If you aren't squeamish and can take a little criticism (after all, it's just between you and us), then we'll give you tips to make your writing better and ultimately save your firm major moolah when it's time to translate.
How much moolah? A client asked us to quote on a project going into several languages. The English original was, well, not so good. We gently broached this with the client. The client understood. We explained that with some judicious editing, the original text could be polished enough to localize the project, pay for the editing, and be cheaper than just translating the native text (and of course, the company would have a much improved original).
Translation estimates are based on two things: word count and text complexity.
Here's the equation:
Many words = needlessly expensive
Fewer words = much more affordable
This does not mean you have to write for a nine-year-old. It means you must keep your syntax in tip-top condition. A flabby sentence cannot stand (nor be easily understood)!
Along with the examples given below, you'll find further examples of bad writing in our Humor page.
Some examples of what can be saved by fixing poor writing
British Department of Health and Social Security saved over $2 million in staff time for one year by introducing plain English application forms and legal aid (cost $34,500).
British Department of Defence saved over $500,000 dollars a year in staff time by rewriting a claim form used by civilians for traveling expenses (cost, $16,500).
Citibank reduced the time spent training its staff by 50 percent after revising its forms so both staff and customers could understand them.
US Federal Communications Commission reassigned 5 staff members to other duties because when the regulations for citizen-band radios was rewritten, public questions about the regulations virtually evaporated.
I'm afraid we have to operate
Imagine you've got a user manual for one of your products and you need it translated into FIGS (French, Italian, German, Spanish), Portuguese for Brazil, and Japanese. You send an electronic file to NOW which we use to do a word count: 40,000 words. Judging by your product, this seems high. We start reading. Sure enough, wordy. Here's an example:
"Before you begin, turn the volume knob on the unit all the way to the off position."
We've all read sentences like this; the manual morgue is full of them. Reading it is like having the anesthesiologist ask you to start counting backward from 100 (or like staring at Donald Trump, not listening, just wondering why he thinks no one notices his hair).
That "volume knob" sentence alone is enough to knock the interest out of anyone and the reader is holding an entire book of sentences just like it, 2,857 of them, give or take. Sure, it tells the user something, but why does it do it in such a blah, long-winded way?
Your company just spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on this manual and your user -- your customer -- having read just a fraction of it, no longer wants to even use it.
And of course, every one of the words, every sentence must be translated. Is there a Text Doctor in the house?
Let's look at our example again:
"Before you begin, turn the volume knob on the unit all the way to the off position."
That's one sick sentence. Put it on the examination table and check its vitals. Hmmm. We'll have to operate.
"Before you begin," is what Text Doctors call a bloated syntax. We're going to remove this so a more healthy word like "First," can be used
" - turn the volume knob on the unit - " This shows disorientation. Where else would the volume knob be but "on the unit" - not on some other unit - not in a secret compartment - not somewhere near the cat.
" - all the way to the off position -" Here is acute verbiage redundancy, sadly, in the late stages. There is no "all the way to" setting for "off." The unit is either "on" or "off." There's nothing "half way" or "almost" about it. And what's this? A spot of unnecessary modifier in the word "position." We'll just snip that and the patient won't notice a thing is missing.
The operation's a success. We wheel out a new, improved sentence, waiting for the manual-reading throng. Our operation yielded:
"First, turn off the volume."
The patient was brought in with an emergency 17-word textandectomoy and goes home after a 12-word operation, slim, coherent, and user-friendly. Of course, not every sentence can be cut by almost 75%. In fact, some sentences in manuals could use some elaboration, a little extra information to help the user. Still, it's uncommon that most manuals can't be pared down by 20-30%. And that's a 20%-30% savings on all those languages you want the manual translated into.
Don't pad material because you want to soften a point or think a three-sentence letter looks too short. Wordiness does not equal wisdom. Here's an example (a real one) of a bloated butterball being trimmed to its essentials (word counts are in parentheses).
It is highly and most earnestly recommended that all personnel, male and female, attempt, if at all possible, to complete his or her assigned task within the minimum allotted time frame as said task needs to be, and is, necessarily required to be, expedited posthaste (44).
We recommend that everyone do the assigned task now or as soon as possible since it is very important that it gets done quickly (24).
We recommend you do it now or as soon as possible (11).
Please do it now (4).
What would you rather read, a 4-sentence request or a 44-word mess? The butterball is also 10 times more expensive to translate for every language you do. The goal of you (the writer) or your writing staff is to got the "final trim" stage right away.
The shorter the sentence, the more powerful if can be. It's also easier for the reader to understand. Note the number of words:
You were right and I was wrong (7 words; Lincoln).
Man is not made for defeat (6 words; Hemingway).
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat (11 words; Churchill).
Necessity knows no law (4 words; St. Augustine).
When in doubt, tell the truth (6 words; Twain).
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains (10 words; Rousseau).
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts (16 words; C S Lewis).
Anyone can make history; only a great man can write it (11 words; Wilde).
If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people (16 words; Woolf).
Speak boldly and speak truly; shame the devil (8 words; Fletcher).
The immature artist imitates; mature artists steal (7 words; Trilling).
The wastepaper basket is a writer's best friend (8 words; Singer).
Some equate length with depth. More, however, is less. The average sentence should be about 15 words. That's the standard for U.S. News and The Wall Street Journal.
But that's just an average! Varied sentence lengths also keep the readers attention, like curves built into a long stretch of highway. There's nothing wrong with a three-word sentence or a 30-word sentence, as long as you mix them up.
You know that translations are quoted by the word. You also know that it's far more efficient to use a computer to deliver a word count than to do one by hand (a user guide would take hours to hand count, but only seconds by computer).
The word counters in computer programs count contractions as one word (just like we'd pronounce them); Example, "will not" is counted as two words while "won't" is counted as one. You can imagine that not using contractions can really add to the word count.
Using contractions does another thing, it helps your writing sound conversational - friendly. Too many manuals and business letters read like speeches from old costume epics where nobody used contractions because the writer thought it sounded more, well, epic. Actually, it sounds boring and that's one reason why people don't read manuals.
If your writing is vague, readers will be: confused; unable to follow your instructions; and annoyed.
Can they be blamed? Put yourself in the customer's shoes. People have a lot to read, both at home and work. They don't want to wade through awkward, sprawling text. They want you to get to the point (even if it's not a pleasant one). Always look for ways to say something quickly and courteously. Don't waste words.
Here's a favorite examples of fattened syntax. The example is real, the author and publication names will be kept secret.
"Since your very early child-hood years you have been aware, even if not always consciously so, of the extremes of meaning which, in oral communication, can be conveyed merely by variations in tone or emphasis. An example which comes to mind is of a recollection shared with me by a genteel lady of my acquaintance who remembers vividly from forty years ago striking evidence of the responsiveness of even a small animal to changes in pitch or emphasis in the human voice."
Frankly, this is exhausting to read. The author attempts a conversational style - and stumbles. He does manage to scrunch 82 words, most of them unnecessary and some contradictory, into only two sentences. If you try your own editing, you'll get your hands dirty from the start, trimming "Since your very early childhood years" into "Since your childhood." Go ahead, give the rest a try.
Keep It Simple
Nothing is so difficult, legal, or obscure that it can't be stated simply! You're relaying facts. If your writing doesn't do this, it's ineffective.
When you write: choose what you're going to say; decide who you're saying it to; and say it in a way they'll understand.
Fat is Waste - Remove it
Example: Ask what type of advertising they might be interested in.
Revision: What advertising options are they interested in?
Here's another example: We are speculating on the potential profitability of this venture.
"Potential" isn't necessary. The act of speculation covers that.
It may seem trifling to nip and tuck, but imagine what happens if this flab isn't trimmed. It weighs down sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page.
Example: By now we're sure you've noticed the benefits our service provides.
Revision: We hope you're enjoying the benefits our service provides.
Think of fatty text as empty calories for the reader. Look at the italicized words below. All can be removed without changing the meaning.
Please pay the amount of $95.
We close at 12 am midnight.
He's a Los Angeles area consultant.
A big contributor to fatty text is adjectives. Adjectives have their place, but conditional words like: total, complete, all, every, correct, desired, proper (etc.), don't automatically make nouns clearer. Here's one we've all seen.
Example: Please fill out the form correctly.
Why "correctly"? Would you ask someone to fill out the form "incorrectly?" Would they be baffled about whether to be correct or incorrect if they weren't hit over the head with the obvious?
Make it easy on yourself
For most purposes, use the simplest route to communicate: replace the fat with the thin.