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Consistent terminology

Do you know what a closed question is?

I’m sure I didn’t learn about open and closed questions until much later, but my children have been learning this in primary school. This is a good thing as it can help them communicate socially as well as within their school work.

Closed questions – elicits a simple response such as “do you like blue or green?” where a one word response answers the question.

Open (or open ended) questions – give scope for more detailed and complex responses such as “why is blue your favourite colour?” or “what do you like about that book?” which require longer answers and can lead to a discussion.

Have you ever heard questions referred to as thin and thick questions instead of open and closed?

The first time I knew of the thin/thick nomenclature was when I viewed some work my daughter had done at school. I know enough about open and closed questions to figure out what was meant by thin and thick so I could interpret the schoolwork very quickly. And I assumed the children had been taught thin/thick instead of open/closed.

Then I read the schoolwork in more detail.

Schoolwork with different terms in use = confusing!

The instructions swap between thick/thin and open/closed questions without any explanation that they are the same concept (and not even in the same order which makes it even harder to correlate the paris of words). Given that this activity is obviously aimed at teaching children about open/closed questions, surely it would be better to use the same terminology for the one activity.

It’s one thing for me as a professional writer to read these instructions and follow them easily, but something else entirely for a seven year old who is grappling with what these terms mean and how to find examples of each type!

And my daughter said they had been taught about open/closed questions – she figured it out (and I think she did a good job devising relevant questions in the activity) but I’m sure many of her classmates would have struggled if they were left to do this activity just by reading the instructions.

The lesson?

Stay consistent!

If you start using one term (or set of terms) when writing, then continue using that term throughout.

Even if you explain there are alternatives, stick to one term in your content. For instance, if you are writing about saving money, you may write something like

Contributing to your savings can be done more or less frequently. Contributions, also known as deposits or account credits, will attract interest and thus increase your savings over time. When deciding how much to contribute, you may consider your income, expenses and lifestyle choices.

You may not be writing for children, and your audience may easily figure out your message, but why make it harder to read than necessary? Why risk them not understanding and/or disengaging in your content?

Being consistent makes your writing easier to read and understand, looks more professional and will probably help search engines recognise a keyword in your online writing.

Consistent pronouns

Mixing pronouns is a little like mixing drinks – both can lead to a fuzzy head!

Pronouns

Common pronouns such as we, us, they, he, she and our

Some common pronouns that make writing (and reading) English much easier.

Just as a reminder, a pronoun is a word that is used in place of a noun. So ‘he’ replace’ John’ and ‘her’ replaces ‘Suzie’s’, and so on.

Pronouns are useful for

  • making writing shorter and clearer (it takes less to write ‘they’ than ‘John, Mary, Chuan and Connor’ for example)
  • avoiding repetition of the noun (compare ‘Joe rode Joe’s bike until Joe felt too tired’ and ‘Joe rode his bike until he felt too tired’)
  • provide emphasis towards one noun (such as ‘The teacher herself missed the error in that question’). Mind you, this is a somewhat old fashioned way to write and I don’t recommend its use in business writing.

There are different pronouns depending on gender and whether the noun is plural or singular.

Use pronouns consistently

When using pronouns, make sure you maintain the same or matching pronoun throughout a sentence and paragraph.

I recently read

For more details about {our product}, contact us on 1234 5678 or visit their website.

The writer swaps from being part of the company (by using ‘us’) to being external to the company (by using ‘their’). Which is jarring and somewhat confusing.

If in doubt about which pronoun to use, swap in the correct noun and make sure the sentence makes sense.

Or make a conscious choice about the type of pronoun (such as if your business uses me or we, us or it), put it into your style guide and stick to it.

Do you have any trouble with pronouns? Have you ever checked the pronoun use on your website is consistent?

Content and message must match

Whatever your message is, your content must be consistent as well.

One of my favourite writing tasks is helping Santa write letters each Christmas at Love Santa. They are fun, positive letters and I know that each one will bring smiles and extend the Christmas joy.

Of course, sometimes people feel that they get too old for Santa and question their belief in him and the magic of Christmas.

Writing letters to Santa

Like many others, Love Santa has some information available to help people (parents in particular) to encourage people to keep their belief in Santa. The information is written with care to give tips on encouraging belief but also be read by those in doubt without any additional cause to doubt (and yes, this blog post is also being carefully written!)

Others are not so careful. I just read an article with ‘easy ways to keep your child believing in Santa’ that spends the first few paragraphs destroying any beliefs before giving the five tips. Any doubting child reading it would no longer be influenced by those useful tips so the purpose would be lost – and don’t assume kids don’t read articles aimed for parents!

This makes a clear example of how the presentation of information through choice of words, headings and images can support or contradict the intent and content of the writing. Sure it is harder to write so that the entire message is consistent and acceptable for all potential readers, but it will serve the purpose much better and will be appreciated by those looking for the information.

What examples have you seen of a message not supporting itself? Or maybe you have a Santa story to share (although personal stories are best shared at Love Santa’s blog!)?

Newsletter subject lines

The subject line of an email is an important factor in getting it read, and that is no less important for an enewsletter.

Personally, I think it is useful to start the subject the same way for every edition of your newsletter. I suggest using the name of your business or newsletter as the subject

You can add a date or specific subject as well, but a consistent start is helpful because:

  • it is easy to identify as your newsletter whereas varied subjects may get deleted by even your keenest readers
  • it is easy for people to collate different editions in their inbox if they have the same subject
  • it helps build your brand – just a glance at the subject reminds people of you without them reading it

Thinking of enewsletters you receive, do you prefer ones with a consistent subject line?

Numbered lists

I was recently asked about numbered lists so here is some information about them for everyone else, too!

Using a list can be a better way to present information than just using straight text all the time – it can simplify things for the reader, it is generally much easier as a quick reference and it can make the document more visually interesting than a page of text alone.

Adding numbers to a list (and although I use the word number, a numbered list may use roman numerals or letters instead of Arabic numbers) is usually reserved for when the order of the list is important or when reference to specific points is likely.

Clarity and consistency are the two keys to making a useful list. If the items in a list have further divisions, make sure those divisions are clear – or make multiple lists. Lists with divisions are generally referred to as outline lists, such as the following:

  1. prepare a draft
  2. edit the draft
    1. check spelling
    2. check grammar
    3. ensure everything makes sense
  3. get someone else to review the draft
  4. edit the draft
  5. finalise the draft
    1. add formatting
    2. check page breaks and similar details
    3. send to print

The sub divisions in this list are clear to the eye but would be much clearer overall if they used a different numbering system (for example, ‘add formatting’ would be a or i and ‘send to print’ would be c or iii.)

If there is only one item, it technically isn’t a list so a number isn’t required. A single item can either be incorporated into sentence form or just be listed with a bullet or em-dash. Adding a number to a single item is likely to confuse people as they look for subsequent points that don’t exist.

Keeping numbering clear and consistent is also critical for speakers, not just writers. I have attended a number of presentations where they start with clear points (E.g. “here are five ways to get website traffic. Number one is…”) but get sidetracked or forget the numbering and my notes are confused and/or disjointed as a result.

Do you have any further questions about numbered lists I might be able to help with?

Use your words, and numbers, wisely!