Making writing more human (2) - a great wee word to use

This is the second of two emails on how to choose better words - and each has a Tip. The previous email said: "Tip1: Replace abstract nouns with verbs", e.g. replace installation with the verb to install. This email has Tip 2, plus we rewrite stuff using both Tips. 

Tip (2) - use the we word: to persuade bosses to spend £100k on a new bit of kit, we might write: “It leads to reductions in waste and improvements in quality”. OK, we don't know if quality improves by 1% or 100%, but no worries. Let’s rewrite it. First, we replace abstract nouns with verbs: “It reduces waste and improves quality”.

Better, but impersonal. So try this: “We reduce waste and improve quality”.

The we word makes it more human. We is great. Don’t say: “The situation will be monitored”. Who'll do that? A robot? Instead, say: “We'll monitor the situation”. In other words: “Leave it with us, it’s on our patch – trust us”. It shows pride, ownership, accountability, commitment. Plus it helps us avoid the passive voice. Study this:

“Waste will be reduced and quality will be improved.”

Yes, it uses verbs, not abstract nouns. Tick. But it’s in the passive voice. Which is impersonal and unengaging. Wordy, bureaucratic, robotic, plodding, self-important. OK, there are several valid reasons to sometimes use the passive voice - and one that's often bad: it avoids accountability.... politicians say: "Lessons have been learnt", but annoyingly never say who's learnt them.

But on most occasions, avoid the passive voice (or: the passive voice should avoided...). And use we.

Things that make you go Hmmm: this we Tip causes so much grief, people really object to it. “We’re not allowed to use we”, people tell me, “it’s too informal and doesn’t fit our culture”. Hmmm.  “Look at”, I retort, “the motivational posters pinned on the walls of this room by your Comms staff – they use we, e.g. ‘We meet client needs’….”. Also, study your marketing literature – if any good, it uses we.

Or they say: “It’s wrong to write: ‘We reduce waste’ because we don’t… the new bit of kit does”. What?! These people who say this… when they hear: “Fancy a cuppa? I’ve boiled some water”, do they reply: “You didn’t boil it; the kettle did”?

There’s one other concern, but let's move on (if you want the concern, it's in the PS of this email). Here are two examples of the Tips in action – and both are based on real-life stuff.

Before: This report has been written to help your decision-making process.
After: We wrote this to help you decide what to do.

It's easy to see the changes. We replace decision with the verb decide, we use we - and you, which is another good word to use. And we avoid the passive voice.

Next is a slide to staff on what we’ve done in the year - study the before and after on the right. I won’t detail the changes this time, you can see them for yourself. Note three things though: (1) the after has a higher word count. This sometimes happens, but don’t worry – low word count achieves nothing if words are inaccessible. Contemporaneously is fewer words than at the same time, but I know which I prefer.

And (2) the after sounds like we’ve done something, it’s more action-oriented. Finally (3) the after uses we four times – isn’t that repetitive and wordy? Maybe not. Sometimes it adds impact. Think of Churchill’s speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields…”. 

So....the end of the email has been reached.

Or: we've reached the end.


PS: that other concern over the we word: people fear that if we use we, it’s not clear to whom it refers. No. Firstly, it if isn’t obvious, define at the start. Problem solved. 

Often though, we is obvious from the context - imagine I’m telling my wife about the match I went to: “The fans… we were on form, we made a lot of noise. Good result too - we beat City 2-0. Brill. Getting home was tough though – it took us two hours.”  We, we, us – and they all refer to different groups. The fans, the team, then me and my mates. Does it confuse? ‘Course not. It’s obvious from the context.

OK, that was a verbal example - and a domestic one too. So here's a written example from work: “We reviewed the company. To conclude, we should buy it. Afterwards, there are small admin action points: (1) we need to open a new bank account for them; (2) we might add them to our insurances; (3) we shouldn't change their marketing material.” We refers to five different groups: the due diligence team, the Board, Group Finance, Group Legal and Group Marketing. And it's fine.

PPS: a great video clip: after sending this email, someone sent me this clip from the UK sitcom That Mitchell and Webb look. It's two and half minutes long and is about the 'we' word and football fans. It's great - enjoy.


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