Words at Work

Kathy McIntosh: The words you choose won’t work if they lack purpose

Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.January 15, 2014 

When we speak or write in a structured, orderly, purposeful way, our words are more likely to be effective. Eighteenth-century statesman Edmund Burke said, “Good order is the foundation of all things.” As an aside, Burke also said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

That means knowing where you intend to end up and creating and following some sort of plan to get you there.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where —”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

— Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”

That interchange between Alice and the Cheshire cat has been paraphrased as, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Using words, we can:

• Inform.

• Explain.

• Educate.

• Persuade.

• Justify.

• Entertain.

Words can help us achieve some or all of these purposes, but they work best if we know those objectives before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Knowing our objective is like having a blueprint or a map. The more complicated the communication, and the longer it must last, the more important having a blueprint is. However, even the briefest of communications benefits from knowing where you’re headed.

From text messages, voice mails and emails to elaborate business or marketing plans, documents will be weaker if they wander or lack focus. To quote again from Carroll, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” Stick to one topic or at most two in texts and emails. Don’t meander down a rabbit hole. (As I did with the second Burke quote in the first paragraph!) Share your purpose with your readers. If you want something, ask for it. Subtle hints can be ignored easily.

With more elaborate, longer documents, it is essential that you know your objective. Write it down at the top of the page: “I want the people who read this business plan to understand my idea and scramble to offer me investment money.” “Readers must be able, upon finishing this guide, to use this tool to open a corked bottle of wine.” Look back at your objective as you write to be sure you’re staying on the right trail. When you finish your document, either delete the objective or just leave it in, if you think it will help your reader.

Today’s readers are in a hurry. Be concise and considerate. Keep your language simple and suited to your audience. Use bullet points. If the points are clear, there’s no need to elaborate each one. Use parallel structure.

If you start your list with a verb, continue with verbs. To understand why, consider this sentence: “I wrote this book to: 1) make people laugh; 2) bemoan the donkey’s plight; 3) simple saddling instructions.” By switching the last bullet to a modified noun, I lost parallel structure. Use a verb: “3) teach the proper way to saddle a donkey.”

Whether your communication is short or long, include a brief summary at the end, restating what you want the document to do. Include action items; if necessary, specify who will be responsible for each action.

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kathy@awellplacedword.com

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