Remind me, where do I look this up? #EditingPony

Do you ever want to reply to emails with, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Or, “Thanks for asking me about that. If only you had some way of finding it out yourself.”

Or,”Hey there’s this new thing called the internet. You should check it out.”

Please don’t be the person who makes me want to send you those replies. Because all of them basically mean, “Look it up yourself.”

When you’re sending an email or other written correspondence, stop yourself if you

  • … are beginning the email with, “Remind me…”
    This means you’ve already been told, but you think your time is better spent by having me look it up for you than by you looking it up for yourself. This is a great way to make your coworkers feel disrespected and resentful.
  • … are including or attributing a quote from memory
    As Mark Twain never said, “I’d rather be misquoted than languish in obscurity.” If you are including a quote from literature, history, or culture, it’s worth your time to get it right.
  • … are referring to historical facts
    You may have heard everyone you know talking about the Bowling Green Massacre, but if you’re referring to it in print, you should spend two minutes looking it up first to get the details right.
  • … are presenting data
    I’ve been guilty of giving estimates from memory in informal emails from time to time, but once these estimates are in the wild, they can grow to become more “real” than the actual truth in people’s minds. If that happens, these informal inaccuracies can haunt you. Don’t go from memory; look up the numbers. (And don’t send a note to a coworker asking them to remind you…)

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Number one #WorkplaceGiving campaign 9 years running. Two million #volunteer hours. #MicDrop

I started my first job out of UC Berkeley in July, 1989, working as a tech writer at Boeing on the B-2. Six companies and 14 years later, on February 23, 2003, I was hired full time at Wells Fargo to work in community affairs. Today is my 15th anniversary as an employee. That means that sometime in the last few months, I officially passed the point where I have been a Wells Fargo employee longer than I have not been a Wells Fargo employee since graduating college.

 

Me accepting a national Summit award from United Way CEO Brian Gallagher (um… 2011?)

Five years after being hired, I was promoted to manage the team and then, along with dear friend Melissa Buchanan, I co-led the integration of Wachovia’s and Wells Fargo’s employee giving and volunteer programs. The next year, 2009, the employee giving campaign rose to United Way Worldwide’s #1 ranking in the US for the first time ever.

This week, Wells Fargo announced that our workplace giving campaign was recognized as #1 in the US for the 9th year in a row… every year I’ve managed the group. Also, in 2017 our volunteer program recorded over 2 million hours for the first time ever.

I’ve been privileged to work with an incredible team of wonderful people–each one brilliant, dedicated, hard working, high integrity, and overflowing with compassion. It’s hard to leave such a team of people I respect deeply and am proud to call my friends, but it’s time for me to “lose sight of the shore” to discover new oceans. I will enjoy an enduring pride for all I helped build at Wells Fargo, and I know I will take a wealth of knowledge and experience into whatever I build next. I go into a new, as yet uncharted, adventure with tremendous gratitude for all the wonderful people I have worked with the last 15 years, and all the opportunity and memories the company provided.

My Wells Fargo team in 2015

Why you use the passive voice

Do you ever find yourself writing this

An email was written and sent to me by my coworker, and it was marked as high priority.

instead of this

My coworker sent me a high priority email.

Don’t worry. We all do it, and I’ll explain why in a second. But only one time in 10,000 should you actually send the first one.

The photograph of the picture that was painted by Editing Pony was taken by me.

 

The difference between these two sentences is that one is in passive voice and the other in active voice. If you don’t already know the difference, go learn, then come back.

My favorite reasons for avoiding passive voice are

  • Passive voice almost always uses more words. Although words are not a limited resource, your audience’s attention is.
  • Passive voice is usually harder to decipher because we live in a “Joe called me” world, not an “I was called by Joe” world.
  • In business writing, passive voice can erode the reader’s trust because they may think you’re trying to direct attention away from the real subject and verb. Most of the time, that’s exactly what’s happening.

In the first example, the email takes center stage, and the sender and recipient are secondary. In the second example, your coworker is telling you something, and email is just the mechanism.

Why do we write in passive voice?

I’ve only found three reasons people write in passive voice. First, they think long, wordy, circuitous sentences sound more intelligent and credible. (The opposite is true.) Second, they are trying to deflect accountability by moving the spotlight away from the agent. Third, they don’t understand the point they’re trying to make.

Here are a few examples from recent emails I’ve received. Do you have examples? Share them in comments.

An estimate has not been generated by the sales team.

The writer thought their audience was most interested in the cost, so they focused on the estimate and its status. This may seem logical, but the reader would still more easily understand

The sales team hasn’t generated an estimate.

In business writing, when you bury accountability in a grammatical labyrinth, people trust you less. Why are you letting the sales team off the hook? Have you followed up with them, or are you just waiting for an estimate to magically appear?

Challenges were created by not having a process in place to identify issues prior to launch.

Here’s an example where the agent doesn’t even appear in the sentence. Who was responsible for creating such a process? Was it one person or many people? And what should bother us here: that there was no process, or that issues weren’t identified in time, or that challenges resulted? Clearly, this example is taken out of context, but now I have to read a lot more just to understand what this sentence is trying to imply. And I’m also on high alert because I may need to work very hard to see the real meaning through the word fog.

Joe should have identified these issues before launch.

Far less ambiguous. And, although it may seem more aggressive to call Joe out like that, it’s actually less unfair to him because now Joe has something to respond to. Joe can agree with or rebut the second statement, but he can’t do anything at all with the first statement.

Write in active voice

For 2018, commit to writing your business communications in active voice. If you find yourself writing circuitous sentences where the agent is not the focus, ask yourself why. Is it because you aren’t clear on your message? Clarify your message before writing the email. Is it because you are afraid of blame falling on someone? Sometimes deflection can be useful, but be aware people will see right through it or be confused by it, and either they will trust you less or ask questions to get at the point anyway. Is it because you think the focus really should fall on the patient rather than the agent? Passive voice can be a useful structure in this case, but it should be the very rare exception in your writing. Almost always you can be more clear and concise with active voice.

Write courageously. Don’t hide your true meaning behind the verbal fog of passive voice. It doesn’t sound more intelligent; it just confuses and distracts.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Don’t rewrite. Okay? Just… don’t.

Proposals, “what went wrong” documents, even status updates. These and lots more come through your inbox, written by others and given to you to pass along to management, decision makers, or others. When I get these, I always proofread before sending along. After all, my name will be on it even though I’m not the author.

My team are all good writers, but every document can be improved. Here are some edits that may occur to you as you review.

One of these is helpful. Guess which.

Only one of those four is helpful, though. Which one? I’ll give you a few minutes to think it through.

If you didn’t say the last one, then we can’t be friends anymore.

What do the first three have in common that make them not just unhelpful but actually counterproductive? In each, you’ve acknowledged that the communication does its job, but your ego has declared, “That’s not the way I would say it.” You now have a choice: Approve the document with minor edits, or rewrite the document the way you would have written it?

If you’re unsure of the right choice, here’s a handy flowchart for you:

How to decide whether to rewrite or not

The objective of business communication is to communicate business things. If the document does its job and is not grossly offensive in how it presents itself, then leave it alone. Make minor edits–clarify where necessary, fix usage and grammar, spell-check, etc.–but do not rewrite.

Rewriting a document that is already competently written accomplishes only negative things:

  • You waste your own time.
  • You make the author feel their time was wasted.
  • You make the author feel their voice is unheard and their work is unappreciated.
  • You confuse people about who now “owns” the document. It’s no longer the original author’s, but it’s not yours either. Who responds to questions?
  • You set yourself up to get crap that needs to be rewritten in the future, because who wants to put a ton of work into something that’s just going to get reworked anyway?

Certainly, some situations may require rewrites. A draft written by an engineer that needs to be reformed in the corporate voice for public use, for example. This is where professional communicators need to step in and command the output.

You all know me by now as someone who cares deeply about the written word. Much of the time in business, however, your time is better spent elsewhere than rewriting a competent document into a (marginally) more competent document.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

You want to help. What can you do?

CBS news posted a terrific article illustrating why giving money is so much more effective than giving stuff (or worse, organizing your own collection drive) after a disaster. But you want to help. Can you do anything more than just text ten bucks to Red Cross?

You sure can. Things you can do now:

  1. Donate to American Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Team Rubicon, or other disaster relief agencies.
  2. Donate to long term recovery. United Way of Greater Houston is a great option as they will know how and where to apply funds during the years of recovery after the news crews have left. Consider donating to other organizations that provide job training, child care, access to health care, education, and help with clothing, housing, or food.
  3. Prepare yourself, your family, and your community for a disaster locally. If you’ve got kids, have them help. Learn the locations and phone numbers of your local relief agencies.
  4. Give blood if you can. Your blood won’t help people in Houston, but donated blood has a short shelf life, and your local supplies always need replenishing.
  5. Put a reminder on your calendar for six months or a year from now to check in on recovery efforts, and to see if it might make sense to hold a collection drive or fundraiser then, or to join an onsite volunteer effort.
  6. Donate and volunteer locally. The best way for a community to recover from a future disaster is to build a strong, thriving infrastructure with the services in place to help when help is needed.

Also, please don’t forward those stories that go viral after every disaster. You know the ones… about the 8 year old who organized a collection drive of Pez dispensers, or teddy bears, or school supplies. Heartwarming and full of love, but ultimately not terribly effective.

And do not even think about going to the disaster area to help unless you are trained in disaster response and are mobilized by an aid organization. Seriously, no matter how willing and able you are, you will only add to the number of people burdening the water, food, security, transportation, and sewage infrastructure. Stay out of the way of the experts, but help them by giving money they can use to do their jobs efficiently.

Wrangling your fat, aimless cows into useful writing

All writing starts with ideas, just as all stampedes start with cows. Good writing wrangles those ideas into a herd, then spurs them into motion. Weak writing plops those ideas down in ones and twos on the page, like cows milling about a pasture.

Ideas in your writing should be a lot more like a stampede than a pasture dotted by aimless, fat cows. Stampedes surge. Stampedes roar. Stampedes have no time for bullshit. You don’t forget a stampede, but if you wander around pastures you’ll probably end up with poop-covered shoes.

Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede
Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede

How, then, do you wrangle your ideas (the fat, aimless cows) into a strong piece of writing (the stampede)?

Note to self: Next installment of Editing Pony should be about not torturing metaphors.

In business writing, a good example for this lesson might be a languishing project that you inherit. Such a project is likely to have

  • multiple participants who aren’t personally accountable for the ultimate objective
  • multiple dependencies blaming poorly understood external factors
  • lots of meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent trying to remember where we left off last time

These are listless cows, wandering about a pasture.

What the project does not have is focus, direction, or momentum. You can provide it with a tight project directive, created with three simple actions:

1. Gather the herd

Happy cattle dispersed into small, separate groups rarely stampede. When spooked, they just run a few feet and settle back into grazing. Your first step is to bring everything together into your own corner of the pasture. To do this, create four lists:

  • Deliverables
    What needs to be created, by whom, and for what purpose? (e.g., Frank write a data entry app to capture names at the event.)
  • Dependencies
    In order to create those deliverables, what needs to happen first, and who needs to do it? (e.g., Marketing needs to provide the data specs to Frank.)
  • Gaps
    Where dependencies and deliverables don’t have a name attached, call them out. Or if a critical step has been previously unidentified, list it here. (e.g., Frank has the wrong development tools for the target platform.)
  • Actions
    What immediate actions need to be taken, by whom, and by when are they needed? (e.g., Mary call Marketing to demand the data specs, by Friday.)

What don’t you see above? You don’t see executive summary or background. You don’t see templated document structure. You don’t see any “how we got here.” That’s all a waste of time. Spend a sentence or two on the ultimate goal of the project if you must, but no more.

In other types of writing, the same principles apply. The lists may be different, but you still need to put all your points together in one place and see where they connect, see the dependencies, and identify the gaps. It’s nothing more than simple storyboarding, really, but it’s shocking how often people skip this step and jump right to composition before they know what they’re writing. Which leads to crap output, or to “writer’s block.”

In high school essays, for example, this step forces the student to forget about “the paper” and focus on the points, which ultimately leads to better citations, stronger arguments, and a more complete product. In fiction, this step may identify themes, characters, major plot points, and timeline.

2. Thin the herd

When a project has stagnated or your ideas have been muddled, you’ll probably spend too long making the lists in step 1, and the lists will stretch out, full of rambling description. Kill all that crap. If a deliverable is not absolutely necessary for project success, eliminate it. If someone claims a dependency on a vague external event, nail that down or reject the dependency.

Send 'em packing!
Send ’em packing!

The goal in this step is to find and break those circles of discussion that keep folding in on themselves. Someone always calls for “another meeting to discuss it,” or someone whines about an external dependency no one in the meeting has accountability for. Stampedes can be stopped by turning the front cows back into the herd; get rid of the slow, easily frightened cows that are likely to thwart your stampede.

The output of step 2 should be a terse, tight set of lists free of needless description. A document that shows only those things that need doing, who has to do them, and when they have to get done. If an item doesn’t drive to your ultimate goal, cut it.

Again, this step is critical in other writing. In high school essays, this is where structure is imposed on the arguments. In fiction, this is where you fill in plot holes and get rid of extraneous scenes and characters; for some authors this looks like an outline.

3. Direct the herd

In our project example, it’s time to kick the team into action. But don’t just toss the project plan out to the group; connect individually with each person assigned to a deliverable, gap, or action. Avoid sending anything to the whole group–that wastes the time of the uninvolved and gets ignored by people who need to act. Where gaps exist, assign people to fill them. Where dependency delivery dates don’t support the project, get them tightened. You’ve now got a document that shows why.

With these simple steps, you’ve taken a stagnant, aimless project and pointed everyone in one direction. You’ve told them exactly what they need to do and when it’s needed. You’ve eliminated the pointless and extraneous, and you’ve illuminated the gaps. And really, all you’ve done is what any good writer does.

If your project is huge, or you’re writing a novel, this set of techniques nests and scales. I do this before I start a novel, focusing first on the entirety of the plot arc. Then as I write, I do it again for each major section, and then for each chapter within each section. The same could be done for a project or a research paper. All my novels were written this way.

Conclusion: Not all metaphors work

I really was hoping that my cow stampede metaphor would carry me through this post, but it kind of stinks. Even though I’ve been to a rodeo in Texas, inside I’m just not cowboy enough, I guess.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Don’t subject me to this. Please.

Everyone gets too many emails every day. A good subject line helps organize and triage the inbox so we don’t get overwhelmed.

Then WHY OH WHY do you still send emails with these remarkably stupid and useless subject lines?

  • Thanks
  • Following up
  • Quick question
  • Checking in
  • Hey
  • Got a sec?

Ok, that last one at least passes one (maybe two) of the five tests for an adequate subject line. The rest tell me nothing about the email, but they tell me the sender did not give any thought to how I interact with email. These are the opposite of clickbait. Clickbait infuriates me with its tease–I know that the article won’t live up to its hype-saturated headline–but I sometimes can’t help myself, and I click anyway.

These subject lines infuriate me with their lazy uselessness, yet I know I must read them, even if they turn out to be throwaway nothingness. Because behind these vapid subjects may be a critical business task. There’s no way to tell.

So. Five rules. Here they are:

  1. Tell me what’s in the email
    “Quick question” may hint at it, but I have never in my life met a quick question that had a quick answer. My day is a constant barrage of incoming problems, and I cannot triage effectively if I don’t know what you’re emailing me about.
  2. If it’s time-sensitive, say so
    Add something like URGENT: to let me know that this requires attention now. The priority flag in most email programs like Outlook help, but adding this will make it unambiguous. Better: add the timeframe. NEED TODAY or NEED BY JUNE 16 makes it easy to triage and makes it pop out if it scrolls below the fold.
  3. If it requires action, say so
    Correllary to the prior point, ACTION REQUIRED: at the beginning of a subject line lets me know that something needs to get done. An approval, perhaps, or a compliance step that may be holding up the project.
  4. If it requires my attention specifically, say so
    If you send an email to 100 people with ACTION REQUIRED and only one of them needs to take action, you deserve a time out. FRED ACTION REQUIRED lets everyone know that Fred is on the hook, but the rest of us have a need to know. Maybe to make sure Fred does his job.
  5. Be unique
    Once four different people emailed on different topics, all with the subject line “Following up.” Soon, more than twenty emails clogged my inbox with the subject line “Re: Following up”. Most were reply-all “thanks, great to meet you, too!” One thread was about a timely, critical problem. Guess how much time I wasted wading through the sludge to handle the real problem.

It should go without saying that not every email is TIME SENSITIVE ACTION REQUIRED red-flag emergency.

Editing Pony is watching. Don’t be THAT person.
Please do not be that person.

Also, when writing subject lines, assume the recipient has a smaller screen than you do. “Following up on the meeting about action required time sensitive stuff” will show up on a phone as “Following up on…” Entirely useless and very difficult for a busy person to track effectively.

Good communication is not about how you say something; it’s about how the recipient experiences it. Too many people treat writing email subjects like picking the color of an envelope. Marketing experts know, however, there’s an art to designing the packaging in order to get the recipient to care about the contents before they even open the package. Junk mail is often designed to look overly important, to get you to open it. Well designed packaging lets you know what you’re getting before you open it, and helps you manage your inbox effectively.

Pay attention to the subject lines of emails you send and receive over the next week, and note how you and others respond to them. Do you have tips on writing good subject lines, or examples of really bad ones? Share!

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

Getting to the bottom of it

Up, up, up. Strive for more. Go higher. Achieve bigger.

The other day I saw an article encouraging people to journal every day. As a journaler myself, I find it helps me process complex feelings and turn over ideas like a mental compost pile (thanks to Natalie Goldberg for that image). Journaling in the morning centers me before work, and in the evening it gives closure to the day’s messiness.

But this article? I hate it. It instructed me to answer three questions every night, three questions about self-improvement. I don’t remember the exact questions, but they demanded that I explain how I improved myself today, and that I commit to doing better tomorrow.

Up, up up. Strive. Achieve. Soar.

Is nothing safe anymore, not even my private journal, away from the maddening rush to achieve? For the achievers, a journal is a way to measure and push progress. Productivity is the only worthy goal for achievers. Without progress, they believe, we stagnate and die. Like sharks, we must keep swimming or sink to the ocean floor.

I am not against progress. I push myself and my team to do the best we can in everything we do. If you’re going to do it, you might as well try your best. I never end a gym workout, for example, thinking I could have done another set. If I were a non-achiever, I would not have published five books. I also think we can learn from every failure and every success, so this kind of self-reflection has value.

But balance is as important as progress.

Read enough business articles, and you’ll see a common theme of career people feeling like they’re walking up a downward escalator. They need to get to the top, but the very path itself is working against them. So they feel they have to strive harder, to make more upward progress.

What’s lost in all this striving and improving is any contemplation of what’s at the top.

The truth is, there is no top.

Our bosses don’t actually want us to think about that. Most organizations talk a great game about work-life balance, but how many of us have been trained that “meets expectations” is a poor result in an annual review? Personal and professional development are very visible idols in the workplace pantheon, constant reminders that we are not (yet) our best selves.

Personally, I often feel I am walking down a crowded up escalator. I’m striving for balance and simplicity in a world hell-bent on forcing me to go higher, get better, achieve more. There is no top. There is no bottom. There is only restless motion based on the promise of an unknowable future success.

So my journal won’t turn into a self-development ledger. I won’t be using it to track daily progress and commit to daily improvements. That’s what to-do lists and project plans are for. We can achieve a lot (like publishing a new book) without becoming slaves to a self-improvement process.

How do you achieve balance between progress and peace of mind?

I strive for balance.

WWJD: The 24-hour rule

Joan taught me that nothing good ever comes from lashing out. Take time to reflect and analyze before responding.

When someone slaps me, my natural tendency is to say, “Ow, what the heck, dude. Chill.”

I believe that raw conflict in the workplace rarely leads to anything good. I don’t slap back. I want to believe that over time, if I behave in a way that keeps my conscience clear–being inclusive, striving for transparency and clarity, taking others’ interests into consideration, and acting with integrity and honesty–people around me will recognize that and know me for who I really am. Everyone falters once in a while, and I believe it’s better to forgive, especially if the person’s entire body of work proves them to be a good, upstanding person.

How many fingers am I holding up?On Friday, I got slapped. Scratch that… I got slammed hard. Unfairly and wrongly. When I heard what had been said about me, the word defamation came to mind.

Of course, this was not said to my face; it was fed in private to people who have direct influence over my livelihood and my career. (Side lesson: Everything you say about someone might make it back to that person.)

Stunned at first, I laughed it off. Of course everyone will see how ridiculous it was.

Ten minutes later, I was seething. How dare they? Such an attack cannot go undefended. I wanted to erupt, to spout equally strong language in defending myself and showing how little credibility my attacker had. I wanted to point out their long track record of deceit and underhandedness.

Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself of Joan’s 24-hour rule.

From time to time I need to step back and ask myself,

What would Joan do?

Joan was a beloved friend and trusted manager who taught me a lot in our few years together. One of the biggest lessons was the 24 hour rule.

It’s simple: When you face a sudden emotional situation, make yourself wait 24 hours before responding. When the explosive moment has cooled, you’ll see the big picture and can plan a better, more productive response.

You may need to find other ways of venting frustration and anger. Go to the gym. Talk it through with a trusted friend. Journal it. Redirect into other expressions that help you process your thoughts and get perspective and objectivity.

You can even write the response in an email to yourself, just to say what you have to say. It’s the digital equivalent of screaming into a pillow. Sometimes you may need 48 hours, or even longer.

Frequently, you’ll find that once the emotion is gone, you realize the best response is no response at all.

Other times, you’ll find that the distance and time have given you the opportunity to formulate a far better, more effective response.

Editing Pony is watching

PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART! AND THIS PART!

One of the best ways to strengthen your writing is to send important emails in plain text. Rich text effects–bold, italics, highlighting, and underline–are the empty calories of online communication–they can satisfy a quick need for an instant eye-catch, but relying on them over a long time will make your writing flabby and weak.

We all work with someone whose long, rambling emails contain a sentence that looks like this:

This is the IMPORTANT part: pay attention!

The writer realizes that the recipient needs a map through their forest of words, and these visual cues create guide posts highlighting what is critical and what can be ignored.

This approach has two problems:

  1. If there’s filler in your email that can be ignored, take it out.
  2. Over time, people get used to ignoring everything that isn’t highlighted.

If you’ve eradicated all unnecessary filler and still have a lot of text, fight the urge to use the sugar-rich visual cues of bold, underline, italics, exclamation points, and highlighting. Why? Because your colleagues use them liberally, and busy people have been conditioned over the years to react to them in these ways:

  • We assume you have not taken out the filler, and we are likely to skim or ignore large parts of what you wrote.
  • We assume you lack confidence in your points, and that you are trying to dress them up to make them seem more credible.
  • We assume that you believe we are either incapable of or unwilling to read and understand what you’ve written, and as a result we may feel untrusted or disrespected.
  • We assume you’re trying to sell us something, and we may approach your highlighted points with more skepticism than we should.

So if you shouldn’t highlight with these cues, what can you do in those (necessarily) long emails to make sure your main points get the attention they deserve?

Begin with good organization. You can choose from several approaches to present complex information; pick one that fits your topic and the nature of what you need to communicate. A sequential description (A led to B led to C which leaves us at D) may be good when a lot of background is needed, but it can distract when that background really is just filler. An executive summary may be useful for informing someone of a decision, but it might not work if you’re asking many people for input on a complex problem. Whatever structure you choose, make sure the structure supports the information and not the other way round. If you find yourself adding extra information, or twisting your words to fit a prescribed structure, then you’ve chosen the wrong structure.

Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.
Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.

Put each key point at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Either make your point and then defend it, or provide the necessary information and conclude with the key point. If you feel an itch to highlight or bold something in the middle of a paragraph, restructure your paragraph.

Don’t forget the negative space. White space can create visual pauses, separate ideas, and refresh the reader’s attention. It’s also a signal to the reader that the previous point is done.

Bullet lists force brevity. Each bullet in a list should be concise and easy to digest at a glance. As a general rule, if your bullet is more than two sentences, it should be a paragraph instead of a bullet. Good bullet lists also provide a refreshing visual break in paragraphs of text.

Stay away from tables. People love to put complex information in tables, but inevitably a table will end up carrying empty cells. These are visual trip hazards; an empty cell feels like a mistake. So what do you think happens to empty cells? That’s right: they get filled with unnecessary words, distracting from our main points.

Write well. Use simple, direct sentences with strong nouns and verbs. Eliminate equivocations and adjectives. Learn to use commas properly, and for everyone’s sake spell things right. Read it over many times from the beginning for flow, clarity, and even cadence. Read it out loud. Fix awkward parts.

Finally, cultivate your own reputation for tight, efficient communication. We all dread hearing from people who always speak ten minutes longer than they’re allocated, but we like speakers who finish on time or early. If people know you as someone who doesn’t speak much but who says important things, you will find yourself using bold, italics, underline, highlighting, all caps, and exclamation points less and less.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.