. That, in turn, happens when the documentation makes it easy (and maybe even interesting and perhaps—gasp!—fun) for a prospect or a customer to find information they want, to learn what they need to know, or to solve a problem.

Put another way, it’s all about developing productive and valuable relationships with your audiences. And documentation is at the heart of it all.

Here are two key characteristics that are often overlooked, and that I think are essential if you want to build great documentation that will help you outmaneuver your competitors.

List of User Tasks and Links to Solutions

A key characteristic of excellent product and services documentation is the list of user tasks and links to the solutions. Even if you have parts and pieces of this elsewhere in your documentation, you need to have one section or module that lists every task and its links. Your listing should present tasks from a customer’s perspective, for example:

I want to do X

How do I …?

When you create a task list, it is critically important that you use terms and phrases geared to your target audiences, which means you have to know who your audiences are and how they think. So be prepared to don your research hat.

How many times have you tried to find something (in print or online) and failed, only to discover that the documentation did in fact contain the topic you were looking for, but the index entry or other references to that topic required you to use one specific search term or phrase? And which one? Oh, it’s guess-a-lot time? Isn’t that frustrating? Help make your corner of the world a little happier by using a variety of terms and phrases in indexes, and build your search engines so they display “close but not quite” matches. Help your users find those tasks.

Your goal is to create a superior experience that helps build a positive relationship between your company and its customers.

A Customer-centric Perspective

The second key characteristic of outstanding documentation is that menus, options and features are presented and explained from a customer-centric perspective.

After all, your customers will look at your product and its parts and ask: Why would I use this? To do what?

When you explain menus, options and features, be sure to:

  • Focus on real-world applications.
  • Provide links to detailed how-tos.

To create documentation that is all about the customer requires thought, research and effort. This is much more difficult than merely churning out material that is product-centric or developer-centric, and is probably one reason why too many companies still produce perfunctory and ineffective documentation that is, quite frankly, not all that useful to the end user.

Great Documentation Is an Asset

Whether your company is a high-tech geek enterprise or entirely non-technical, your business needs great documentation to win in the marketplace.

It’s part of paying attention to your customer, as well as leveraging what can be an important sales and revenue-generating tool.

So, how is your documentation doing? Is it working for you?

Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Conversational Style in Communicating Technical Information - Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you think it is ever appropriate to use the word you in technical documents?

At one company, where I was working as a contract freelance writer on a technical-writing project, the company’s lead technical writer decreed that no one was to use the word you in any technical document. Ever. Under any circumstances. For any reason whatsoever. He considered it too unscientific and non-technical.

For example, we were supposed to write: After the user enters the data, he or she should check the form before clicking the Submit button, instead of: After you enter the data, check the form before clicking the Submit button.

Technical Style

The first example sentence illustrates technical or scientific style, which is impersonal and presents content in a way that largely avoids personal pronouns (no you allowed, for example) and does not directly address the reader. This style favors the passive voice (which also helps avoid those pesky pronouns) and promotes nominalization (a process in which verbs are turned, sometimes illegally and indecorously, into nouns).

If you have ever read texts overflowing with words like optimization, monetization and the like—nouns created from verbs by the writer—then you are familiar with the technique of nominalization.

Technical style is frequently used in processes and procedures, which place the emphasis on the sequence of the action rather than on giving directions to the reader. In other words, a step is described, not written as an order or directive. Thus, the user is addressed indirectly and impersonally in the third person as he, she, one, the operator, the technician, the user, and so on.

All of that is supposed to sound more technical and scientific—as well as more objective and authoritative, in the opinion of some.

Conversational Style

The second example sentence shows conversational style, in which you write to readers as though you are speaking to them. This style approves of using personal pronouns (you, for example) as well as the judicious use of contractions (don’t instead of do not).

As a bonus, conversational style encourages the use of the active voice, which adds conviction and liveliness to writing, and is almost always more concise than the passive voice. Readers find “action verbs” appealing, because such verbs are direct and show motion.

Using a conversational tone in technical communication can be quite effective and very engaging, as long as you don’t overdo it. Specifically, “not overdoing it” means to refrain from writing in a colloquial or chatty manner, using slang, and attempting to be humorous.

Conversational style is often used when writing directions, because you are telling the reader how to complete an action. Thus, the writer addresses the reader as you. For example: You must not enter a space between the numbers in this field. When writers use the command form of a verb, however, the you is not explicitly stated: Use only clean tools.

Striking a Balance

So, to you or not to you, that is the question.

In my opinion, it is preferable first to define and understand your audience, define the purpose of the document and understand your company’s communications objectives for the document, and then decide on a case-by-case basis whether to use the word you (and by implication, a more conversational style).

Given those parameters, I’m pretty certain you won’t be able to decide to “always” or “never” use the word you. It’s more likely you’ll find it necessary to strike a balance regarding its usage.

Even if your company has a style guide that addresses this issue, I’ll bet there will be times when its rules about when to use the word you will need some tweaking. What matters, after all, is how well you communicate with your audience, your customers, and if you have to bend a rule or make an occasional exception, then so be it. (Just be sure to discuss it with your manager first, of course.)

What do you think? Has the issue of using the word you in technical documents ever become a bone of contention in your company?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Basil Leaf in a Garden Context

Basil Leaf in a Garden Context

Context is a tricky word, because its meaning morphs, depending on the situation. Given this interesting quality, today I thought I’d look at some of the ways we can think of what the word context can mean in writing.

Text Level

When we speak about the text, or copy, in a document, the word context commonly refers to the elements of a sentence (or paragraph) that surround a particular word or phrase and that influence its meaning. So, what precedes and follows a word, sentence or paragraph helps to determine how readers will interpret it.

But as we know, the text lives inside a document, which in turn affects how readers understand the text.

Document Level

At the document level, the writing situation changes. Here, context is broadly understood to mean the relationship of the writer, the audience, the subject, and the purpose of the document.

As writers, we ask ourselves these core communication questions to start to get a handle on the document’s context:

  • What do I know about the subject?
  • What is the purpose of the document?
  • What does my audience know about the subject?
  • What does my audience need to know about the subject, given the purpose of the document?

And just when you think you’ve got it nailed, it’s very useful to get feedback on your document’s game plan from some test users, who should ask themselves: “What do I know about the subject now that I’ve read the document?” And, most important: “What else do I need to know?”

Of course, no document stands alone. Every piece of writing exists in a system, or setting, which helps to shape how the writer approaches the document.

Setting Level

The document itself exists in a context, an environment we can think of as the conditions that govern the document’s function or the setting in which the document is to be used.

Here are some key questions to help define the conditions/setting:

  • Where will the document be used?
  • Is this a print or online document?
  • Is the document flying solo, or is it part of a communications package?
  • Will readers have access to other help resources?

In order to clarify the complexities of the setting-document-text relationships, many writers find it helpful to use a context diagram.

How Context Works: Some Considerations (Involving Basil)

Bet you were wondering why a picture of a basil leaf opens this post.

Because, in making pesto last weekend, I ran into some context questions, which prompted me to write this post.

The pesto recipe I used calls for three cups of snipped fresh basil. Now, I happened to already know that “snipped” in this context generally means to tear each leaf by hand into rather small pieces (or use scissors to mince it).

But what if I hadn’t? Solution: For online publications, define “snipped” in context-sensitive help; in this case, a linked glossary definition or a pop-up. For print publications, use boldface on the word and, in an introductory section about conventions used in the document, tell the readers that a bolded word means the word is defined in a glossary. Another option (for both media) would be to define the audience: level of expertise, experience and knowledge.

On second thought, what if the writer of this recipe actually understood “snipped” to just mean “cut the leaf from the stem”? After all, the recipe says to use a food processor. Why hand mince the leaves if the machine will do that? How could I be fairly certain that my interpretation was probably correct? Answer: I interpreted the statement in the context of previous general knowledge. Still and all, that’s a little dicey. Maybe the author really did mean three cups of whole leaves, with the stems snipped off.

After all, recipes for a given dish can differ wildly, and who knows what the writer’s intent actually is, unless it’s explicitly stated?

Onward. Since this was my first foray into personally making homemade pesto, I didn’t know how many whole leaves to gather. How many cups of whole leaves result in three cups of snipped leaves?

So I experimented and discovered that about four cups of whole leaves very nicely turn into three cups of snipped.

The entire whole-to-snipped dilemma is another lovely opportunity for the writer to supply some context. Why make the cook guess and spend time experimenting?

Another aspect of context would be to tell readers to harvest the basil leaves before the plant flowers. Ah, tips on usage. Now that is helpful. Who wouldn’t want to know that after the plant flowers you will taste a tinge of bitterness in the leaves?

In this next picture, you can see the flower spikes on a basil plant that is just starting to blossom.

Flower Stalks on a Basil Plant

Flower Stalks on a Basil Plant

The recipe does provide substitution suggestions (walnuts or pecans) for the pine nuts, which is terrific contextual information. Pine nuts cause adverse reactions in some people, and others simply prefer another taste.

Another contextual suggestion, again involving usage, concerns storage. The recipe says the pesto can be put in a jar, covered with ¼-inch olive oil, and stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. Wouldn’t it be nice to know for how long in each case? When does the pesto go bad? What is the outside “safe” date for each method of storage?

Also of contextual interest to a cook is the best way to store something for ease of future use. Freezing the pesto in a jar means you have to thaw all of it at once. What about including the following alternative: If you intend to store the pesto in the freezer, pour or ladle it into the sections of an ice-cube tray. That way, you can conveniently access exactly the amount of pesto you need for one meal. How cool: little frozen cubes of pesto. Talk about ease of use! Wouldn’t that be nice information to offer to readers in the recipe?

As you see, this simple recipe for pesto (only six ingredients and minimal assembly work) very quickly got more complicated due to issues of context: one question at the level of text (“snipped”), and many more at the levels of document and setting.

Well then, what happens when we write user manuals, hardware assembly instructions, operations guides, policy manuals, and so many other business and technical publications?

Compared to a simple pesto recipe, those and other documents are astonishingly complex in their requirements for suitable contextual information.

We need to pay attention to all levels of context so our readers get what they really need to know in order to get a job done (without tearing their hair out).

If our audience wins, our company wins as well, because there is a bonus benefit for using context well: notice that adding these contextual elements to the pesto recipe would help readers find a lot more meaning in the recipe book. (And, of course, we would add similar contextual information for the other recipes in the book as well.) Think of the marketing opportunities! Think of the increased sales! Think of the expanding market share!

What do you think of my observations about context? What suggestions do you have for dealing with the complexities of context?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas


Welcome to LexPower!

Word Power for Business and Technology
Put The Write Ideas to work for your company

Enter your email address to get a free subscription to this blog. You will receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4 other followers

Archives

Copyright © 2009-2011 by LexPower. All rights reserved. You may not use or duplicate my blog material without my express and written permission. You may use excerpts and links, provided that you credit LexPower fully and clearly, and also give specific direction to the original content. All unauthorized use is strictly prohibited.