• Ian

Sloppy Writing Distracts Your Reader

Writers that use plain language love their readers and don't want them to suffer from unnecessary confusion and distraction. To prevent pain and suffering, an effective writer adheres to plain language to ensure that readers can easily understand the writer's words, especially if the words form a quick-hit, fast-paced news story. So if you are a reporter, neglecting plain language can force readers to become distracted from the story that you are trying to tell and ultimately force them to disengage, reducing your story's effectiveness. So why not learn to use plain language and how to buttress your story's effectiveness with maximum impact on your readers—and subscribers?


How to distract your readers: an example


Readers want to engage with a story, not become distracted from the story because of grammatical miscues. Grammatical miscues, while perhaps not strictly a plain-language issue, can sabotage a writer's skillful writing by preventing readers from effortlessly gliding through a story. For example, in a Sunday edition Star Tribune story on MnROAD (7/11/2021), the writer made several miscues that distracted me from her article, a informative and enjoyable piece on how the Minnesota Department of Transportation operates one of the country's top pavement-research facilities. But because of these miscues, I struggled to work through the story and retain its informative pieces.


Example 1: "variables like . . . are difficult to recreate in lab environments."


Lately, I have been seeing writers use recreate as a single word to incorrectly express their intended meaning. Curing this miscue is simple: writers should focus on one of plain language's main goals: clarity, not confusion. If one reader could be confused, try hard to prevent the confusion.


Recreate, as an intransitive verb, means to have fun and play games, to go Up North in Minnesota summers (see a usage example on B16 of the same paper section). And recreate is distinct from re-create, which means to create again. In this example, the writer should have used re-create in the sense that the department uses MnROAD to re-create real-life variables.


The hyphen prevents a misreading and distinguishes between two different words and meanings, but I may be on the losing end of this distinction. Because as Bryan Garner in his Garner's Modern English Usage notes, "recreate is much more common than re-create—and the tendency to delete the hyphen after a prefix is so strong in American English—that recreate is . . . taking over the meaning of re-create." Yet he goes on to note that "careful editors continue to make the distinction." As one careful editor (see also the Chicago Manual of Style on prefixes) that prefers clarity and preventing reader miscues, I will continue to support carefully choosing when to place a hyphen in closely related words. Why risk distracting readers when it is so easily avoidable?


Example 2: "But they also analyze pavement temperature, moisture, and the strain of passing vehicles using the underground sensors."


The passing vehicles are not using the underground sensors. They, the researchers, are using the underground sensors. This miscue is known as a misplaced modifier, which commonly distracts readers and makes it difficult for them to process the miscued information. Here, move the modifier closer to the subject:


"But using the underground sensors, the engineers can analyze . . ."


Here is another one: "The test road is divided into segments that contain a unique sandwich of gravel, asphalt, concrete or other materials—which can be viewed online."


This sentence starts out well but ends with a whimper. A bigger problem is that which modifies other materials. Or does it modify the unique sandwich? I would think that it modifies the test road, because that is what would be fun for readers to see online (see for yourself). I again would have moved up the modifying clause to earlier in the sentence:


"The test road—which can be viewed online—is divided into . . ."


Example 3: useless modifiers or clutter:

  • "There are actually three sections." Actually is useless filler; it serves no purpose, unless you are pompously correcting someone.

  • "Worel noted the process of building roads. . . ." Try "Worel noted that (or how) building roads . . ."

Two problems here: the process of can usually be removed, and the original sentence reveals a common problem writers have with using that. The sentence indicates that Worel noted the process, but the absence of that makes the sentence a bit off and kills the flow. Better to not slow down the reader and to try and use a more natural connector, such as that.

  • National Road Research Alliance (NRRA): why abbreviate when the term is only used once?

There may have been other examples, but I was too hung up on these to notice. The upshot is to not get sloppy and to assiduously adhere to helping your readers understand your writing, for both their benefit and for maximum impact.

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