Tips on Writing

Technical, Ad Copy, and More...

Using NOW Translations' writing tips was great. Not only is the text accurate, more concise, and easier to read, but wait till the boss sees how cost effective it is to translate. I'm sure to get that promotion and maybe, just maybe, that date with Jennifer!

This page is meant to save your company money. And saving money isn't always pretty. There will be some violence (slashing, cutting, etc.) and little heed to political correctness ("he/she" and "right-thinking persons" are not tolerated here).

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).

First Trim:
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).

Second Trim:
We recommend you do it now or as soon as possible (11).

Final Trim:
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.

Cost Cutter
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.

You're right Charles, this is the best Christmas yet. At least the easiest. All of the instructions for the toys made sense!

Fat Words
Thin Words
Fat Words
Thin Words




speed up


get, buy








tell, say




discover, find out




try, do












send, give


big, large













Fat Phrases
There are several occasions when one or two short words can replace a needlessly long phrase. In the revisions below, where "(or)" appears, use only one word.


is to be / are to be / will be

is (or) are

as soon as / at the time of


best possible


an alternate


prior to


top portion


bottom segment


it is necessary to obtain

obtain (or) get

provide us with


are unable to


are as follows


previously sent


additional follow-up


which are not


have obtained


will have to


everyday / on a daily basis / day to day


it is important to remember


each and every

each (or) every

we would like to suggest

we suggest

standard policy


changes, corrections, or additions

changes (or) corrections (or) additions

she is a woman who is

she is

owing to the fact that

because of

in spite of the fact that


the fact of the matter is

the fact is

relatively limited in length


cash removal transactions


experiencing growth patterns


previously owned


methodology factors


we were left unaware

we didn't know

we are now unable to assist

we can't help

communication is terminated

we're not speaking

knows financial matters

knows finance

has writing experience

is a writer

department areas


continue to proceed

continue (or) proceed

take into consideration


at all times


is desirous of using

wants to use

reaches the status of being


additional information, instructions, or updates

more information (or) instructions (or) updates

not on time


not functioning properly


not expected to arrive on time


stop any and all work on the project

stop the project

proceed at this time without further instructions

go now

Don't use jargon. If you do include technical terms, don't assume readers know them. Clarify.

Example: We will answer your questions about PSA.
Revision: We will answer your questions about PSA (Partial Stick Adhesives).

Don't write for the smallest segment of a market: the geek group. The geek group knows all the terminology, they know the acronyms, they enjoy the most equivocal copy you can throw at them. But they're a minority.

Markets change constantly. Don't expect that today's buyer has the same background and know-how as one from only a year or two ago. Within the past five years, the home recording studio has become common and contains technology (and terminology) which was the domain of expensive studios and audio engineers before. Don't expect these neophytes to understand you as easily as a trained pro.

Write Naturally
Unless you're Ben Stein (no offense, Ben), you use things to help get a point across when you talk: tone of voice, facial expressions, body movements, and more! Composition can't use these.

Write naturally; strive to sound as forthright and unpretentious as possible. Avoid using stilted, artificial language on paper.

Cost Cutter
When giving instructions, give them in the present tense; after all, aren't you asking the reader to do something right now?

Example: We will be sending you a package. When you receive the package, you will find an information envelope (18 words).
Revision: We are sending you a package. Inside the package is an information envelope (13 words).

Imagine trimming 3, 4, or 5 words out of every sentence you write. Ah, and think of the localization savings.

Writers are in a quandary today: how to avoid sounding politically correct and at the same time being sensitive to both male and female readers. Such good intentions have yielded such unwieldy concoctions as "s/he," "he/she" "he and she," (and worse). This doesn't help translators, either. There are solutions:

Stick with "he, his, him." The word "he" has been relied on in place of "anyone" for several centuries by both male and female writers.

Use both "he" and "she." If you're giving an example, there's no reason it can't be about or for a female.

Use plural (another Cost Cutter, by the way). The English plural, unlike plurals for some other languages, does not denote gender; it also has the attribute of using fewer words.

Example: After someone buys our product, he or she will use it daily.
Revision: After people buy our product, they will use it daily.

Index and Glossary
Want to get fewer tech-support calls in any language? Make sure your writers include a thorough index and glossary with every user guide.

"Thorough" is when the user can look up virtually any key word in the Index and it's actually there. For example, your customer's printer jams. He looks up "jam" in the index. No such word. Nor can he find any other word that comes close to the problem he's having. Turns out that the help he seeks can be found in the "Troubleshooting" section. Why didn't the index point him there? Instead, he points himself to the phone and calls tech support. A 120 page manual should have 2-5 pages of index.

A glossary doesn't need to be as complete as an index but it must cover the basics any newbie needs to know, especially if something is not explained in the manual. One or two sentence descriptions of terms is usually enough.

Cost Cutter
Speaking of manuals, even the most comprehensive documentation often goes unread. When customers call your company, your tech support staff should ask the callers to follow along with the explanation in their manuals. "Ah, here's your solution in Chapter 5, page 67, right next to the illustration. Do you see it? I'll go over it with you." This helps callers feel more comfortable using the guide and less intimidated about reading a "technical" manual. Result? Fewer calls.

Writing as a Sales Tool
Good writing is a valuable sales tool, as important as a warm handshake and a smile. If everything your company publishes is well written, it builds confidence in your clients. Bad writing has the opposite effect.

Let's say your company generates a mailing - and that mailing isn't done professionally. How will people react if their names are misspelled, they find grammar mistakes, or they're asked to respond to an account that's not theirs or a purchase they didn't make? Perhaps like this, "A business that's too lazy about details in something as simple as a letter won't soon get my business."

From the "garbage in, garbage out" files
We'll close by showing you some of the actual sentences translators run up against. If you had to translate them, what would you do? There are sentences that are so long, so jargon clogged, or so poorly written (or all three), that making sense of them is impossible. In case you've missed such gems, we've included samples below. Imagine trying to translate sentences like these - or entire manuals - without losing sanity. These wicked lines aren't murky because they're too technical or meant for an audience that could grasp the equivocal meanings. No one could grasp these meanings but the writer himself. If he.

Aligned card usage policy with overall indirect materials procurement vision.

Projected over $85MM in transactional processing cost savings alleviating procurement resources for increased value adding activities.

Modeling to destabilize competitor's core markets and compete in new markets would consider axes for competitive action by geographic segment assessing approaches offering multiple market synergy.

This audio tape will continue after you reach the top of the escalator, so please watch your step.

A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot.

There will be a meeting at desk level on bicycles in Conference Room A.

His death was a turning point in his life.

This reduces the chance of death by 33%.

Last year many lives were caused by accidents.

Develop your territory development strategies, using your lead forms and account grid to help you prioritize your prospecting efforts.

If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it.

I rise now to comment on statements which I have recently heard or read by which some one or two or three life company executives find themselves so greatly enamored of universal life that they have with straight face offered the predication that there won't be a whole life policy left in force in America in another five years!

The sacred cows have come home to roost with a vengeance.

Tornado watchers are on the lookout for parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota.

Wonderful bargains in shirts for men with 16 and 17 necks.

Our high-speed modems, regularly $199, special today only, $199.

The first 200 people to cash in their $100 tickets have been placed in containers that will be rotated in a drum.

The group will provide leadership and ownership for strategic project pursuit when multiple world areas are involved.

The idea of facilitating teamwork assumes new meaning when one brings together people from different countries and cultures and asks them to work toward a common goal.

Miniature Camera Inspection Systems
(is it an inspection system for miniature cameras or a miniature camera used for inspecting things).

Ventilation Requirements: Suck for by in large quantities.

Good writing just makes the journey easier.

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