Cleaning up Business Documents

Ambiguous Documents
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 500 words used most in the English language each have an average of 23 different meanings. The word "round," for instance, has 70 distinctly different meanings.

The variance of word meanings in natural language has always posed problems for those who attempt to build an unambiguous and consistent statement. Take care to create text which is not subject to different meanings for different people.

Reading Difficulties
Many of your workers, in all business roles, have reading difficulties. They have difficulties reading words that are polysyllables.

Often, documents are written by university educated people who assume that, because they can read, other people can also read. They produce documents that cannot be understood by workers without similar reading skills.

Other documents, written by average ability writers, are simply difficult to read. This applies to safety documents, instructions and marketing documents like websites - 60% of website visitors prefer video purely because they cannot understand websites.

Formal Business Writing
Business writers are often the worst - they produce formal, poorly phrased, overly wordy documents which deter an average reader from reading.

For a reader who has problems, they are impossible, because of the inclusion of polysyllable words and poorly chosen words. Try your luck at understanding this passage (from a Health & Safety Statement).

[su_quote]The company is _________ to _______ing the safety training needs on an _______ basis. Staff will be ________ in the __________ of hazards in the office and advised of the _________ hazards __________ to their area. Staff will be trained to respond to such hazards in order to prevent accidents/injury to _________, their _________ and clients. All staff will be trained in __________ _________ and where __________, staff will be trained in the use of special _________ and ________. All staff will be trained in the correct ___________ involved in safe manual handling.[/su_quote]

This is how it actually reads ... 

[su_quote]The company is committed to identifying the safety training needs on an on-going basis. Staff will be involved in the identification of hazards in the office and advised of the particular hazards pertaining to their area. Staff will be trained to respond to such hazards in order to prevent accidents/injury to themselves, their colleagues and clients. All staff will be trained in emergency procedures and where appropriate, staff will be trained in the use of special machinery and equipment. All staff will be trained in the correct techniques involved in safe manual handling.[/su_quote]

Rewording and Simplifying

The paragraph is poorly written. Words like "pertaining" in a workplace simply creates problems, even for people who have average literacy.

There are too many words - "Staff will be trained to respond to such hazards in order to prevent accidents/injury" is simplified to "We will train you to avoid accidents".

It is written to avoid the multi-syllables and lengthy words, and the sentences are shortened and paragraphs separated into more easily read sub-paragraphs ...

[su_quote]The company cares about your safety. We check our workplace often to know what risks and dangers exist, and what safety training is needed.

All workers are asked to tell us of any dangers they are aware of. We will make a list of all dangers in your area.

We will train you  how to avoid accidents and what to do if an accident happens. 

All workers are told what to do if an emergency happens, and we train you how to use machines properly, and how to properly lift and move things.[/su_quote]

There are certain key words which are essential to a workplace literacy program, such as "train", "risk", "danger", "accident", "safety".

If your documents are not properly edited, they can create more problems than they solve. Our role is to convert your documents to simplified English, correct grammar, punctuation and prose, and to cut wordiness. We eliminate redundant words, correct adjectives and improve the clarity.

Typical business documents are written by non-expert writers and filled with ambiguity, clumsy meaning, excess words, and bad text layout.

Cleaning up and simplifying your crucial business documents is the fastest way to improve productivity.

Below is a real life example written for a consulting and project management company (APP Consulting).

Original version: (see if you can get it on the first read)

"Defence has recently mandated the development of BCP's by all units/agencies to upgrade its posture in light of the generally increased alertness to threats to the continuity of Defence operations, whether at home or abroad.  With a focus on enhancing general facility and personnel protections as well as ensuring operational continuity, the Director of Explosive Ordnance Services required  an accelerated effort to put a BCP in place. APP Consulting provided an experienced consultant to engage, in a tightened timeframe, with stakeholders, initially to upgrade Risk planning and ultimately to complete a BCP to conform with the Vice Chief of Defence Force directives for the establishment of Continuity of Defence Operations."

Rewritten Version

""The Australian Defense Force (Defense) had decided that, if a disruption or threat arose, all its Defense units should be able to continue operations, whether at home or abroad. We were invited to develop a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) for one of Defense's key Units.

APP Consulting assisted in the development of a BCP for the Directorate of Explosive Ordnance Services (the Unit). An APP consultant helped assess and upgrade risk planning, and complete the required BCP, in an accelerated timeframe.

APP Consulting completed this expert task , and developed a Business Continuity Plan so that the Unit would continue to operate under all circumstances."

Short Sentences, smaller words
People with reading problems tend to read slowly. Long sentences force them to hold many words in memory. By the time they reach the end of a long sentence, they have forgotten the beginning.

Short sentences help significantly. Small words also  help.

Verbosity is a deadly sin; invariably, over-written sentences are poorly constructed, because the writer doesn't know how to express an idea in simple text. So the reader is forced to read twice as much bad text - for example;

“The theme of this year’s summit is ‘From Essential Elements to Effective Practice,’ and the conference will include a variety of interactive sessions.”

can be cut by 30% and reduced to;

“This year’s summit, ‘From Essential Elements to Effective Practice,’ will include interactive sessions."

Enormous Paragraphs
The role of a paragraph is to express an idea. From centuries of reading, we know that a paragraph with more than 3-4 sentences (20-25 words) is unreadable, because it expects the reader to hold a continuously expanding bulk of text in memory.

By the time the reader gets to the end of a large paragraph, usually two or three ideas are expressed (and argued) and the beginning is forgotten.

The more complex the text, the smaller the paragraphs, to give extra time to comprehend.

Ten ways to write effectively

  1. Shorter Sentences
  2. Break paragraphs into smaller amounts
  3. Structure for scanning
  4. Use active, not passive voice
  5. Sequence ideas logically
  6. Include bullet points to summarise
  7. User subheadings which announce content
  8. Choose words carefully
  9. Use verbs not nouns
  10. Consider layout and formatting