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Nounitis

Technical writing using S.C.O.T.T.

technical writing scott keyser

On the 28th of July, I ran my first live event on WebinarJam – a one-hour webinar on how to give your technical writing more impact. It included five writing techniques for technical professionals. We had about 90 attendees. If you were one of them, thank you so much for joining us. I loved doing it. It was such a buzz.

Technical writing confidence

We kicked off the webinar with a poll. I asked people to plot their confidence in their technical writing on a scale of one to ten. It was a very typical bell curve distribution, with the rump of people landing between 4 and 7 on the confidence scale. There were no 10s. This is what I would have expected. I guess you could say that anyone who rated themselves a 10 wouldn’t need to be on the call.

Then I shared with the webinar group a really horrible piece of writing. It was a 200-word piece of corporate gobbledygook, as I like to call it. We dissected it. I colour-coded various issues, like Nounitis, Passivitis, long sentences, wording…so that the whole thing was just a riot of highlighted colour.

Then we scored its readability. Actually, according to the readability stats in Word, it scored a Zero. It was pretty damning. What I proceeded to do with the group was rewrite it, using my Big Five Writing Techniques.

That took the readability from 0 to just under 74 per-cent. When we used the Flesch Reading Ease score, the contrast was stark.

Confidence, round two

Then we ran a second poll. I say “we” because I was assisted technically by a great guy called Ben Smith, who’s an expert on WebinarJam. To be honest with you, without his help, I don’t think it ever would have happened. He ran all the behind-the-scenes technology, which was great. I just showed up with the content.

In that second poll, we asked people to plot their confidence again. This time, the overall ratings went up. There were far fewer people in the 2-to-3 and 4-to-5 brackets and many more in the 6-to-7 and 7-to-8 brackets. I think there were even a couple of 10s as well.

That was amazingly gratifying to me, to see that in the space of an hour, we were able to boost people’s confidence in their writing.

The Big Five Writing Techniques

Next, I shared with the group the Big Five Writing Techniques that I had applied. I also imparted a new acronym to help them remember those five techniques.

That acronym?

S.C.O.T.T.

  • Shorten Your Sentences. Your ASL (Average Sentence Length) should be 15 to 20 words.
  • Cure Nounitis with Verbitis. Nounitis is the overuse of nouns, and we cure that using more verbs than nouns.
  • Omit Needless Words and Phrases. Remove any redundant, needless or unnecessary words and phrases that are not adding any value, content, meaning or information.
  • Turn Your Passives into Actives. Many people are not aware of the difference between the two. As a result, a lot of people (and you may be one of them) write unconsciously in passive voice.
  • Trust in Plain English. That’s the best way to simplify your writing and your language. Don’t equate plain English with dumbing down your writing. The two are very different. Using plain English is about making your language simpler – as opposed to making it simplistic, which is bad. Simplistic means dumbing down and undermining the intellectual rigor and the quality of your content. That’s the last thing I want you to do.

A technical writing offer

Finally, there was a simple offer at the end of the webinar – to jump on a discovery call with me. It’s a no-obligation, non-threatening, relaxed way to get to know you and your writing, for people who might want to explore different ways of working with me and engaging me. Only a few people took me up on that offer, but the whole experience was just brilliant.

I loved sharing my S.C.O.T.T. acronym with people. I’m on a roll, and I can’t wait to do my next live event.

I may also run a writing clinic, where I just show up and you can ask me anything you want about writing. It can have to do with planning, drafting or editing. It can be about one of my 21 writing techniques, editorial policy or how to write winning bids and tenders. Maybe you have questions about pitches, proposals or sales letters. Absolutely anything. I welcome all-comers. If I can’t answer your questions there and then, I will get back to you with an answer within 72 hours.

I think that will be my next gig, and you will be the first to hear of it.

S.C.O.T.T. for all kinds of technical writing

What does S.C.O.T.T. mean for you and your writing?

The acronym S.C.O.T.T. represents the Big Five Writing Techniques that are guaranteed, without exception, to improve your readability if you apply them properly. That may sound like a bold statement, but I stand behind that. Use them in your technical writing, and you will notice a marked improvement in your results.

I am Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write human and change the world with their words. I invite you to browse my Write for Results blog to learn more about how to further improve your technical writing (and all types of writing for that matter). And if you like to absorb your information in audio format, don’t forget about The Writing Guy podcast.

How to improve writing skills with Verbitis

Write for Results

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a friend called Vicky Ross, a talented coach, therapist and NLP Master Practitioner. We were talking about language, its fascinating patterns…and of course, that led me to thinking about how to improve writing skills.

Vicky helped me to better understand the idea of Nounitis. I’ve spoken about Nounitis in the past. It’s the overuse of nouns, particularly abstract ones.

To take you back to school with a quick reminder, a noun is a naming word, and the cure for Nounitis is Verbitis, or using more verbs than nouns. Verbs are words of action and doing.

Nounitis is rife in B2B communications. Someone might say “She has responsibility for the implementation of the project.” What the hell does that mean?

“Implementation” can mean so many different things. It’s a vague, abstract term.

I want to take you through a little exercise. I’m going to give you a series of words and I want you to observe how your brain computes those words. There will be three different types of words:

  • tangible, concrete, common nouns (things you could put in a wheelbarrow)
  • abstract nouns (adjectives or verbs that have turned into nouns)
  • verbs (action words)

Are you ready?

Learn how to improve writing skills:  an exercise

how to improve writing skills scott keyser

For each of the three types of words, I want you to observe what happens in your brain. Notice, too, how your body reacts.

First, the common nouns:

  • bed
  • chair
  • apple
  • pen
  • book
  • computer

Just observe how your brain deals with those.

Now for some abstract nouns:

  • freedom
  • democracy
  • liberty
  • consideration
  • implementation
  • responsibility

That’s the second list. Again, notice how you reacted to them.

And for the third list, verbs:

  • running
  • writing
  • speaking
  • jumping
  • walking

There you have three very different types of words.

What did you observe happening to your body when you read them?

When Vicky and I did this mini-exercise, I looked up to the right when she recited the abstract nouns. That’s how my body responded when trying to make sense of those words. The verbs seemed easier for me. I looked straight ahead or slightly to the left.

The point I’m making is that the common nouns are things we can see and touch. The abstract nouns are much harder to compute because they’re intellectual, abstract concepts and demand more processing power from the human brain. Since verbs are words of doing and action, they have movement attached to them.

Neither type of noun had movement. They were static. They didn’t go anywhere. There was no energy to them. In contrast, the verbs had energy — but you would expect that.

The benefits of Verbitis

There are two benefits when using more verbs than nouns. how to improve writing skills scott keyserFirst, they literally give your writing more energy. Second, verbs conjure mental images in our brains, with little or no effort.

With abstract nouns, the brain has to work to associate some kind of image from our own experiences. That’s why verbs, Verbitis and curing Nounitis are so important if we want to improve our writing skills.

There’s one more point: the relationship between movement/motion and emotion. Static, abstract nouns — for me, at least — have no emotion attached to them. There’s neither motion nor emotion. Whereas the verbs lend themselves to emotion.

For example, if I gave you the abstract phrase, “freedom from slavery,” (two abstract nouns, “freedom” and “slavery”) I can say that I agree with that concept. Like most decent people, I don’t agree with slavery or servitude. Contrast the impact of that with the sentence, “The plantation owner unchained the slave and freed him.” I’m using more words, but I’m also using two verbs (“unchained” and “freed”). Clearly, I’m creating a picture, depicting a scene.

You might say we’re losing brevity — and of course we are — but I know which type of writing I’d prefer to read.

How to improve writing skills for better results

Using verbs and simple language while leavening and scaling down the amount of abstract language you use is going to improve your writing.

I hope this was useful information and that it will lead you to new ideas on how to improve your writing skills. I know it’s spurred me to learn more about NLP and patterns of language — particularly ‘nominalisation’, or turning words into nouns.

If you’re interested in learning more about my Big Five writing techniques, including Verbitis, connect with me on LinkedIn and join us for my LinkedIn webinar on the Big Five, on the 28th of July 2021.