Meet your new best friend

Two women taking picture of themselves with a digital camera

One of my goals in life is to help anyone who writes realize that verbs are their best friend. Not nouns, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions. Not alliteration, similes or metaphors.

Verbs!

Verbs are your best friend for three reasons:

1. They give sentences power.
2. They make you sound confident.
3. They keep sentences simple.

And yet we often do the same thing to verbs that we do to our family and friends — try to make them something they’re not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to change someone else. (You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand.) Raise your hand if it worked. (Both hands remain by my side.)

Sigh.

How do we try to change verbs? By turning them into nouns. We write things like, “We provide advice on tax structuring” instead of “We advise on tax structuring.” We say we “act in consultation with local firms” rather than we “consult with local firms.” And we “assist with the preparation of distribution agreements” instead of “preparing distribution agreements.”

Double sigh.

When I was editing more than 100 office and practice group descriptions for the launch of our Firm’s new website, I lost track of the number of times I turned noun phrases back into their original verb form. That’s how pervasive this problem is. The good news is it’s easy to fix once you’re aware of it.

Many words start life as strong, healthy verbs. Words like advise, consult, determine, develop, identify, implement, integrate, notify, prepare, provide and separate. Yet over time we have converted them into nouns, particularly in legal and business writing, creating wordy, overly formal phrases like this:

we determine → we aid in the determination of
we develop → we assist with the development of
we identify → we assist with the identification of
we implement → we aid in the implementation of
we integrate → we help with the integration of
we notify → we aid in the notification of
we provide → we aid in the provision of
we separate → we assist with the separation of

I should note that turning verbs into noun phrases is grammatically correct. And in some cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to use the noun form of a verb, such as in phrases like “the separation of church and state.” But in the context I’m talking about, it’s just not strong writing to use a noun when you could tap into the power of a verb instead.

It’s like when you talk a friend into changing some aspect of their behavior you don’t like, and even when they do, you get the sense they’re only doing it for your benefit. The modification is not coming from their own desire to change, but from their desire to avoid further disapproval. They become stilted, watered-down versions of themselves. The same thing happens to verbs.

“Verbs are the most important part of any sentence,” writing consultant Paddy O’Connor explains in a proposal-writing guide he developed for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “The more verbs you use (especially active verbs), the more persuasive your writing and the more confident you sound. When your writing is packed with heavy noun phrases based on a verb, any power your writing might have had is trapped beneath these smothered verbs.”

When you take this passive approach to writing, you are not only smothering verbs, but also making your sentences longer than they need to be. Doing this once or twice may be fine, but paragraph after paragraph of long-winded sentences makes for arduous reading and you run the risk that readers will stop reading.

“Abstract nouns don’t just suck the life out of your writing, they are also the main reason your sentences are so long,” O’Connor writes. “Every time you turn a simple verb into a noun phrase you need to find another verb to support it.”

What he means is that when you turn the verb “prepare” into the noun phrase, “the preparation of” you have to add another verb to the sentence because “prepare” is no longer a verb.

For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, “we prepare employee visas.” But if you change “prepare” to a noun, you can’t say, “we the preparation of employee visas.” You must add another verb so the sentence makes sense, such as, “we assist with the preparation of employee visas.” Now your sentence is eight words instead of four.

Why use more words than you need to?

My guess is that people think it sounds more professional or respectful to use formal phrases like “with the preparation of.” Yet when you think about it, what’s unprofessional or disrespectful about saying, “We prepare employee visas”?

It’s a simple, clear, direct sentence. My hunch is that clients would welcome sentences like this because they are quicker to read and easier to understand.

So here’s the rule: if the root of a noun is a verb, stick with the verb. You do not provide guidance, you guide. You do not aid in the development of corporate compliance programs, you develop corporate compliance programs. You do not assist in the notification of government agencies, you notify them.

Let’s practice with the following sentence:

We would be delighted to assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.

Which verb got turned into a noun?

Answer: integrate. As in, “We would be delighted assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.

How do we change this back into the original verb?

We would be delighted to help you integrate the acquired entity.

Did you lose any sense of decorum? No, you sound like one human being talking to another using proper English.

Let’s try another one:

Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.

Which verb got turned into a noun?

Answer: implement. As in, “Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.”

How do we change this back to the verb form?

Addressing people issues is critical to successfully implementing any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, posttransaction integration or restructuring.

Now your sentence has momentum. Someone is doing something instead of someone being engaged in the doing of something. Much better.

I realize it may take a while to get the hang of this, and it may feel uncomfortable to use simple, direct language. Rest assured that after writing this way for awhile, it will feel like second nature. Before you know it, you and verbs will have become best friends.

Lawyer bios: what matters to clients

Keep It Pithy T-shirt

Our new head of proposals has a T-shirt pinned to the bulletin board in her office. It says “Keep it pithy!” in bold black letters. And it’s pink. You can’t miss it.

When I started talking to this associate director about writing I could tell she lives and works by the edict on her T-shirt. She loves active voice, catchy headlines and getting to the point. When providing direction to her team on what to include and not include in the proposals they write to win new business for our law firm, she asks them, “What matters to the client?”

This question is also important to consider when writing lawyer bios, or any bio for that matter, whether it’s yours or someone else’s that you’re drafting for a proposal or the firm’s website.

When writing bios, we often include information that’s significant to us but doesn’t matter to our audience. We may be proud of particular awards or rankings. We may be enamored with articles we’ve written or speeches we’ve given at conferences. We may hold leadership positions within our organization. And these are all good things.

But a little goes a long way when talking about awards, rankings, publications and committees. For one thing, none of these things tell a story. They are facts that, when listed one after the other, read like a laundry list. And who wants to read a laundry list?

For another thing, it can start to sound “braggadocious,” as Donald Trump so famously claimed not to be during last week’s U.S. Presidential Debate. It’s a delicate balance to write a bio that’s impressive yet balanced. One that provides enough information about your expertise while “keeping it pithy!” One that focuses on what matters to the client rather than what’s important to you.

So let’s think about this from the client’s perspective. If you were looking for an employment lawyer to help you resolve a complex HR issue, which of the following would be most important?

a. Where they went to school
b. How long they’ve been practicing
c. What their areas of expertise are
d. What articles they’ve written
e. What speeches they’ve given
f. What clients they’ve worked for
g. What committees they’ve served on
h. What outcomes they’ve achieved for clients

So…?

Well, according to Career Tools, a professional development podcast I listen to, anyone who’s considering hiring you, whether it’s a potential client or potential employer, wants to know two things:

1. What do you do?
2. How well do you do it?

That’s it. End of story.

Why do they want to know this? Because it’s the quickest way to tell whether you have the direct experience to help them solve their problems. As Mark Twain said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Okay, so he wasn’t talking about lawyer bios, but he could have been.

My answer to the quiz above was h: what outcomes they’ve achieved for clients. Just like I noted in my post about the problem with our firm’s deals lists, our lawyer bios often fail to talk about the one thing that matters to clients: results.

What are your clients’ most common problems? How do you help them solve them? The answers to those questions should be highlighted in your bio like this:

As the chair of Baker & McKenzie’s China M&A practice, Teresa Zhang specializes in private and public M&A, both in the Chinese domestic market and cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies. One of the biggest challenges clients face in these transactions is passing China’s stiff competition requirements and gaining regulatory approval.  In the past year alone, Teresa has guided three global companies through the process, using her knowledge of the system to help them gain regulatory approval within the deal time frame.

The first half of the paragraph describes what Teresa does:

As the chair of Baker & McKenzie’s China M&A practice, Teresa Zhang specializes in private and public M&A, both in the Chinese domestic market and cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies.

The second half explains how well she does it:

One of the biggest challenges clients face in these transactions is passing China’s stiff competition requirements and gaining regulatory approval. In the past year alone, Teresa has guided three global companies through the process, using her knowledge of the system to help them gain regulatory approval within the deal time frame.

This paragraph will be of greater interest to potential clients than a laundry list of awards because it does two things:

1. Provides information about what is challenging in Chinese transactions (insight)
2. Explains how Teresa has helped clients overcome the very challenge other clients reading her bio may also face (outcome + relevance)

Now it’s your turn. Read the bio below. As you read, put yourself in the client’s shoes. If you needed to hire an employment litigator to defend your company in a high-stakes lawsuit, which facts would make you most interested in hiring Joe?

Joe Smith is a partner in Baker & McKenzie’s Chicago office. He has over 30 years of employment litigation experience and counsels employers on the entire spectrum of employee benefit and executive compensation matters. Mr. Smith was named by his peers as one of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois by Super Lawyers magazine for both 2014 and 2015. Mr. Smith has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” every year for over five years.

In 2012, Best Lawyers named Mr. Smith “Employment Litigation Lawyer of the Year” for Illinois. He was named one of Chambers USA‘s “Leaders in Their Field” in both 2015 and 2016. Chambers USA has described Mr. Smith as “an employment legend in the Midwest whose expertise has resulted in national acclaim,” and noted that he has been “handling very prominent cases and producing high-quality work.”

The Legal 500 USA has labelled Mr. Smith “exceptional” for employment litigation. He has also been listed as a leading attorney for employment litigation in Illinois Super Lawyers from 2005 to the present. Mr. Smith is Chair of the American Bar Association’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee. He is the featured employment litigation columnist for the Benefits Law Journal. In addition, he acts as a court-appointed mediator for employment cases in Illinois.

Mr. Smith has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and has secured numerous favorable precedents. Among Mr. Smith’s most notable achievements, he was the lead attorney in six class action employment cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories. He also regularly represents clients in federal district and appellate courts across the country.

Phew! It’s a lot, I know. And anything but pithy. So what information makes you want to hire Joe?

a. He has more than 30 years of employment litigation experience.
b. His peers named him one of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois in 2014 and 2015.
c. He has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” for five years.
d. He chairs the ABA’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee.
e. He’s a columnist for The Benefits Law Journal.
f. He acts as a court-appointed mediator in employment cases.
g. He has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and has secured numerous favorable precedents.
h. He was the lead attorney in six class action employment cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories.

Yet again, the best stuff comes at the end, a place readers may not even get to because of the laundry list of awards that came before. My answers to the question above: g and h.

Yes, it’s good to know Joe’s years of experience. Yes, his awards and committees tell you he’s accomplished in his field. But the points that caught my attention were the facts that he’s secured favorable precedents and won six class actions using six different legal theories.

The message to clients: this guy handles high-stakes, complex employment cases (what he does). And he wins (how well he does it).

How would you rewrite Joe’s bio to get to this point more quickly? Here’s my revision:

Joe Smith has over 30 years of employment litigation experience and counsels employers on employee benefit and executive compensation matters. He has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and secured numerous favorable precedents. Among his most notable achievements, Joe was the lead attorney in six employment class action cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories.

Joe has been recognized by his peers and the legal community with numerous awards and accolades, such as:

  • One of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois by Super Lawyers magazine
  • One of the “Best Lawyers in America” every year for five years
  • One of Chambers USA’s “Leaders in Their Field” in 2015 and 2016
  • An “exceptional” employment litigator according to Legal 500 USA

Joe also chairs the American Bar Association’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee, writes an employment litigation column for the Benefits Law Journal and acts as a court-appointed mediator for employment cases in Illinois.

Now we’re talking. The only additions I would make are to specify how many ERISA plan fiduciaries Joe has defended to give the statement greater impact (more than 100?) as well as how many favorable precedents he’s secured (10? 25? 50?) rather than using the vague word numerous.

I would also provide a little more context about the six class action suits — what the main issues were and how he overcame them — to provide greater context that could resonate with other clients. But working with what we’ve got, this is much better than the original.

As for awards, I picked the most recent, most impressive and used bullet points to make them easier to scan. I then wrapped it up with a few more details that reinforce his prominence in the field, but only after providing specific outcomes of his work in the first paragraph.

After these three paragraphs, you can list basic details like education, bar admission dates and include a brief list of representative matters, being sure to include the outcome of those cases.

So there you have it. A new way to approach lawyer bios. Now go forth and focus on outcomes. And keep it short. Don’t make me send you a pink T-shirt.

Writing is rewriting

Lady knitting on her own hatLast week I was writing a business proposal for work, and it took me five revisions to get it right. When I say “right,” I don’t mean it was perfect. I mean I was finally satisfied that it presented what I wanted to say, backed up with hard numbers and strong examples, in a logical structure that was easy to digest. It didn’t include too much information or too little. This is not an easy balance to strike.

These are just some of the issues to consider when revising and editing your work, many of which I’ve covered in the nine months since I started this blog. Throughout those months, I’ve provided guidance on:

I include this list of my previous posts for those of you who may have come late to this party and for those who’ve read the posts before and may want to revisit particular tips. Because here’s the thing: writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it right the first time. Nobody. If they say they do, they are lying. Or delusional. Maybe both.

Writing well takes practice. It’s like the hundreds of back handsprings I did on a mattress on the floor of our basement when I was taking gymnastic lessons as a kid. Repetition is key. And yes, sometimes I fell on my head.

Responding to my post about the importance of deleting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, one reader commented:

Thanks Laurie for the great reminder! I would add that you never, ever get this right the first time. I don’t know about you, but I find I have to print my work off, get out my carefully sharpened pencil and be ruthless before I get the clarity I need. It takes time, but it’s always worth it.

She’s right. So in this post, dear reader, I bring you a message of peace: be patient with yourself. Diligent but patient. It’s not easy to get your thoughts down on paper in a logical, coherent, lean, and engaging manner.

When one of my journalism professors broke the news to us that “writing is rewriting,” I didn’t want to believe him. I wanted to think I could dash off an award-winning article in one try. Fifteen years later, I understand the process doesn’t work that way. Writing something I’m proud of requires more long showers and trips to the vending machine for Doritos than I’d like to admit.

In her helpful and often funny book, Bird by Bird, American author Anne Lamott describes the misconception about the lives of writers:

People tend to look at successful writers and think they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some great writers, writers who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Lamott says the only way she gets anything done is by writing “really, really shitty first drafts.” In fact, she devotes an entire chapter, “Shitty First Drafts,” to describing this part of her process. She explains:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

During the revision process, I find it helpful to elicit feedback from those I trust. When I was writing that business proposal I mentioned, I asked three colleagues to review it. I knew it wasn’t there yet, and I wasn’t sure why. Their feedback was invaluable in helping me realize where I had left out crucial details, how I needed to rework the structure, and where I needed to cut. (“Remember, keep it pithy!” one of my reviewers said.)

Note that I did not ask them to edit my proposal. I asked them for their comments so that I could learn from fixing it myself. And I did not implement all of the changes they recommended but picked and chose from those I agreed with. Just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you have to incorporate their every point. You are a writer — not a short-order cook.

So remember, as you’re working to improve your writing, be patient with yourself. Trust the process. The sometimes painful, often anxiety-provoking, ultimately satisfying process. This doesn’t mean being passive or complacent. Nor does it mean biting your nails through endless revisions. There is an appropriate time to say, “Pencils down.”

Being patient with yourself means being willing to stick with it until you produce your best work. Not perfect work, but the best you are capable of in the time frame you have. You’ll know when you’re there. Your intuition will tell you.

The best way to use bullet points

Independent Thinker

We all have pet peeves, those things that make our blood pressures rise while others just shrug. One of my pet peeves has to do with bullet points. Bullet points? Yes, bullet points. I know the world is filled with more pressing issues like global warming, race relations, and the impact of Brexit, but when I see bulleted lists punctuated like this (highlighted in red below), it makes me cringe:

To demonstrate our Firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we provide internal programs that include:

  • hosting Diversity Roundtable Discussion Series for law students;
  • offering secondment opportunities for minority lawyers; and
  • providing US$1.6 million in tuition grants for minority students.

Looks fine to me, what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. What’s the purpose of bullet points? To separate items in a list. What’s the purpose of semicolons? To separate items in a list. What’s the purpose of the conjunction “and”? To separate items in a list.

Then why do you need all three? You don’t.

Bullet points, all by themselves, cue the reader that this is a list of separate but related items, which is why the minimalist in me grimaces when I see the unnecessary punctuation. And look how much cleaner a list looks without it:

To demonstrate our Firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we provide internal programs that include:

  • hosting Diversity Roundtable Discussion Series for law students
  • offering secondment opportunities for minority lawyers
  • providing US$1.6 million in tuition grants for minority students

Ahhhh, much better.

So why is using semicolons with “and” in bulleted lists so prevalent? Why do we find them throughout our Firm’s PowerPoint presentations, brochures, client alerts, newsletters, and email announcements? Because style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and APA Style say you should use them. Even our Firm’s Stylebook recommends taking this approach.

I still say you shouldn’t. Writing style rules vary depending on which guide you consult and they evolve as usage changes. I think The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA’s approach is old school and out of touch with the cleanest, most reader-friendly way to use bullet points in business and legal writing.

Many writing experts agree. One of my favorites is Grammar Girl, a magazine editor named Mignon Fogarty who produces the popular podcast, “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” I like her because she consults all of the style guides on a particular issue and makes recommendations based on what’s most logical and easiest for readers. Here’s what she has to say about bulleted lists:

Your text will be easier to read if you don’t put commas or semicolons after the items, and don’t put a conjunction such as “and” before the last item. All of these things are unnecessary clutter. If you find yourself wanting to format it this way, it probably means you should write it as a sentence instead of a list.

Exactly.

In this blog post, Best Practices for Bullet Points, business writing expert Lynn Gaertner-Johnston makes a similar point: “Avoid ending bullet points with semicolons. Semicolons have been used that way, but the style seems old-fashioned in today’s crisp documents.”

Amen.

So yes, if you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow The Chicago Manual of Style or APA Style, then go ahead and use them. (I’ll avert my eyes.) For anything else you write, I recommend avoiding them.

PUNCTUATION

Semicolons aside, what is the proper way to punctuate the items in a bulleted list? Good question. The major style guides make this pretty complicated. Here are the simple rules I follow:

1. If your list items are complete sentences, punctuate each item with a period or question mark.

During the corporate compliance conference, the speaker’s main points were:

  • The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is no longer the only concern for global companies.
  • Governments in countries like China and Brazil are increasingly enforcing local anti-corruption laws.
  • Companies now face stiffer penalties and higher fines in compliance investigations.
  • More enforcement authorities are focusing on prosecuting individuals in corporate corruption cases, not just the companies.

2. If your items are single words or sentence fragments, do not punctuate each item.  

During the corporate compliance conference, the speaker covered the following topics:

  • The impact of anti-corruption laws besides the FCPA
  • Increased enforcement in countries like China and Brazil
  • The rise in penalties and fines
  • Greater prosecution of individuals

As for how to punctuate your introductory statement leading into the list, I like this guidance from the Business Writers’ Blog best:

If your lead-in text is a complete sentence, use a colon. If the lead-in is a sentence fragment, you can omit the colon, or use it. It’s up to you—either is okay.

For consistency, I prefer to always use a colon for my introductory statement, such as in my examples above.

CAPITALIZATION

Should you capitalize the first word of every bullet? Again, it depends. Most style guides say if your items are complete sentences, you should. If they are fragments, you should not. However, I prefer the Grammar Girl’s guidance on this:

If your list item is a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter. If your list item isn’t a complete sentence, you can choose whether or not to capitalize the first letter—it’s a style choice. The only thing that is important is to be consistent. I capitalize the first letter of everything in lists because it’s easier to remember “capitalize everything” than it is to remember “capitalize complete sentences and use lowercase for sentence fragments.”

Personally, I always capitalize the first word of each list item not just because it’s easier to remember, but because I think it looks better. Not capitalizing reminds me of the design trend of using lower case for proper nouns in baby announcements and wedding invitations, such as, “save the date! dave & laurie to tie the knot!” To me, it looks informal.

PARALLELISM

Now that we’ve come this far, be sure to use parallel construction in your bulleted lists. What is parallel construction? It means being consistent. Each list item should follow the same structure. That means using all complete sentences or all fragments, not a mixture. It means using all statements or all questions, not a mixture.

It also means if you start your first bullet with a verb, all of your bullets should start with verbs — and they should be in the same tense. If you start with a noun, they should all start with nouns. This is important for readability. A common mistake I see in our Firm communications is this type of mix and match:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16 are:

  • Having an LGBT liaison in every office
  • Biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Maintaining a Global Listening Ear Program
  • Annual event for additional support

What’s the parallelism violation here? The first and third items in this list start with verbs, “having” and “maintaining”; the second and last items start with noun phrases, “biannual calls” and “annual event.” To maintain consistency, you should start all items with verbs like this:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16 are:

  • Having an LGBT liaison in every office
  • Holding biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Maintaining a Global Listening Ear Program
  • Hosting an annual event to provide additional support

Or with all noun phrases (adjectives + nouns) like this:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16:

  • LGBT liaisons in every office
  • Biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Global Listening Ear Program
  • Annual event to provide additional support

FINAL TIPS

Other bullet point tips I find helpful are to avoid using letters (a, b, c) in a vertical list because it looks too much like a multiple choice test. Instead, use bullets. Also avoid using numbers unless your list contains items that need to happen in a specific order (such as a list of step-by-step instructions) or you are using a “Top 5” or “Top 10” list format, like this:

The Five Essential Elements of Compliance are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Risk assessment
  3. Standards and controls
  4. Training
  5. Oversight

We’ve covered a lot of ground on this very important issue of bullet points. To help you remember the main points, I’ll leave you with, what else, two bulleted lists that summarize my tips.

Do:

  • Use a colon after the phrase or sentence setting up your list.
  • Capitalize the first word of each bullet, particularly when it’s a complete sentence.
  • Punctuate complete sentences with periods or question marks.
  • Be consistent about how you start each bullet by using all nouns or all verbs in the same tense.

Don’t:

  • Use semicolons or the conjunction “and” after the items in your list.
  • Punctuate the items in your list if they are sentence fragments.
  • Use numbers unless your items need to be sequential.
  • Use letters instead of bullets.
  • Mix and match how you start each bullet.

Thanks, I feel better already.

Two writing tips I learned the hard way – but you don’t have to

Cork, Ireland

There’s nothing quite like getting yelled at in front of other people that makes me want never, ever to make that mistake again. Public humiliation has a way of searing constructive criticism into my head,  particularly when that feedback begins with “Cunningham!” and is shouted across a crowded room.

“Cunningham! Stop putting two spaces between your sentences! You’re giving me carpal tunnel syndrome!” the metro editor bellowed, pounding on the backspace key.

“Sorry!” I replied, my face turning crimson as my colleagues craned their heads to see who was in trouble this time.

It was my second week at my first reporting job at a newspaper in New Jersey and the learning curve was steep. I not only had to figure out how to get the local police to talk to a California girl like me at murder scenes, but also how to keep my editors happy, or at least quiet, while they were editing my stories.

I hadn’t received such loud personal instruction since my high school days on the soccer field. “Cunningham! Stop goofing around and get over here or you’ll be doing laps!” my coach would yell during practice. “Cunningham, push up, push up! She’s wide open! Move!” he’d shout at games.

During my third week at the New Jersey paper, the metro editor broadcasted yet another writing tip across the newsroom: “Cunningham! Don’t put the attribution at the beginning of the sentence! Put it at the end!”

Although it was no fun getting yelled at, I’ll admit it was effective. You better believe I learned those rules, which I’ll now impart to you, albeit in a kinder, softer way (you’re welcome).

Tip 1: Use one space, not two, between sentences in everything you write.

I see this mistake all over the Firm: in emails, internal newsletters, proposals, client alerts, memos, Executive Committee papers . . . everywhere. So here’s the thing. Using two spaces between sentences is wrong. Wrong? Yes, wrong. Even in formal writing? Yes, even in formal writing. In any kind of writing.

Double spacing between sentences is an outdated practice that our school teachers instilled in us during our formative years, despite the fact that style manuals established decades ago that one space between sentences is the rule. Open any book, newspaper, magazine, academic journal, industry report, or handbook and you will find that one space is the professional standard.

Why do so many people still use two?

Blame the typewriter, says New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo in this article explaining the history behind the misconception among even the most educated that they should double space between sentences:

In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we still type like we do. The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks loose and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.

But monospaced fonts went out of style in the 1970s with the advent of the electric typewriter, then computers, which both use proportional fonts. This means anyone who still uses two spaces between sentences is overcompensating for a technological shortcoming that no longer exists. Even worse, they are making their paragraphs more difficult to read.

“One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing,” Manjoo says. “A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.”

Tip 2: Put the attribution for a fact or research finding you are citing at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning.

This is a finer point of writing that I probably never would have picked up if it hadn’t been shouted at me across a crowded room. Once I walked over to the metro editor’s desk and he explained why putting the fact first and attribution second is better, it made a lot of sense. I adopted this style rule and haven’t looked back since. Here’s the difference:

Attribution first: According to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, pharmaceutical sales in China are projected to increase 17% from 2012 to 2017.

Attribution last: Pharmaceutical sales in China are projected to increase 17% from 2012 to 2017, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

Can you see the difference? Why the second sentence is stronger? The most important part of the sentence is the statistic about China’s projected rise in drug sales. That’s the point you want your readers to get. So put it first, not after a long citation that’s more likely to lose their attention.

Is the first sentence incorrect? No. You will see attributions at the beginning of sentences everywhere, even in publications much more prestigious than the NJ newspaper where I got my start. I was just lucky enough to have an editor who had picked up this tip and passed it on.

Let’s try it again.

Before: According to George Walker at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston, developing a new drug costs an average of $2 billion.

After: Developing a new drug costs an average of $2 billion, according to George Walker at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston.

See how putting the attribution at the end makes the statistic stand out more? You don’t have to struggle through the expert’s name, name of the center, or where the center is located before getting to the point of the sentence.

Improving your writing is about making life easier for your readers. Making adjustments like using only one space and stating your facts first may seem inconsequential. But make enough of these small changes and they will have a big impact on the quality of your writing. Try it, see what happens. I don’t want to have to yell.

The art of email: 5 steps to success

Santorini

Last month my husband and I went to Greece for two weeks while my mom stayed in Chicago with our kids. Considering our children are 2 and 4 years old, it was one of the nicest things she has ever done for me aside from giving me life.

While we were gone, the kids remained in daycare Monday through Friday, but my mom still had to supervise their morning and evening routines, an exercise in patience that’s not for the faint of heart. I can’t count the number of times I have to tell my 4-year-old son, Owen, to put his shoes on each morning before I look down and actually see them on his feet. It’s a parental reality brilliantly reenacted by comedian Michael McIntyre in this hilarious sketch.

While in Greece, we soaked in the sunshine, feta, wine, and sensation of having uninterrupted conversations. We also read actual books. The islands we visited – Santorini, Milos and Crete – were so beautiful it was like living in a postcard. Yet I also missed our kids. Whenever I’d email my mom asking how they were doing, I would receive responses like:

“Owen seems to like school.”
“Tess is such a happy baby.”
“We are all still alive.”

My mom is someone who will talk your ear off in person, but she writes emails like haikus. Short, to the point, nothing but the facts. Even though her method follows many of the tips I profess in my writing workshops, in this case I wanted more. Anecdotes. Details. A clearer picture of their daily existence woven together with more than five words.

Given the circumstances, I’ll give my mom a break. I mean really, she was busy taking care of our kids so we could relax on a white sand beach. The point is there’s an art to email: not too little information, not too much. How much detail you provide depends on your audience – their needs and wants.

In a professional setting, it’s particularly important to get this balance right because so many of our work interactions occur through email even when the recipient is sitting five feet from our desk. In this age of digital technology, information overload, and shrinking attention spans, my mom’s “less is more” approach has its merits. Like most things in life, however, moderation is best.

Here are five tips for crafting and formatting email to give the recipient what they need to know while leaving out the rest.

1. Put your question or request in the subject line.

The email subject line is essentially your headline, the first opportunity to get someone’s attention. So use it to your advantage. If you have a question, put it directly in the subject line rather than writing “Quick question” or the topic of your question, such as “Upcoming client event.”

For example, when I email a partner requesting an interview for a thought leadership project, I write, “Interview for thought leadership report?” in the subject line. People like questions, particularly ones they can answer quickly.

If the purpose of your email is to make a request, put that request in the subject line, such as, “Thought leadership report – please review by Friday.” I find that putting the action I am requesting with a deadline typically results in better response rates. By receiving clear direction and a deadline right up top, your recipient is more likely to think, I’ll just do this now.

2. Get to the point.

Many of our Firm’s emails are long and unfocused, making it difficult to decipher what the sender wants. Since most of us scan long email, your request (or “call to action” in marketing speak) should be in the first paragraph, if not the second paragraph following brief background information to set up your question or request.

To understand why getting to the point is so important, consider this email sent from BD staff to partners alerting them to an upcoming webinar series:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC. We encourage you to forward this invite to clients who might find this webinar of interest. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send. If you would like to know if certain clients already have received this invite to avoid duplication, please contact me.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned, which we are co-hosting with the NA IP practice group.

What’s the problem with this email? The requests are buried, making them difficult to identify at first glance. It’s not until towards the end of a long paragraph that we find out what the sender wants, which I’ve underlined in the paragraphs below:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.  Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC.  We encourage you to forward this invite to clients who might find this webinar of interest. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send.  If you would like to know if certain clients already have received this invite to avoid duplication, please contact me.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned, which we are co-hosting with the NA IP practice group.

How could you do a better job of making these requests stand out? Start by shortening wordy phrases like “we are pleased to invite you” and “we encourage you” and deleting extraneous details. By limiting the first paragraph to the most important information about the webinars (who, what, where, when, why), you can get to the point more quickly, like this:

Dear Partners,

You’re invited to the fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. Our Oct. 5 webinar, “China’s Antitrust Regime – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales & Distribution” will feature CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC.

Please forward this invite to clients who may be interested by Sept. 15. To facilitate, we have attached a draft email you can send to clients.

Also, save the dates for:

  • Nov. 2: “Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion”
  • Dec. 7: “Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned”

See how much easier this is to read? You’ve briefly established why you’re writing (I’m inviting you to a webinar series), what the webinars are about (doing business in China), when the webinars are (first Wednesday of October, November and December), and who will be presenting (CF Lui, Bing Ho, and Stephen Harris).

Then you immediately state your call to action with a clear deadline of Sept. 15 instead of leaving it open-ended (most people respond better to deadlines), followed by another call to action (save the dates).

3. Use bold and bullets to highlight your main points.

Strong writing requires not only choosing the right words but also presenting information in a way that is easy to digest. In my revision above, notice that I bolded the requests rather than the webinar titles like the writer did in the original message. That’s because those are the actions I want the partners to take – the most important part of my note. So I save my emphasis for that.

I also used bullet points to list the upcoming webinar dates to make it easy for partners to scan. In the original, those dates are grouped together in one paragraph, increasing the chances they will get lost in a sea of words.

When writing email, your primary tools for creating clarity and emphasis are bold, italics, bullet points, underlining, spacing and different colored fonts. (I’m purposely leaving out all caps BECAUSE YELLING IS IMPOLITE.)

But be sure to use these tools sparingly to highlight only your calls to action or most important points. Avoid getting creative with too many colors or using multiple styles at once. Keep it simple, otherwise you’ll end up with a dizzying mess like this:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.  Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC. We encourage you to forward this invite to clients. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned.

4. Keep it short.

If your email is more than three or four short paragraphs, then please, pick up the phone. Having a five-minute conversation is more efficient than spending 30 minutes trying to explain your point in an email. This also applies to answering an email that requires a detailed response.

I know it’s scary to hear an actual human voice in this age of texting and instant messaging, but you’ll save so much time by calling the person who emailed you to say, “Hi, I got your email and thought it would be easier to have a quick chat.” Or you can put the ball in their court by responding, “Great question. Call me to discuss.”

Sometimes it’s not feasible to speak individually by phone. You may be sending a group email with details about an important project, firm initiative, or client event. In that case, make sure you leave out details and commentary that aren’t crucial to your main point, such as the extraneous information I’ve highlighted in red in the email below:

Dear EEG Partners,

Our next EEG Practice Group Meeting will take place in Warsaw on 20th and 21st January. As in previous years, we plan to run client conferences on the Thursday before the meeting begins. We have always received very positive feedback and in some cases, new instructions following past client conferences and I am sure you will agree, they provide an excellent opportunity for Partners from across the region to meet new and existing clients.

Although it still seems like a long way away, past experience suggests that it’s important to start planning early. Therefore I would like to ask you to nominate clients that you believe would benefit from a client conference with EEG Partners from across our region.

Does it matter that you’ve conducted client conferences in the past? Do you need to make a case for how beneficial they are to clients? Should you lecture your audience about the importance of early planning? Is there a shorter way to say “Therefore I would like to ask you”? (How about “please”?)

More importantly, what’s the call to action? And how will taking that action benefit your audience? What’s in it for them?

To provide that information more quickly and succinctly, try something like this instead:

Dear Partners:

Our next EEG Practice Group Meeting will take place in Warsaw on January 20-21. We plan to run client conferences on Thursday before the meeting, giving you and your colleagues the opportunity to meet new and existing clients from across the region.

Please take a moment to nominate clients you think would benefit from a client conference with EEG partners by filling out the form below and returning it to me by Friday, September 23.

Now you’ve got a short opening paragraph that explains why you’re writing (we’re hosting client conferences), what’s in it for them (they’ll meet new and existing clients), followed by your request (please nominate your clients for the conferences).

In this case, I bolded just the deadline because I thought bolding the entire request would be overpowering, as the sentence is pretty long. When you bold the deadline, the reader is more likely to see that date and think, Wait, what do I need to do by Sept. 23? then read the sentence preceding the date to find out.

5. Go to Greece.

Okay, this isn’t exactly a writing tip. But I had to say it. Talk about clarity. You could swim a mile in that ocean and still see the bottom. And it’s a nice break from your inbox.

Get to the point already

Often when I advocate that our lawyers and marketing and business development staff write more like journalists, I evoke a blog post written by Mark Herrmann, Deputy General Counsel at Aon, a London-based global insurance company.

In his post, Herrmann explains why he deletes the majority of the legal alerts he receives from big law firms

A typical alert is purely descriptive. It tells me that a case came down; the case said X; and therefore a case came down. Only at the very end does the author provide a paragraph or two of analysis.

What does Herrmann want instead? He gives an example:

One lawyer sent me an email that said: The S.D.N.Y. just handed down an opinion that says in-house lawyers with bar licenses on ‘inactive’ status are not attorneys within the meaning of the attorney-client privilege. And the court held that the corporation itself could not claim the privilege because it had made no effort to learn the lawyer’s bar status.

Consider doing this to protect yourself from that result:

1. Send an email to all of your in-house lawyers asking them to confirm that their licenses are on ‘active’ status.

2. Show an administrative assistant how to find the state bar websites showing the bar status of each lawyer and have the assistant confirm that each lawyer is active.

3. Put a reminder on the assistant’s calendar to check the bar status of each lawyer annually.

The author then provided a link to the court decision. What did Herrmann think of this approach?

Perfect! The lawyer told me what mattered, suggested an easy way to avoid the problem and invited me to read more only if I cared to.

In other words, Herrmann would read more alerts if they were short, focused and instructive — alerts that get to the point.

Why should we listen to Herrmann? Because as in-house counsel at a major corporation, he’s our audience. What we know about our audience is that they are busy, on-the-go executives who get a lot of email and do much of their reading on mobile devices.

That makes it even more important that we sum up whatever legal development we are writing about quickly and succinctly, like a journalist would in the first paragraph of a news story. Yet many of our alerts, blog posts, and newsletter articles start like this:

In July 2008, more than 10 years after Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission introduced its first consultation paper on race discrimination, the Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted. Since the gazettal of the RDO, there has been extensive public consultation undertaken in respect to the Code of Practice on Employment under the Race Discrimination Ordinance, which has resulted in heated debate and a number of significant amendments to the original draft. The substantive provisions of the RDO, as well as the Code, finally came into force on 10 July 2009.

Oy.

What is the most important information in the paragraph? The date the Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted? That it was gazetted (whatever that means) 10 years after the EOC introduced its first consultation paper? That the original draft sparked public debate and resulted in amendments to the ordinance?

No. What really matters is that Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance is now in effect (which isn’t mentioned until the last sentence) and how it will impact clients (which isn’t mentioned at all). That’s the news. The first two sentences are what journalists call “throat clearing,” unnecessary background or empty rhetoric that doesn’t say anything distinctive. We often use throat clearing when we’re not sure what we want to say or how to start an article.

To avoid throat clearing, use the inverted pyramid, a writing structure drilled into journalists from the beginning of their careers. Using the inverted pyramid, you start with the most important information — the who, what, where, when and why — and progress to the lesser details.

It’s the opposite of how many of us were taught to write in school by beginning with the background information, stating the various issues, and ending with a conclusion. The inverted pyramid flips this on its head by starting with the conclusion. The idea is that readers can get the main point or major news by reading the first few sentences of an article and only have to read on if they are interested in knowing more.

In the newsroom, reporters who don’t write their stories this way are accused of “burying the lead.” To avoid this infraction, ask yourself these questions before writing:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What do they most need to know about this legal development?
  3. How will it impact their business?
  4. What should they do about it?

To demonstrate how to write a legal alert more like a news story, I rewrote the alert about Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance. Here’s my opening paragraph:

Effective this month, Hong Kong’s race discrimination law imposes new obligations on employers to prevent race discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The new law, called the Race Discrimination Ordinance, holds companies liable for acts of racial discrimination by their employees unless they can demonstrate they have taken practical steps to prevent these acts.

After starting with the most important information, I go on to briefly explain the major requirements of the new ordinance, the consequences for companies if they don’t comply, and what they should do to avoid penalties. (To read my full revision of this alert, go here.)

If you are thinking, Well, I don’t have to worry about this because I don’t write legal alerts or I don’t work at a law firm, think again. Getting to the point is important for anyone writing anything, including email. The more throat clearing you do, the more background you provide before making your point or request, the less likely your reader will be to stay with you.

So try it. Start at the end. Make the inverted pyramid your friend. Ask yourself, What would Mark Herrmann want to know? Remember the cardinal rule of good writing: don’t bore your audience with extraneous details. Their attention spans will thank you.

Are you “using” quotation marks correctly?

quotation-marks-beware-dog-bigger

In the world of punctuation, quotation marks are often misunderstood. They are misused and abused in everything from signs, placards, and product packaging to our Firm’s brochures, newsletters and client alerts.

In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to mocking incorrect usage of quotation marks, such as this one that features pictures of grammatical errors guaranteed to make you smile.

To find out whether your writing could end up on one of these websites, take this quick test. For each question, choose the sentence with correct punctuation.

  1. a) Based in emerging markets, our lawyers do not “parachute in” when issues arise.
    b) Based in emerging markets, our lawyers do not parachute in when issues arise.
  1. a) Investors consider Eastern Europe a hot market for buyouts.
    b) Investors consider Eastern Europe a “hot” market for buyouts.
  1. a) There are ways to compensate sales professionals without crossing the line.
    b) There are ways to compensate sales professionals without “crossing the line.”
  1. a) Karen decided she wasn’t a “good fit” for the organization.
    b) Karen decided she wasn’t a good fit for the organization.
  1. a) George thinks the rule should be “tweaked’ to reflect the new law.
    b) George thinks the rule should be tweaked to reflect the new law.

The answers: B, A, A, B, B. In short, none of these sentences need quotation marks.  Here’s why.

A common mistake that even the most educated people make is thinking that because a word or phrase is an expression or figure of speech, they need to use quotation marks. Phrases like “parachute in,” “crossing the line,” and “good fit” are figures of speech that we use all the time. So are “hot market” and “tweaked.” Readers are familiar with these phrases, so there’s no need to call them out with quotation marks.

Otherwise, we would end up with sentences like this: Professionals who want to “climb the ladder” of success and “make their mark” in their industry need to “hit their targets” and maintain their momentum on the “learning curve” so they don’t “run out of steam.”

Ugh.

I don’t like unnecessary quotation marks because I find them distracting, like clutter in an otherwise tidy room. But they are also grammatically incorrect.

“The primary purpose of punctuation is to convey and clarify meaning,” my friend Erin, a high school English teacher, explains. “People use figurative language all the time and readers understand it as such. Poets don’t put their metaphors in quotation marks, and you don’t need to either.”

In fact, putting quotation marks around common phrases can confuse your readers because one of the correct uses of quotation marks is to signify that you are being ironic or sarcastic, like this:

He took me to his “cabin” in the woods. [The cabin is really a mansion.]

The “experts” told me to take this route. [You do not really think they are experts or you question their judgment as experts.]

In these cases, quotation marks are used as a wink to your readers to let them know you are joking or using a double meaning, just like comedians do when they use air quotes. If you put quotation marks around something, your readers are going to start looking for double meaning, even if you didn’t intend one.

That’s why using quotation marks for figures of speech such as “crossing the line,” and “good fit” could miscue your reader by making them wonder, Wait, what does she really mean by “good fit”?

Another common mistake is using quotation marks for emphasis, like in the picture above. There is no more reason that “dog” should go in quotation marks than there is to write that I really “should” go on a diet. Instead use all caps, bold, italics, underlining or an exclamation point for emphasis, depending on what you’re writing and the style guide you follow.

For example, BEWARE OF DOG! works well for a sign in your front yard. When emailing a friend about your weight problem, use italics:  I really should go on a diet.

Aside from irony, quotation marks are used for four other reasons:

  1. When you’re quoting someone.

“What’s for dinner?” John asked.

  1. When you’re referring to a word as a word.

       Many people don’t like the word “moist.”

  1. When you’re coining a new word or phrase, but only on first use.

During the workshop, students complete “selfwork” assignments designed to make them reflect on their academic goals.

  1. For the titles of magazine or newspaper articles, poems, short stories, songs and individual episodes of TV shows.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Other than these reasons, you don’t need quotation marks. Grammar rules are like traffic rules. If we don’t follow them, we risk sending the wrong signal and distracting readers from our message. And who the heck “wants” that?

The importance of proofreading

oops key on computer keyboard showing mistake concept

Telling someone to proofread is like reminding them to eat their vegetables. Or fasten their seat belts. Or floss. It’s one of those things we all know is good for us, but sometimes we resist doing it because it takes effort, can be tedious, and requires extra time.

It’s like when you’re sitting in your seat waiting for a plane to take off and the flight attendants are droning on about safety procedures. You look around at your fellow passengers and no one is listening. They’re not even looking up. After all the hassle of shoving carry-ons into the overhead compartment and waiting for that person in front of you to sit down already, everyone just wants to take off.

It’s the same way with writing. You’ve spent a lot of time with your document, report, email or presentation, rereading paragraphs like a mantra, writing and rewriting sentences, sighing because you’re not exactly sure what to say next. Or you’re on a tight deadline and don’t have time to labor over your sentences and find the exact right words.  You’re slapping it together and hoping for the best. Either way, you just want to click “send” and be done.

But stop. Wait. Hold on. “Take a deep breath,” as my friend Paul would say. Because proofreading isn’t a chore even when it feels like one. It’s an opportunity — an opportunity to maintain your credibility, improve the clarity of your writing, and trim your sentences to only what you need. Here’s how.

Credibility

I don’t care how smart you are, typos can make you look dumb. Or at least careless and sloppy, which is not exactly the image you want to project in the professional world. As readers, we all question the credibility of a writer or publication when we stumble upon a typo or grammatical error. Sometimes typos can be downright embarrassing.

When I was an editor at a Chicago magazine, we published an annual section ranking the “100 Largest Public Companies in Chicago.” Every year I lived in fear we would misspell “public” in one of the stories or headlines by forgetting the “L” and end up with a section about the “100 Largest Pubic Companies in Chicago.”  Luckily we never did. But we could have. I’ve seen it happen, which is why I always proofread that particular section veerrryyy caaarrefullly before it was printed.

When you’re proofreading I have three words for you: hard copy, hard copy, hard copy. Okay, yes, that’s six words. The point is, don’t proofread on the screen. Print out your work and read it on the page. I know it’s the 21st century, but our eyes skip over errors on a computer screen.

If I’m tired or have been working on a project for hours on end, I sometimes try to talk myself into skipping the step of printing out the document for review because it involves getting out of my chair and walking to the printer. I usually find the strength to override this impulse because I know I’m going to find errors on the page that I didn’t see sitting at my computer. I’m always glad I didn’t give in.

Clarity

Most people think of proofreading as checking their work for typos, grammatical errors and formatting mistakes. Those tasks are important, but proofreading is also your opportunity to improve the clarity of your content. It’s the time to ask yourself questions like: Is this really the best headline? Could I get to the point more quickly? Did I include enough detail in my examples? Do the paragraphs flow one into the other? Does the third paragraph make sense? Do I even need the fifth paragraph?

A common refrain among writers is, “Writing is rewriting,” and all the best writers do it. So take the time when you’re proofreading to think about where and how you could make improvements. Some writing experts recommend putting your draft away for a day or two so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. That’s when you might notice, “My entire first paragraph is in passive voice. Yikes!”

Proofreading with this level of attention is particularly important when you’re working on a draft with multiple people. After everyone is done tinkering and redlining, print it out in final draft form and read through it in one sitting.  Does it flow? Maintain the same tone? Is anything redundant or confusing? Your document may have been edited or written by five different people, but the end product shouldn’t sound like it.

Trimming

Proofreading is the perfect time to prune adverbs, adjectives and other wordiness from your sentences. We all write (and speak) with more words than we need, and it’s nearly impossible to be as one of my writing teacher says, “lean of expression,” on the first try.

William Zinsser, a US journalist and nonfiction author, argues in his book On Writing Well that most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent. Yes, 50 percent. Zinsser explains:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

How do you avoid strangling your readers? Let’s break it down by the four writing transgressions Zinsser lists above.

1. Every word that serves no function.

These are typically adjectives, adverbs and other unnecessary modifiers. Read the sentences below and see how they lose no meaning without those words.

Enforcement authorities have become very strict about what they consider fraud.
We are really excited to have this opportunity to respond to your RFP.
Warranty and indemnity insurers have developed high levels of expertise in the real estate sector.

2. Every long word that could be a short word.

assistance → help
numerous → many
remainder → rest
initial → first
attempt → try
utilize → use
obtain → get

We all fall victim to using these longer words in professional writing because we think they make us sound more authoritative or academic. But do they really? Let’s read one sentence with the longer words and a second with the shorter ones to test the difference.

I need your assistance finishing the remainder of our assignment because when I initially attempted to utilize the new skills we learned in class, I couldn’t obtain the right answer.

I need your help finishing the rest of our assignment because when I first tried to use the new skills we learned in class, I couldn’t get the right answer.

Which sentence is clearer? Easier to read? Do you lose any professionalism by using shorter words?

3. Every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb.

We regularly advise multinational companies on tax structuring during mergers and acquisitions.
She routinely represents clients in arbitration hearings.
He currently serves as chairman of the firm.

In the first three sentences above, you don’t need the adverbs because the present tense verb already tells you that’s what the subject of the sentence regularly, routinely and currently does.

4. Every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what.

Passive construction: In markets like China, the use of warranty and indemnity insurance is starting to be seen as a viable alternative.

Starting to be seen by whom?

Active construction: In markets like China, corporate and private equity bidders are starting to see the use of warranty and indemnity insurance as a viable alternative.

Ah, okay, now I get it.

Given the advantages of proofreading, it’s time to embrace the process as an opportunity to improve your writing rather than as an onerous task. The glass is half full, not half empty and all that rose-colored glasses stuff. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get up, walk over to the printer, and proofread this post.

Let me give you an example

man and woman holding frame in open land

Lately I’ve been listening to an audiobook called, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting. As the parent of a 2-year-old who’s been perfecting the art of tantrums and a 4-year-old who never wants to go to bed, I can use all the help I can get. The book is read by the author, Brené Brown, a psychology researcher who rose to fame with this Ted Talk about the power of vulnerability, which has been viewed 30 million times.

What I particularly like about the audiobook is that every time Brown makes a sweeping statement like how important it is to be empathetic with your children so they feel safe to express their feelings, she follows it by saying, “Let me give you an example.”

Then she recounts a recent interaction with her children, such as when her daughter came home from school in tears because the kids at school picked her last for their soccer team. Rather than tell her daughter it was no big deal or threaten to call the kids’ parents, Brown sat with her daughter and told her, “I know what it feels like to be left out.”

Whether you subscribe to this touchy-feely parenting approach or not, what’s helpful is that by telling this story, Brown helps her listeners understand what she means by being an empathetic parent. By providing an example, she gives parents a much greater chance of being able to support their kids in feeling sad and vulnerable than if she had made a grand statement about the power of empathy and left it at that.

For the same reason, it’s important to use examples in our writing. We humans learn through storytelling, which is why the Bible is full of parables and business school students work on case studies. Without the details of an actual situation, a concept is just a theory, not something you can easily believe or practice.

Recently I’ve been reviewing our Firm’s practice group descriptions for our new website. As I read them, I am struck by how often we make grand statements about our capabilities without backing them up with evidence. For example, we’ll make statements like:

“Our banking and finance lawyers help clients simplify complexity wherever they execute transactions.”

“For decades, our energy, mining and infrastructure lawyers have advised clients on some of the largest, most significant projects in the world.”

“Our transaction lawyers won ‘M&A Deal of the Year’ at the 2015 Asian Lawyer Awards.”

The problem is, that’s where we stop. We don’t go on to provide an example of how our banking and finance lawyers simplify complexity or what some of those world’s largest energy projects were. We don’t even recount the details of the deal that led to the impressive M&A award.

That’s a lost opportunity because as consumers, we’re all bombarded by marketing claims like “world’s greatest coffee,” “most fuel-efficient car,” and skin care products “guaranteed to take years off your life.” Out of sheer necessity we respond to these messages with skepticism, as in, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” Our clients, reading our practice group descriptions or anything else we write are likely to respond the same way. Unless, of course, we provide examples, like this:

Before: We are widely recognized for our work on multijurisdictional, pioneering transactions.

After: We are widely recognized for our work on multijurisdictional, pioneering transactions, such as developing a structure to enable the first domestic securitization of consumer loans in Russia.

Before: The quality of our work is reflected in the awards we have won for our work on major transactions, including “M&A Deal of the Year.”

After: The quality of our work is reflected in the awards we have won, including “M&A Deal of the Year” for advising The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi on its US$12.5 billion loan facility to Suntory Holdings for the buyout of Beam Inc.— the largest foreign acquisition by a Japanese company in recent years.

A $12.5-billion loan facility? The largest foreign acquisition by a Japanese company? Now you have my attention.

If you’re thinking you’re off the hook because you don’t do any marketing or promotional writing, think again. Whenever you’re trying to convince anyone of anything or educate someone on a particular topic, examples will work faster than anything to make your case or help your audience understand.

Whenever I am interviewing one of our partners on a particular legal issue for a thought leadership report, one of the questions I ask most frequently is “Can you give me an example?” That’s so that when I’m writing the report on a topic like corporate compliance issues in Latin America for our clients, I have the information I need to back up general statements with specific examples, like this:

Prosecutors in Latin America have become stricter about what they expect companies to do to avoid, uncover, and respond to misconduct. In Brazil, for example, the Clean Company Act requires companies to have specific procedures for employees who interact with government officials during public tenders. 

When I’m providing tips for clients in these reports, I go beyond general advice such as “tailor your gift-giving and hospitality policies to the local market” by explaining exactly how to do that, like this:

Tip: Create a gift-giving and hospitality policy tailored to your major markets. Many Latin American countries have local laws or guidelines that can help companies establish appropriate monetary thresholds for corporate gift giving to public officials. In Colombia, for example, the government publishes a chart showing the per diems it approves for government staff and officers on business trips. Those caps, which vary depending on the official’s seniority and destination, would be good limits for you to impose when funding business travel for Colombian officials.

The more you can back up your statements with examples, the stronger your writing will be. The stronger your writing is, the more people are likely to listen and take action, including hiring your practice group. How beautiful is that?