We all rely on grammar and style checkers to help us find the small errors in our writing. Anyone who has had autocorrect go wrong, however, knows that grammar and spell checkers are not necessarily accurate. Sometimes (as in the case of the unicorn-riding police officer) these tools can change our messages to say things we never intended.
In the same way that you must double-check the changes that autocorrect suggests, you have to pay attention to the grammar and style tools that are available in your word processors. Read the Slate.com article Microsoft Word’s Grammar and Style Tools Will Make Your Writing Worse for lots of examples of how Word can suggest changes that will confuse your readers.
Finally, as long as you are still at Virginia Tech, remember that you have free access to the Lynda.com course Grammar Foundations (below). You can look up any grammar questions you have there.
Most people don’t want to receive bad news. Likewise, unless we’re talking about the Wicked Witch of the West, Voldemort, or Darth Vader, most people are uncomfortable when they have to give someone bad news. Continuing our focus on correspondence this week, today’s #FridayFact explains how to write a bad new message that gets the point across without alienating the reader.
Typically, bad news messages begin with some kind of “buffer” that cushions the negative information. This indirect approach allows you to break the news gently to your reader. There are times, however, when a more direct approach is appropriate, such as in an emergency situation or when the bad news is expected.
How to Organize a Paper: The Indirect Method (for Writing Bad News) includes a chart that outlines when to use an indirect approach to giving your readers bad news and when to use a more direct approach. The chart on the webpage tells you what to include in your message, whether it is direct or indirect. You’ll also find explanations of the information to provide in the different sections of your bad news message.
Admittedly, I am guilty of using too many exclamation points in my emails and texts, but I do try to avoid them in what I write in the workplace. It turns out that is the right choice, according to the Business Insider article Stop Using Exclamation Points At Work!
The article ends with the flowchart shown below, which suggests that most of the time, you should not use exclamation points. It’s a fun flowchart, so be sure to read it.
The #FridayFact for this week is one that I’m sure everyone agrees with: no one likes a boring slideshow with crowdedl text on the slides. The Harvard Business Review article Five Presentation Mistakes Everyone Makes, by Nancy Duarte, outlines these errors:
- Failing to engage emotionally.
- Asking too much of your slides.
- Trotting out tired visuals.
- Speaking in jargon.
- Going over your allotted time.
The article is short and easy to read, so take a few minutes to learn how you can improve the presentations you give!
Photo credit: Powerpoint by Bart Everson on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license.
Eye-tracking studies show that people read online documents in an F-shaped pattern, shown here:
They scan across the top of the page and then down the left side of the page until they find another significant word or phrase that catches their attention. At that point, they scan across the page a bit and then resume scanning down the page a bit. People rarely read everything on the page. They scan and decide in a matter of seconds what action to take next. They may never scroll down the page.
If you are writing documents that people will read online—whether email messages, attached files, or webpages—you need to use document design elements that will put your most important information in the path of the F-shape pattern.
As you consider this study, think about the design strategies that would help readers find the significant information in your messages, and share your ideas in the #FridayFact Discussion in Canvas.
Photo Credit: Jakob Nielsen’s F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content
Email is critical to the work of over half of the workers surveyed by the Pew Research Center on Technology’s Impact on Workers. The bar graph on the right shows that 61% of workers said that email was “very important” to their work.
Why is this fact important for technical writing? The better you are at writing emails, the better you are likely to do in the workplace. As more businesses and organizations skip paper-based communication and turn to email, you will find that you spend a great deal of time reading, writing, and responding to email messages in the workplace. With email such an important part of the work that people do, learning the strategies that ensure your messages get read and accomplish their goals is crucial.
To get started on improving your email savvy, I want to share some tips on writing the subject for your email messages. If you want your email message to be read, you need a subject line. Readers expect a subject line to give them a short description of the contents in a way that piques their interest in the topic. When a subject line doesn’t, it’s possible that you won’t people will just skip on to something else in their inboxes that is interesting or has a clear purpose.
So how do you make sure you have strong subject lines? Here are ten tips (you may have noticed that I have a thing about tens):
- Be sure you have a subject line in the first place. Email without a subject grabs no one’s attention.
- Think about your audience and purpose. Your subject should summarize the key point of your purpose in a way that the audience will understand.
- Keep it short, since only the first few words are going to show up in the receiver’s inbox. Keep it to 50 characters or less.
- Put the most important words at the beginning. If your subject line does get cut off, you want to be sure the words that matter are visible. Additionally, people skimming down their inboxes look at the beginning of the subject, not the ends.
- Be specific. “Upcoming Trip” leaves the reader wondering whose trip and to where. “Your Upcoming Trip to NYC” is much clearer.
- Avoid all caps. Nobody likes all caps.
- Use emoji sparingly. If you aren’t sure that your recipient will know what the emoji means, don’t use it.
- Make the subject unique. If that subject could be added to nearly anyone’s message, try again. For instance, “A Question for You” could go on any email that asks the recipient a question. “Question About New Invoice System” tells the recipient exactly what to expect in the message.
- Think of your subject line like a headline for a news story. Make it click-worthy (but avoid misleading subjects that seem more like clickbait).
- Use title case, capitalizing every important word. Never use all lower-case, since it looks unpolished and less professional.
I’ll more tips on writing effective email messages later in the course. So stay tuned.