During the Great Depression, the initials CCC symbolized a nation’s hope for renewal. The three million unemployed men who signed up with the Civilian Conservation Corps created parks, built roads and bridges and dams, and made it simpler for people to get around the United States than at any time before.
My post this month deals with another CCC. This one is not an organization, has no official status, provides no employment. It does share something with FDR’s agency besides its initials, however: both do or did exist to provide improvement
Business writers who adopt the Three Cs policy — “C
orrect” — will find that their readers not only better understand their creations, but take the time to read them all the way through.
Written language is one of the human race’s most efficient communication tools. However, when it is used incorrectly, the person on the receiving end may be startled or confused or even begin to doubt the writer’s overall expertise. My advice is to not let this intimidate you. Write exactly what you need to write. But once you’ve finished your first draft, go back over it sentence by sentence with the Three Cs in mind.
Review your draft from a reader’s perspective. Would someone who knows nothing about your topic understand it the way you’ve described it? Is any information missing? Have you used plain English, or must your reader wade through a slough of roundabout language, jargon, or legalese? If you’ve used a potentially unfamiliar term, have you put it in a context that helps the reader to decipher it? (Consider, for example, “slough” two sentences back. Whether you knew the word already or not, preceding it with “wade through” and following it with a list of potential difficulties made it clear that it has something to do with marshy ground.)
Today’s readers can spare only so much time with your work. Keep your sentences lean and efficient, and once you’ve said what you need to say about a subject, move on.
- When read aloud, is your prose more similar to a magazine excerpt or a Congressional ruling? That is, have you taken three or four sentences to make a point that could just as easily have been handled in one?
- Trimming and turning certain phrases is a quick way to make text concise. In the previous bulleted statement, I originally wrote “an excerpt from a magazine.” The edited version says the same thing and makes the sentence smoother.
- Similarly, most sentences beginning “There are” or “There is” become more readable when those words are edited out.
- Unnecessary adverbs and adjectives take up valuable space. Adverbs are used mainly to set off verbs to show how something is done, e.g. “rapidly” or “casually.” Adjectives describe nouns or other adjectives, e.g. “tall,” “automatic,” “bright blue.” (Some terms, such as “very” or “more,” can be both adjectives and adverbs. These are prime candidates for deletion.)
- Check adjacent sentences for repeated language and remove or change one instance where you can.
Before you hit “publish” on that Website update or print 5,000 copies of your new booklet, check the text for accuracy. You may know everything there is to know about your subject, but have you used the proper language to describe it?
- Spell-Check, while a handy tool, doesn’t catch errors that are also words. If you’re not talented at spotting misspellings, ask a friend or coworker to look over your copy. Then you won’t duplicate certain typos I’ve clipped from published works, ones describing a “boarder terrier,” a fire’s “undermined source,” or my favorite, the “1,300-pound bull mouse.”
- Make sure your nouns/pronouns and verbs match. A character in a popular comic strip recently predicted, “You, the baby and me will make out okay.” You will make out okay, check. The baby will make out okay, check. Me will make out… um, wait. Perhaps that should have been “I.”
- Watch for missing or misused punctuation that could change the meaning of your text. The classic example is the (perhaps fictitious) book dedication thanking “my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
- Choose your words carefully. An ad in my collection describes some nursing home residents as “centurions” rather than “centenarians.” (They’re old, but surely not that old.) Another clipping states, “Auction of relics upsets ancestors, historians.” The writer meant “descendants.” When in doubt, look it up.
- Use “that” and “which” when referring to things and “who” when speaking of people.
- Certain language is permissible in casual speech but has no place in descriptive prose. “Snuck,” for example, is not the past tense of “sneak”: “sneaked” is. The latest diet product doesn’t have “less” calories than Brand X: that would only be correct if you could pour out the calories to measure them. It has “fewer.” That speaker didn’t say “would of”: it was “would’ve,” the short form of “would have.”
- While you’re looking over your document’s language, remember to also check for accuracy in the content. I’ve clipped any number of published examples: everything from a pair of plastic surgery photos that are each labeled “Before” to a directory listing the American Bar Association under the heading “Beverages and Bottling.” If you have the slightest doubt about any fact you plan to publish, ask an expert or check a reputable reference work. That does not mean Wikipedia.
So keep in mind: “Clear, Concise, Correct.” C.C.C. is easy to remember and the system itself becomes second nature once you make it a habit to review your text. If you’re uncertain about your facility with the Three Cs, consider engaging a professional editor and proofreader to apply them for you and explain each change. This remarkably quick and inexpensive solution will not only ease your mind about the current project, but arm you with helpful information to use every time you write.
Watch this blog for further insights into business communications and the ins and outs of the English language. For information about promotions, website design, and other services that will help your business to advance, visit the Palicor website.
To learn more about the Civilian Conservation Corps, watch the 2009 American Experience documentary on Youtube.