Making writing more human (1) - use verbs, not nouns

This email is the first of a two-parter on how to choose better words for your work. This month is Tip 1. In the other email, you see Tip 2 (it's more controversial...), plus I put the Tips together and apply them. 

On with Tip 1 - replace nouns with verbs: study the following, it’s typical of what people write in reports:

“We do the procurement and installation of your IT; we also undertake the management and development of your staff.”

It crawls with abstract nouns derived from verbs. Procurement is from the verb to procure. Installation from to install. Management from to manage, and development from to develop. Abstract nouns are anodyne and bureaucratic. And they obscure meaning and slow reading because they’re, well, abstract. The clue is in the name. Instead, use the verbs - it becomes shorter, more immediate, better:

“We procure and install your IT; we also manage and develop your staff.”

Action on ation: many abstract nouns end in ation, e.g. recommendation comes from recommend. Some don’t though – there’s provision and provide; avoidance and avoid; hindrance and hinder; delivery and deliver. Abstract nouns can even be the same word as the verb: “We suggest the use of IT” becomes: “We suggest you use IT”.

Abstract nouns are a plague, most reports overflow with them - 'identification', 'instigation', 'mitigation', etc. Replace with verbs, it’s a quick, big change you can make to most writing. Compare: (1) “Quality improvements occur”, and: (2) “Quality improves”. Much better.

Remove abstract nouns from slides: I once saw someone stride on stage and show a slide that described how great last year had been – an easy message to deliver to staff, no? Yet delegate depression set in instantly. The slide had just ten words, but was turgid - see the Figure. Awful. 

As always, an exception (exception… an abstract noun?): abstract nouns can sometimes help create rhythm, e.g. “We trade precision for persuasion”. It flows better than: “Be less precise and we persuade more”. 

That’s Tip 1. Tip 2 is next month. Until then, for the achievement of the enhancement of your impact, strive for the reduction of abstract nouns...

A great cartoon that mocks such stuff: it hit my Inbox yesterday (wonderfully timed). It mocks the word engagement - which is an abstract noun from the somewhat abstract verb engage. (Abstract-squared, perhaps?) So as not to breach copyright, I’ve not copied it into this email – click here to see it. Enjoy.

Do you read or write mailshots? The cartoon evoked memories of when I briefly helped someone with his mailshots to members. He told me: “With these mailshots, we seek the enhancement of member engagement”. What the @?$!  So I tried a different tack: “OK…when people read your mailshot, what do you want them to feel?”. “Engaged,” he said. Which is still too vague for me to work out how to help. So I tried yet a different tack: “What do you want them to do?”. “Feel engaged,” came the reply. Hmmm, you couldn’t script it, could you? Eventually after more questions, I found the answer: “I want to get them to attend our weekly local events”. Bingo - we got there. The mailshots need to entice people to attend. I was then able to come out with ideas to help.


PS: one final 'abstract-noun' example comes with a health warning, for it will do your head in: in a radio interview in January 2013, the Mental Health Commissioner of Ireland said: “There was a slow commencement to the implementation process”. I think he was saying: “It started slowly”.  

PPS: after sending out the above email, someone emailed me back, saying his firm had linked its 'staff engagement' survey to the annual bonus - the more engaged, the higher the bonus. Guess what? Engagement scores were really good. You couldn't script it, could you.


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