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An effective impediment to understanding

We’re doing  quite a bit of writing for various folks at the moment. This often involves taking existing marketing materials, regulatory documents, web pages and general bumph and hitting them with a rolling pin until their tortured syntax cracks and they surrender their meaning.

It strikes me that financial services is perhaps the most effective industry in the country at making sure language is crafted carefully to freeze those pesky consumers out. I mean, they’re just so ignorant. Many of them haven’t even achieved QCF level 4…

More in hope than expectation, here are five more thoughts in an occasional series of posts about how we – by which I mean you – can get our – by which I mean your – point across with greater impact. These should work pretty much anywhere.

  1. Avoid passives. They suck. Really they do. Passives are most often used by cowering corporate types who are trying to avoid the concept of responsibility (yes, I know that was a passive there, I’m tryna make a point here, people). Let’s think of a basic example; an IFA administrator asks a client to send in some documents. A typical letter or email might read ‘Your documents will be returned to you in the post.’ Leaving aside the redundant nature of ‘in the post’ (how else were they getting returned? Osmosis? Owls? The medium of dance?), this simple sentence tells the client a huge amount. It tells her that the person writing isn’t engaged in her case. It tells her that no-one takes responsibility. It tells her that the process is more important than the person. How much better would it be to say “Once we have received your documents, we will scan them for our files and then I / the admin team / Dave the janitor / whoever will send them back to you using recorded delivery / first class post / whatever). This exposes the fact that people are doing work, that they care that things are done right and that someone will make sure the documents get back. This is known as voice and it’s a fantastic short-cut to engagement. People can engage with an active voice. They can only rarely be engaged by a passive voice. Sorry, I mean they can only rarely engage with a passive voice. Ho, ho.

  2. Gerunds will EAT YOUR SOUL. This is a fact. The exact nature of the gerund, as Molesworth once noted, is that it is a verbal substantive, declined like neuters of the second declension. Any fule knos that. Actually what a gerund is, is a form of weak-assed participle which will make your writing sound like it was done by a twelve-year old. The key to gerunds and present participles is to look for the suffix ‘-ing’ on verbs. Verbs, for those of you born after 1980, are ‘doing ‘words. Nouns, by contrast, are ‘naming’ words. You can have an ‘-ing’ suffix on a noun, no bother. ‘Phil Young is good at painting’ is fine. But move that suffix to a verb and it gets weak. ‘Phil is painting’ is weak (unless he is doing it RIGHT NOW).‘The person managing your case is Phil’ is weak. ‘Phil paints’ is strong. ‘Phil will manage your case’ is strong. This links to point 1. Together, passives, gerunds and weak participles will sink otherwise good copy below the waterline. Also, you can reduce word count dramatically if you cut them out. Result.

  3. Develop a spine. If you’re writing a long-form piece – maybe an article or a newsletter – you might look to have a theme to bring the reader along. Oftentimes this might be something (ha, ha!) quirky or (ho, ho!) fun or (hee, hee!) unusual that makes you feel better about your dull subject matter. Pensions are quite like cars! You have to put money in them, which is quite like petrol! You get the idea. Anyway, if you want to do that, try to touch back on your spine two or three times in the piece. Just having it once in the title and then once again at the end won’t do it. A typical point will take you 200 words or so to make, maybe more if it’s complicated. So in a 500 word piece you can make 2 points, no more. Set your spine up, touch on it in each point and then once again on the way out; job done.

  4. There, their, they’re. It’s, its. You’re, your. Please, please, try and get this right. A special corner of Hell exists for anyone who lets copy out the door with these basic errors.

  5. The first draft of anything is shit. Ernest Hemingway said that, and he was right. Have the guts to redraft your work. Better still, have someone do it for you.

There you go. Just a few more points which have been included here in the interests of improving you’re writing which will help you’re audience with there understanding of the thing’s you rite.

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