Evaluation of writing workshops

Mostly satisfied2

In the past two months I’ve delivered my new effective service writing workshops eight times, to a total of 148 tertiary institution professional staff.

Eighty-nine of these participants completed my online evaluation questionnaire. The response data shows

  • a fairly high average level of satisfaction with the workshops: 4.20/5 (4 being ‘satisfied’ and 5 ‘very satisfied’)
  • a fairly high level of satisfaction with me as a trainer (4.43/5)
  • a net promoter score of 35%, which is pretty good.

I’m very happy with these evaluations, given that the workshops are trying to do something quite challenging.

They use examples of participants’ own writing, and their teams’ writing, for discussion – how can we improve these? – and as a source of material for exercises in applying plain English principles.

This can be confronting, and some participants said things which suggested they were troubled by it. It’s disturbing to realise that the writing culture in one’s team has been ponderous and overly formal.

A small proportion of respondents gave the workshops lukewarm reviews. Half a dozen of the 89 gave ‘detractor’ scores in response to the net promoter score question: ‘How likely are you to recommend this workshop to other staff?’

I conclude that although the workshops are achieving their purpose, I mustn’t relax. I have to find the  best way to support participants on this particular learning journey.


The battle for university writing

The struggle for university writing2

A senior executive from an Australian university sat down beside me in a lunch-break during the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference recently. We got chatting, and I told him I was trying to help university professional staff adopt clear, simple writing as part of their service to students and other staff.

He agreed that writing in universities is generally ponderous and over-formal, but said I would have my work cut out to change this. The writing culture is deeply entrenched. Professional staff are reluctant to write simply because they think academic staff will look down on them. Everyone around them writes the same way: it’s ‘normal’.

I agree with him, but I also believe the balance is shifting in the struggle to improve university writing. The diagram above shows the influences for and against simplifying university writing.

I’ve made two of the arrows on the left bigger – the ones labelled ‘web reading habits’ and ‘student experience’. These are the new factors that, I believe, will make universities write more simply and clearly – particularly when writing to students.

  1. People who do most of their reading on the web simply won’t read ponderous, formal writing any more.
  2. Universities are striving to give students an excellent service experience so they’ll be competitive with online education providers and attractive despite ever-rising fees.

I note that Monash University recently launched ‘the Monash Tone of Voice’, which involves training staff to write to students in a more friendly, informal tone. I’m sure other universities are, or will be, making similar efforts to shift their service writing culture.

I’m looking forward to helping them with that.

Universities’ bad writing harms student wellbeing


Self at UA Conference 1_even smallerI heard three national student union presidents recently say that poor communications from universities are a problem for student wellbeing.

I was happy to hear this! – not because I want students to be harmed, but because it needs to be said.

Five presidents of the five national student unions spoke about student wellbeing to a workshop on ‘hot topics’ in higher education, following the recent Universities Australia conference.

Three of the five named harsh, confusing university communications as a problem for students who are already financially stretched, anxious and/or depressed (and high proportions of students are these).

The organisers of the workshop were kind enough to send me a couple of photographs for my blogs. The one above shows me digesting what the students told us, and determined to change it.

Universities write badly – ponderously, over-formally. University staff have only vague ideas of what plain English is. They don’t know enough about how English works to apply the ten or so plain English principles.

This is easily remedied if the university decides to change it. A few weeks later, I’ve just given three one-day workshops on effective service writing to 57 staff in a faculty at an Australian university.

By the end of each day, the participants knew how to

  • engage their readers by starting with the most persuasive ‘call to action’
  • apply plain English principles to make the communication easy to read.

We looked at examples of the faculty’s own writing. Where they were telling students about adverse consequences (if the student missed deadlines or broke rules), the language grew formal and convoluted – long words, roundabout phrasing, passive constructions.

Just at the point where they needed to write most clearly, staff wrapped a cloak of magisterial formality around their meaning. Poor students!

The workshop participants could see this problem, and they acquired the skills to resolve it.

By the end of the workshops, teams with sets of standard communications to students were planning to review these to make them engaging and clear. The faculty as a whole seems committed to simplifying its writing – at least, its writing by professional staff.

Now I’ve tested out this new training, I’m confident it can make a difference to university writing – and thus to student wellbeing.

The question is whether universities are up for improving their writing. More thoughts on this in my next post.

The two halves of effective writing

As I prepare my workshops on effective writing this year, I’ve come up with this simple graphic to express the two basic principles.

Two halves of effective writing_smaller

Effective writing:


I’m not thinking here of good literary writing. That can engage the reader more gradually or subtly, and can risk being more stylistically challenging, as its readers are typically more skilled.

No, I’m thinking of writing as service to clients or staff of an organisation.

When we’re writing for organisational purposes, each communication must engage or ‘hook’ the reader by speaking directly to their needs. The communication markets itself to the reader.

How? By starting with the point of most interest to them. What do readers need to do or be aware of? What’s the advantage to them if they do? What’s the risk to them if they don’t? That comes first.

Once the reader’s engaged – once we’ve persuaded them to use some of their precious time reading the communication – we feed them the other information in order of its importance and interest to them, to keep them reading as long as possible – we hope right to the end.

That’s one principle.

The other principle of writing as service is that we make it easy for the reader to understand.

This means applying the principles of plain English, such as:

  • use the simplest words that will convey the meaning
  • keep sentences short and relatively simple in their structure
  • avoid ponderous or over-complex ways of saying things, such as passive constructions, verbal phrases, prepositional phrases
  • and the other half a dozen plain English principles.

Writing plainly and clearly helps engage the reader and keep them engaged to the end of the communication.

So these two aspects – the two halves of effective writing – work together to ensure writing is good service.

Choose the simpler word

Administrative writing tends to use long, formal words and phrases when plainer words are available. Today I’ll examine a few of the most common of these word choices.

One is ‘commencement’, as in: ‘You must apply for credit before the commencement of your course of study.’ Less formal would be ‘start’: ‘You must apply  for credit before your course of study starts.’

There’s a habit of using the phrase ‘prior to’ instead of ‘before’. So the example above is likely to read: ‘You must apply for credit prior to the commencement of your course of study’ rather than ‘You must apply for credit before your course of study starts.’

Administrative writers tend to choose the verb ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’: ‘utilise the credit application form’ instead of  ‘use the credit application form’.

The last of these habits I’d like to point out today is the use of ‘however’ when ‘but’ would be fine: ‘however, late applications may be considered if the course structure still permits credit’ instead of ‘but late applications may be considered if the course structure still permits credit’.

Just a few of these formal word choices weigh a text down, making it ponderous and baffling. Compare the two versions below:

You must apply for credit prior to the commencement of your course of study, utilising the credit application form; however, late applications may be considered if the course structure still permits credit.

You must  apply for credit before your course of study starts, using the credit application form, but late applications may be considered if the course structure still permits credit.

Plain English – a magic wand

Here’s an example of rewriting a piece of ponderous client information to make it clear and simple. The passage is from a university web page for new international students – so the readers are likely to have English as a second language.

International students need to consider the impact of Credit Recognition on their overall course duration and requirements of their student visa. Application for Credit Recognition must be made at the point of applying for the [university name] course. [University name] will endeavour to process the application prior to issuing the Letter of Offer. If the duration of the [university name] course changes due to Credit Recognition the Letter of Offer will state the revised duration of the course. The Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) issued to the student for the purpose of obtaining a student visa will also reflect the revised duration of the course. Where sufficient information is not available to assess an application at the point of offer, credit may be approved after the offer is issued.

Let’s apply plain English principles to this passage. We’ll use the simplest words that will convey the information, keep our sentences short, replace passive constructions (‘Application … must be made’) with active constructions (‘You must apply’) and reduce the formality – use personal pronouns – so the text is engaging and warm. Here’s the result:

If you’re an international student, credit recognition may reduce the duration of your course and of your student visa. You must apply for credit recognition when you apply for your course. We’ll try to process your application before we issue your letter of offer. If credit recognition reduces the course duration, your letter of offer will state the new duration. Your confirmation of enrolment (CoE), which we’ll provide so you can get your student visa, will also show the reduced course duration. If your credit application doesn’t provide enough information for us to assess it at the point of offer, we may approve credit after the offer.

It’s quite a transformation, isn’t it? – as though we’d waved a magic wand over a statue and brought it to life. The second version is about 10% shorter, but is far easier to read and understand – particularly for readers who are struggling with English as a second language.

‘Impact’ – find another word

I was struck by Susan Keogh’s post on her site ‘apostrophes, etc.’ where she suggests that people overuse the word ‘impact’ because they’re unsure of the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’.

Often ‘impact’ is used as a verb where ‘affect’ would be better, or as a noun where ‘effect’ would be better.

For example, the sentence ‘The loss of functionality impacted client service’ would read better as ‘The loss of functionality affected client service.’ Better still would be ‘The loss of functionality impaired client service.’

Or as a noun, ‘the harm to client service’ communicates more than ‘the impact on client service’.

There’s almost always a more precise word than ‘impact’; it’s just that organisations currently have a strong habit of using ‘impact’. It’s a dramatic word: something strikes something else violently. Think of phrases like ‘impact wound’, ‘impact crater’, ‘at the moment of impact’.

‘Impact’ has a marketing resonance too: ‘Use cinema advertising for maximum impact.’

Universities, in particular, yearn to be able to persuade the government and business that their research ‘has impact’. I even heard a senior executive group propose, as a keyword for a strategic plan, ‘impactful’ (groan!).

This suggests why ‘impact’ is one of a  group of overused words that plague writing in universities and other organisations, blurring meaning and hampering communication.

Next time you find yourself writing ‘impact’, stop and think whether another word would be better, more precise.