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‘We always write it like that.’ But why?
Author : Rob Ashton
Posted : 05 / 04 / 16
Sometimes we can’t remember why we do things a certain way. This is certainly the case with company reports and other documents. It may not always be the best way – far from it – but that’s the way they’re written and that’s that.
‘We must always start with two pages of background,’ explains a manager to a colleague who’s about to write her first monthly sales report. ‘Don’t write it like that,’ advises a technical manager. ‘It doesn’t sound right.’
I don’t believe in change where none is needed. But it’s scary how often we stick religiously to doing things a particular way, even though that way is far from optimal. In fact, we often stick to these methods even when no-one can remember why.
Longer ago than I care to remember, when I was production editor of a woodworking magazine (yes, really), our design manager gave me a piece of advice on photographing clocks. We’d commissioned five timepieces and were featuring them in a lavish centre spread – or as close to that as you could get in a publication like ours. ‘Always set the time to ten past ten or ten to two,’ he said. ‘That way, they’ll look like they’re smiling.’
Believe it or not, that’s standard advice for clock photography. If you’re sceptical, do a Google image search for ‘clocks’ and see how many of them are set to that time.
It makes sense. Anything that sends some positive cheer, even subliminally, is a good thing. After all, every little helps, as an old clockmaker almost certainly never said.
But a couple of years ago, I was glancing through the Argos catalogue and came across the section on digital clocks. And yes, you’ve guessed it, every single one of them was set to 10:10.
Now, either the photographer was sharing an in-joke with old-school picture editors, or someone had followed the traditional advice and forgotten to ask the crucial question: ‘Why do we do it that way?’
So, think again about why you write things a particular way in your team and ask yourself if there might be a better way.
What would happen if you put the main messages of your report up front and put the background second? Would that be more useful for those who read it? How about shortening the executive summary from three pages (which isn’t much of a summary at all) to three paragraphs?
How about replacing ‘initiate’ with ‘start’ or ‘utilise’ with ‘use’? What’s the worst that could happen? Would you really incur the wrath of the entire board of directors, leaving you to dive for cover under your desk and stay there with your offending laptop, emerging only after the scandal of ‘wordgate’ had safely faded in your colleagues’ collective memory? Or would the recipients breathe a sigh of relief, read and understand what you’ve written straight away (without needing to fortify themselves with a stiff double espresso), and – gasp – act on it?
Even if you’re not quite ready to leave your old writing habits behind, at least pause for a moment to question why you do things that way.
The answer might put a smile on your face.
Image credit: KSM photography / Shutterstock
Rob is a former scientist who set up Emphasis in 1998 after a career in magazine and journal editing. He designed the document analysis that underpins all our courses and believes training should always be based on evidence, not pseudoscience or wishful thinking. His writing has been featured in the Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as specialist publications including Accountancy Age, Training Journal and Nursing Standard. He's also a member of the Association of British Science Writers.
He's currently working on a new book about the science of the words we write and the effects they have on all of us.
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