Many of us of a certain age received our “educational enrichment” by catching episodes of “Schoolhouse Rock” between our favorite 1970’s Saturday morning cartoons.”Conjunction Junction” was always one of my favorites.
“Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?
Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.
Conjunction Junction, how’s that function?
I got three favorite cars
That get most of my job done.
Conjunction Junction, what’s their function?
I got “and”, “but”, and “or”,
They’ll get you pretty far.”
In fact, “and”, “but” and “or” WILL get you pretty far. However, in the workplace, I think people often feel compelled to use “smart-sounding” words and phrases like “insofar as”, “not withstanding” and “heretofore.” When I see these particular “cars” inserted into rambling sentences I feel like I am watching a runaway train about to go off the tracks.
I see it all the time. Coworkers are charged with writing memos or reports to communicate a message, usually to a member of the senior management team. The message is often a recommendation that requires a bit of “selling” on the part of the writer. To try to sound credible, or diplomatic, writers embed their points in run-on sentences that would make the verbose writings of Charles Dickens read like “Dick and Jane“.
When reviewing some of my coworkers’ memos, I have to discern the meaning of sentences like, “The prior facts not withstanding, it is our opinion that but for the heavy reliance on management’s technical expertise, said process could not be regularly performed in a manner consistent with divisional policy and in a manner which would be considered acceptable by company standards.” Phew!
Translation: Management should conduct more frequent training sessions for staff.
I have a couple of theories regarding the evolution of this magniloquent form of business writing. I think some employees lack confidence in their message, thinking perhaps that if they bury their recommendation in paragraphs that make your eyes blur, no one will really hear it or critique it. Perhaps in some college history or business course long ago, the writer was forced to digest some long-winded academic papers designed to put the reader to sleep. By osmosis, I suppose, a writer might come to believe that long, drawn-out, complex sentences with innumerable clauses, joined by compound coordinating and subordinate conjunctions, are signs of intelligent writing. Everyone wants to look smart for the boss, right? So it makes sense that inter-office memos have become monuments to verbosity.
My advice to those of us who have to write the occasional memo, brief or report for work: KISS – Keep it Short and Simple! Your boss probably has reams of memos that arrive in his or her inbox everyday. Make your memo the easiest one to read. The easy-to-read, concise memo will be the one that gets attention, gets remembered, and gets a prompt response.
- Avoid commas. Ask yourself, am I looking at two independent clauses, two sentences? If so, then keep them that way, and separate them with a period. Two short sentences are infinitely easier to read than two sentences joined by a comma and “and”.
- Read each sentence OUT LOUD. If you are reading a sentence and have to take a breath before you reach the period, it’s too long.
- Talk to your reader. Ask yourself, if my reader were sitting across from me right now, would I use the term “not withstanding”? Probably, not. So, try not to use it in your writing.
- Pay attention to readability statistics. If you are using Microsoft Word to draft your memos, please, please, take advantage of the built in spelling and grammar tool, with “Readability Statistics” turned on. These statistics will tell you how easy it is to read your memo, and the grade-level of your writing. There is a direct correlation between the two. The lower the grade level, the more readable it is. If your prose sits above a Grade 12, consider shortening some of those sentences you think are masterpieces. (This post is about a Grade 8.5.)
- Choose the right word. We sometimes struggle to choose the right adjective and are afraid that the reader will misinterpret our message. To combat this, we try to cover our bases by stringing together several somewhat similar adjectives. Rather than achieving the intended effect, clarity, all of these words tend to muddle the message. An extra couple of minutes with your thesaurus will pay tremendous dividends.
Follow these tips, and you will sharpen your message and develop a confident voice for your recommendations. Most importantly, your sentences will nimbly navigate the signals at Conjunction Junction.
Good luck and happy writing!