Category Archives: Corporate Writing Style

Find and replace stilted words with plain language

Plain language helps everyone understand your message, and it keeps it from sounding like 1970’s stilted business-speak, which does nothing to invite readers in. There are some quick tricks to transform your business writing into a more conversational tone.

Here are some words or phrases to look for and replace in business communications. What others can you think of?

Prior to  = before

Utilize = use

Via = through or by

In the amount of = for

In order to = to

Expedite = speed up


Here are more ideas:

You can easily find and replace these words and phrases in Microsoft Word:

On the “home” tab, look above “editing”, then click on “find”:

A dialogue box will appear:

Type in the word you wish to find:

Then, click the “replace” tab within the dialogue box. Type the word you wish to replace.

You can choose to replace the found word throughout the whole document by clicking “replace all”, or specific places throughout the document by clicking “find next”. For small words, change them one at a time in case the smaller word is part of a larger word. You wouldn’t want to change Silvia to Silby.

Or, you can also add a highlight as part of your change so you can do a clean sweep, but still easily locate and check them.

Click the “More” button on the Find and Replace Window. Place your curser in the Replace box (or fill in your replacement word and make sure the curser is still in that box). Then click the Format button at the bottom of the window, and select Highlight. Your replacement word will include the highlight.






Edit the fine print

Fine print is everywhere and in every form. We tend to ignore it and yet, it’s some of the most important content in the document. Unfortunately, it’s usually lawyers who write it. When a lawyer hands over the copy, most writers take it and run, believing it to be completely and totally untouchable.

I don’t think they teach readability in law school. Lawyers tend to write in passive voice. They use the company name in the third person. They add so many extra words and redundancies just to drive the point home in a court of law.

Of course, the reader then needs to hire his own lawyer to make sense of the content. How fair is that? So here’s my two cents on writing (or editing) fine print.

There are two sources of fine print:

  • Disclosures are copy that regulators make companies include to protect the consumer.[Disclose = Reveal]
  • Disclaimers are what the company’s lawyers add to protect the company. [Disclaim = to give up claim to; deny]

Examples of disclosures:

  • The true identity of the company – We are XYZ Company (you know… the same company that was in that big class action lawsuit last year; we just renamed the company to fool you.)
  • The contents of the package – This product contains poison.
  • Information to prevent confusion – This razor sharp knife is not a toy.
  • Warnings to prevent harm – The use of this product may cause your immediate death.

Examples of disclaimers:

  • Warranties for defects – If this computer doesn’t work right during the first 30 days, we’ll take it back. After that, you’re on your own.
  • Responsibility for damage – If your kid drop kicks this computer or bounces it around the yard like a basketball, don’t come crying to us.

Okay, so I took a few liberties for impact. Of course you want to just state the warning simply and clearly.

Disclosures and disclaimers can add up. I’ve seen beautiful brochures do a fine job of selling a product. And then the reader does a complete 180 when he sees the mess of fine print on the back. It’s scary and it negates all the work done by the clever marketing writer.

But, fine print doesn’t have to be sales prevention. You can edit. Just make sure the client’s lawyer approves your changes.

Insert in body copy where appropriate
Try massaging the kernel of the disclaimer right into the body copy. It will show the reader you’re being honest right up front. For example:

Body Copy: When you enroll in [this insurance plan], you also get access to discounted rates for products from [vendor name].

Fine print added on back cover to support that copy: Discounts provide access to discounted services and are NOT part of an insurance plan or policy. Participants are responsible for the full cost of the discounted product and [company] shall in no event be liable for any payment to a provider accessed under the program.

Body Copy only: As an [insurance plan] member, you can get discounted rates on certain products that the plan doesn’t cover. These discounts are not insurance. That means you won’t need to file a claim and there is nothing for us to reimburse. Just visit [vendor name] and pay the full discounted price right at the register at the time of purchase.

Make it easy to understand
If you must keep something as fine print, write it using the same voice and tone that you used to write the body copy. If the body copy is at a seventh-grade reading level, your fine print should be too. Why should one be easy to understand and the other impossible? Fine print should protect consumers, not endanger them. If the buyer can’t understand the warning, then why bother? If YOU don’t understand the message, ask a lawyer to explain it.

Push back! If it’s a disclosure, it is included because of a regulation. Compliance officers tend to hand over disclosure language exactly as it reads in a regulation. But the truth is, most regulations allow for wordsmithing as long as the meaning is “of similar import.” Challenge the lawyer or compliance specialist to show you the actual legislative text that says, “Thou shalt use these exact words.” Lawyers understand the concept of evidence, so this usually does the trick.

As for disclaimer language, they may have written the copy. But more likely, they probably copied it from another similar document. Here, you may have to convince them that it’s better for the reader if you simplify the statement. In the wake of the 2010 plain language laws, I have found lawyers to be more accepting in this regard.

Here’s my own disclaimer: I’m a corporate editor, not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. It’s my opinion. Never make changes without getting your own, or the client’s, lawyer’s approval.

An FAQ on FAQs

The evolution of FAQs

Q. What is an FAQ?
A. An FAQ is a dumping ground for random information, forced into a set of questions and answers because the writer lacked the creativity to put the content into a more useful format — like a flyer or article (or in some cases, a glossary). The result is a list of questions that have never been asked even once, let alone frequently. FAQs usually begin with the question, “What is…?” It’s a pointless question that should already be answered in the primary marketing flyer, dictionary or glossary.

3d frequently asked questions with blank books

Q. Where did FAQs come from?
A. Once upon a time, companies got smart and decided to organize incoming phone calls in a way that handled of 80% of the work with 20% of the effort. These companies developed a sorting program to handle the most frequent callers for them. Instead of callers reaching an operator, who screened the questions and connected callers to the appropriate business department, callers would instead get: Press 1 for this department, Press 2 for that department, and so on. Only “all other calls” were sent to the operator for sorting.

FAQs on websites were a similar response to such technology — handling 80% of the questions with 20% of the effort. Websites included Frequently Asked Questions to help site visitors find their answers. Then, they discovered better navigation. But, by that time, it was too late. FAQs had become a habit.

My opinion of FAQs

Q. What is your opinion of FAQs?
A. My opinion? I’m glad you asked (so frequently). I believe FAQs are a highly over-rated and sorely abused format of providing useful (and often not-so-useful) information to an assumed audience. Show me an FAQ and I’ll show you a lazy writer (except this one, which was done facetiously).

Q. Why are FAQs the sign of a lazy writer?
A. As a corporate editor, I have seen hundreds of FAQs, if not thousands. Almost every time, I am able to take the random topics and organize a more informative — and better organized —flyer out of the content. It only takes a little bit more effort to construct a flyer than an FAQ. I think anyone who deliberately writes an FAQ isn’t aiming high enough for quality or craftsmanship.

Public demand for FAQs

Q. What if my client demands an FAQ?
A. This has happened to me, too, so I do understand. As a writer, we can’t always be short-order cooks. Sometimes we need to be nutritionists. Show your client a better way. Effective organization and good use of headers and subheads in a flyer or brochure will take care of it. In many cases, the brochures and flyers are already done. Just show your client that all the same information is on the flyer so you don’t need the FAQ. If it’s not already in a flyer or brochure, then show them how it can be.

If your client still insists on an FAQ, and you really don’t want to refuse the job, then make it a useful FAQ. (See below.)

Q. Why do website templates have FAQ pages built right into them?
A. Web developers merely think FAQs are important because no one has told them otherwise. They are responding to old habits. Yes, it’s possible they are also responding to the number of hits that FAQ pages get, but hits to a page do not tell you WHY a site visitor went there. Perhaps they couldn’t find what they wanted in a more obvious place. Just because a developer built an FAQ page in a website doesn’t make it correct. Think about the all the correctly spelled words that Microsoft underlines with a red squiggle (cowriter, for one). That doesn’t mean it is spelled wrong. It just means that no one has informed the technical geeks at Microsoft that the word does not need a hyphen.

If you have a well-organized and informative website, you shouldn’t need an FAQ page. If you DO have an FAQ page, it could be a sign you need to clean up the other parts of your website.

Useful FAQs vs. Poor FAQs

Q. What is a useful FAQ?
A. (If I must…) A useful FAQ is one that contains five to eight questions. A useful FAQ groups the questions into categories and separates them with a subhead so readers can scan and more easily find the information they need. A useful FAQ limits the question to a single line and puts the keyword of the question near the beginning so the reader can decipher the topic fast.

Q. What is a poor FAQ
A poor FAQ has long-winded questions, no organization, no grouping and includes too many questions.

A poor FAQ includes questions that have actually been asked — frequently. If customers really do have so many questions about a particular topic, wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem that’s causing the questions rather than to post it as an FAQ? In this case, it might not be the writer who’s lazy. It could be the product engineer. FAQs of that type are an alert to me that the product may be troublesome or confusing since it prompts so many questions. Consider the kernel of the question and think about how to get fewer people to ask it.


Strategy for headlines and subheads

Even though they make up a small percent of your overall copy, headlines and subheads are the most important real estate on the page. Get them right and you’ve won 75% of the writing game.

That’s because most readers merely scan the big copy first before deciding if they want to read on or skip the communication. If the few pieces of big copy don’t draw readers in, then there’s no chance they’ll read the little copy. You only get about one second to grab a reader’s attention and draw him in before he tosses the communication aside.

BLOT it! That means put your Bottom Line On Top.
If your readers only remember (or notice) one thing as a result of your communication, what should it be? That one point should be the first thing they read. It should be the largest copy on the document.

The largest copy is your headline. In an email, that’s your subject line. Give them the bottom line right in this top line.

For example, don’t start your customer letter off with, “Important Information about your account.” It’s not meaningful and does nothing to lure the reader in. Everything says “Important” these days. Your reader might roll his eyes, assume it’s another privacy disclosure, and toss it in the recycle bin — unopened.
Instead, tell him what’s so important. “Your payment is past due.”

“We’ve changed our payment terms.” Or “Here’s your new appointment date.”

Answer the reader’s question, “What’s In It For Me?”
This is especially important for sales and marketing pieces. We call them “WIIFM” statements. To craft a good WIIFM statement, you need to understand what motivates your audience. Remember, he’s asking, “What’s in it for ME?” not “What’s in it for YOU?”

Let’s say your client’s company is launching a new drill and they hire you to craft an ad. Your reader probably didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “I don’t have a drill. I think I’ll go buy one.” No, his wife has been nagging him to fix something and he needs a drill to do so. He doesn’t want to spend his weekend on this project. His friends are coming over and he wants to get ready for the big game.

He opens the paper and sees your headline about a fantastic new drill that comes in five amazing speeds and eight gorgeous colors. Then he turns the page and sees a competitor’s headline that says, “Precision Drills — Finish the job in half the time.” Bingo! Guess which drill he’s going to buy. HIS bottom line must be YOUR top line.

Summarize each new thought into subheads.
Remember, readers will skim the document. That means they’re reading the headers and subheads, but not necessarily the copy under it. Every time you add a new thought or concept, insert a new subhead to summarize what’s under it. Don’t worry if you have too many. Each new concept deserves a subhead.

I draft the document first before I attempt to write headlines and subheads. The process of drafting the subheads (or mini summaries) helps me to edit the overall document. I can now see how to improve the flow of content, and where I’ve inserted too much information or gone off on an unnecessary tangent.

Construct your subheads like this:

  • Use as few words as possible.
  • Put the most important (key) words as close to the front as possible.
  • Make them read like complete sentences.
  • Begin with a verb if you want the reader to perform an action.

Here’s a quick trick that I discovered after years of editing what other people wrote. The first sentence of the paragraph often makes a great subhead. Writers tend to say what they’re about to say anyway. Just pull it out, edit as needed and bold it. Do NOT repeat it in the body copy.

Make subheads flow like a complete story.
Your subheads need to serve two purposes:

  1. They should summarize the bottom line of that particular paragraph.
  2. They must work together to summarize the document as a whole.

If you delete all the “details” and leave only your subheads, they should flow as one continuous story or list of bullet points because that’s how most people will read them.