(This post takes 12 minutes…or more…to read.)

What does a good report sound like? Does it sound like this?

Or like this:

Over lighting is an international concern, with much of the Earth’s population living under light-polluted skies, which, if you live in an urban or suburban area, all you have to do to see this type of pollution is go outside at night and look up at the sky.

Maybe a good report receives great applause and appreciation from its audience and sounds like this?

Or like this:

In this special report there is the inclusion of recommendations whose intention is to improve the cost‑effectiveness of state programs, such as the Department of Health Care Services, School‑Based Medi‑Cal Administrative Activities programs audit that identified weaknesses in the contracts between the local educational consortia or local governmental agencies and their claiming units that effective Health Care Services’ oversight should have prevented.

Whoa, Nellie!

Come on folks, we can do better than this.

Treat your sentences…paragraphs…sections as though they were alive, as though they were spoken aloud to the invisible (but easily imaginable) actual report reader, face-to-face! Words are actually magic. (http://themindunleashed.com/2015/03/magic-and-the-power-of-words.html)

Why don’t sentences in a lot of workplace writing—from email to complex, team-generated reports (and probably this very blog) SING? And how might we allow them to croon and warble just a little more pleasantly?

Okay, maybe Mr. Pao L. Chang goes a skosh overboard about word-magic, but words CAN affect our energy. Reading the two italicized sentences from audit reports noted above, my energy IS clearly affected. It’s drained.

Here’s another example, from a recent GAO report, of a mind-bending sentence:

Officials from EPA stated that they consulted with a standards-developing organization to develop a tool that provides forward-looking climate information to water utility owners and operators and helps them assess the related climate risks at their individual utilities, but that they have not directly provided this information to standards-developing organizations.

So why do sentences fail to sing? The answer I have in mind isn’t about lacking skill or failing to proofread. That would be my quick diagnosis of the first two sentences spotlighted above (on light pollution and on Medi-Cal.)

Failure to craft singing sentences comes from a couple of natural tendencies we have when we write. We tend to elevate our diction when we write…in plain English, we use bigger words when we write…and we tend to make sentences longer than we would if we were simply talking about the same information.

Here’s an example of the first tendency (using bigger words). I asked a faculty member at my college if he knew of a grad assistant who could make a web page for a project I was doing. He named a student and talked about her this way:

She’s got her own web-page-making business; she’s really good at it; she’s totally dependable; great sense of humor; she’d be awesome.

Okay. That sounded fine. As it turned out, in order to have her work on the web-page project I needed to give the Dean an email-of-recommendation from the faculty member who’d just recommended her. When the recommendation came, it sounded like this:

Per your request, it would behoove you to give ample consideration to the following candidate to help with the completion of your project for a myriad of reasons.

It would behoove me???

Does that mean it would give me hooves???

The recommendation made me laugh. It was clear enough, but it sounded so…”official.” That is…goofy!

And I guess that’s one common reason why our everyday workplace writing fails to sing, fails to even sound human. We think it needs to sound impressive. Actually, I think it’s not a matter of thinking. We just do it. We just write like badly programmed robots. But, really, does it impress you?

That sentence that wanted to behoove me has a bad case of the wordiness virus (caused by needless nominalizations).

Here’s a plainer version: “I believe Ms. X couple help you with your web-page project for several reasons….”  Or something along those lines. Maybe this: “I’m writing to recommend Ms. X to help you with your web-page project; she’s very well qualified.

Big words and nominalizations don’t impress me. In fact they confuse me because they usually obscure the all-important, simple logical structure I need to understand a sentence—WHO is DOING WHAT to WHOM???

What does impress me is getting clear and concise (plain English) answers to the real questions I have about the issue in question. 

Here’s a lengthy example of the second tendency—making long sentences when we write. I’ll cite one paragraph from a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report:

Federal agencies have initiated some actions that could help standards-developing organizations address institutional and technical challenges to using forward-looking climate information. Officials from USGCRP and from some federal agencies, including DOT and NOAA, told us they have initiated efforts to coordinate with other federal agencies to provide the best available forward-looking climate information to standards-developing organizations. For example, DOT and NOAA officials told us that they participate in the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG), which, since 2013, has coordinated federal, state, and local government efforts to mitigate the impact of hazards, including natural disasters. Further, officials from NOAA told us they provided information on their Digital Coast tools, including the Sea Level Rise Viewer, to a standards-developing organization at its request, and that they generally make these and other tools publicly available. Officials from EPA stated that they consulted with a standards-developing organization to develop a tool that provides forward-looking climate information to water utility owners and operators and helps them assess the related climate risks at their individual utilities, but that they have not directly provided this information to standards-developing organizations.

This is a LONG paragraph. But I’d argue that it’s relatively easy to read and process.  At least it’s not as impossible as it might be. There are lots of words used for attribution (who told GAO stuff). And the “for example” info requires lots of descriptive detail. But you can hack your way through the thicket of peripheral info fairly easily because the sentences themselves are logically well crafted.

That’s odd, because after checking the grade level of this paragraph (as calculated by the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level readability index), I see it’s allegedly just over 23rd grade! So let’s check the venerabe Flesch Reading Ease Score, which runs from 0 (“very difficult to read”) to100 (“very easy to read”); it considers 65 to be “standard.” This paragraph registers -4.50. A NEGATIVE readability number.

Ouch!

I tried to revise the paragraph, keeping all the information, so it would come closer to the 8th-grade level, a level many people believe newspapers target, and, by the way, a level GAO itself believes it targets. (It doesn’t.) Here’s my feeble attempt:

Federal agencies have begun actions that could help standards-developing organizations address institutional and technical challenges to using forward-looking climate information. Officials from USGCRP and from some federal agencies, including DOT and NOAA, told us they have begun efforts to work with other federal agencies to provide the best available forward-looking climate information to standards-developing organizations. For example, DOT and NOAA officials told us that they participate in the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG). Since 2013, MitFLG has coordinated federal, state, and local government efforts to reduce the impact of hazards, including natural disasters. Further, officials from NOAA told us they provided information on their Digital Coast tools, such as the Sea Level Rise Viewer. MitFLG generally makes these and other tools publicly available. Officials from EPA stated that they worked with a standards-developing organization to develop a tool that provides forward-looking climate information to water utility owners and operators. EPA also helped them assess related climate risks at their individual utilities. But EPA has not directly provided this information to standards-developing organizations.

It now scores just under 16th-grade level (15.96) on the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level scale and scores 16.03 on the Flesch Reading Score, which is allegedly just above the boarder of “very difficult to read” and merely “difficult to read.” And it’s a POSITIVE number at least!

For the record, I don’t think my revision is much easier to read.

Let’s have a quick look at one sentence that was flagged as problematic by the readability indices I used. Here’s the original sentence.

Officials from EPA stated that they consulted with a standards-developing organization to develop a tool that provides forward-looking climate information to water utility owners and operators and helps them assess the related climate risks at their individual utilities, but that they have not directly provided this information to standards-developing organizations.

It’s a 50-word sentence. Readability research tells us that readers have more problems processing sentences that are much beyond 30 words. IMVHO, it’s not how long a sentence is, it’s how you make it long! You can write beautiful, elegant sentence that surpass 100 words.

It’s not how long a sentence is, it’s how you make it long!
— Harvey Lillywhite

This sentence delivers two simple ideas:

1) EPA said it consulted with an SDO (standards-developing organization) to develop a tool….

BUT

2) EPA has NOT directly provided “this information” to SDOs.

This is a pretty nuanced thought. EPA HAS consulted with SDOs to make a tool that some other folks used, BUT they have not ACTUALLY PROVIDED the resulting info to an SDO.

I think that’s what’s being said here???

In this case, breaking the thought into two sentences would improve emphasis. The first sentence should emphasize what they have done: the consulting with an SDO. The second sentence should emphasize what they have not done: not sharing the info with an SDO.

Here’s my version.

EPA officials told us they worked with a standards-developing organization to create a tool. It provides forward-looking climate information to water utility owners and operators to help assess related climate risks at their utilities. But EPA has not directly given the resulting information to standards-developing organizations.

The original sentence came in at a readability index score of 30th grade and a chilling -26. THAT’S COLD! The revised version drops to14th grade and a balmy 19 on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (0-100)...still well below freezing, but more manageable.

Be that as it may, the original sentence packs in way too much information and expects the reader to retain it all in the midst of a subtle twist in thinking: EPA has done A but not B.

I certainly don’t mean to tout the online readability indices as the panacea for diagnosing readability. Such indices tell us nothing at all about CONTENT, ORANIZATION, and DOCUMENT DESIGN. And, by the way, the following sentence came in at 3rd-grade level and a boiling 83 on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (0-100).

The wind blows from the down. Being whale in search of the cocanut. Insert you own idea here. Sure make spellings correctly bought.

Clearly the readability indices are NOT checking for correct syntax, grammar, or spelling…or common sense. Oh well.

Nevertheless, the raw data we get from a readability index like the Flesh-Kincaid grade-level index or the Flesch Reading Ease Score (both embedded in WORD) gives us useful information on word/sentence/paragraph length.

So back to making our writing sing…readability indices have nothing to do with it and can’t help us much at all.

We need to be more sensitive to the word choices we make. Why use “initiate” when you’d actually say “begin”? Why use “coordinated with” when you’d actually say “worked with”? If “coordinated” more accurately describes what you’re trying to say, go for it.

In the following sentence there are two slightly unusual words that could be converted into more common verbs to make the sentence seem more plain:

The President appealed to Americans to conserve gas.

You could say this instead:

The President asked Americans to save gas.

But an “appeal” is more than simply “asking.” And we don’t really “save” gas. We don’t put cans of gas in the basement for future use. We “conserve” it by not using as much. So converting the less-common words into more-common words, in this case is a bad idea.

What I’m advocating here is something like plain English (also called plain language). Most languages throughout the world have a “plain” version…thus, there’s plain Chinese, plain Swahili, plain Arabic, plain French, plain Greek, etc.

Yes, using the words you use when you talk to people at work—co-workers and clients/customers—is part of creating plain English. (I conceive of plain English as a much bigger program, including useful CONTENT, deductive organization, helpful document design, and a plain style (paragraphs/sentences/word choices/mechanics.)

BTW, plain English never means “dumbing down” the content of the presentation. You have to maintain accuracy and nuance or you aren’t communicating well. Anything you have to say, you can say plainly…the way you’d explain it talking face-to-face with someone who cared. If you must use a technical word, define it…plainly.

Shorter sentences are usually easier for a reader to process. However, combining related ideas, especially through subordination, also adds to a reader’s comprehension.

But enough sentence shop-talk. The bottom line, now that I’m there, is simply to allow your sentences to sing. They sing when they sound like YOU and not like some robo-writer.

Don’t be a robo-writer.

Don’t be a robo-writer.

Maybe they can sound like this: 

Thanks, Jimmy.