This is the tip that gave me a light-bulb moment about writing in general. The late Rene J. Cappon tackled abstractions in several books while working for the Associated Press. He had a more narrow definition of abstractions than some other writing gurus, but it actually makes the concept easier to digest.
Abstractions are vague, abstract nouns that usually force you to add even more unnecessary words.
Here’s a compilation from several corporate press releases. Yes, it really gets this bad. You’ll see many of the worst abstractions here, highlighted in bold type. I made up a disaster: A natural gas company’s supply line broke at a relay station, resulting in a massive fire that can’t be contained. Ten employees were injured, some critically.
The facility in question posed a condition that is the basis for this current situation. We are deeply concerned over this serious incident at the affected site and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff members and all of their beloved families and friends. The matter is being dealt with by our highly trained experts in the engineering field as well as outside responders and we are waiting for updates from all of them. The company is launching a full investigation related to the problem and is working very closely with all of the necessary authorities on this issue.
There are more than abstractions here. Note the run-on sentences, the passive tone and the hyperbolic words (deeply, beloved, highly, full, very). Below is an example of more direct writing. Keep in mind that this version won’t work for press releases, since corporations can face lawsuits if they admit to incompetence or guilt.
A pipe seal failed at our outdated relay station, which led to an explosion and uncontrolled fire. It pains us to say that seven employees were injured. Three others were critically wounded, and we’ve contacted their families. Local and federal experts have already joined us in our investigation, although we can’t enter the building until firefighters put out the flames.
59 words versus 100, with much more clarity and detail. If you wrote the first example and had to keep the vague tone, you can still cut at least 38 unnecessary words.
Before: Additional funding is needed for advertising purposes.
After: The company needs more money for advertising.
Before: She’s close to a decision in the matter.
After: She’s close to a decision.
Before: Roads are closed due to snowy conditions.
After: Roads are closed due to snow.
Before: The standoff situation is continually escalating.
After: The standoff is growing more tense by the hour.
Before: The detective is on administrative leave while they launch an investigation.
After: The detective is on leave while they investigate.
Before: We meet with other staffers on a daily basis.
After: We meet with staff daily.
Before: He’s an expert in the medical field.
After: He’s a medical expert. Or… He’s an expert in medicine.
Before: Another worrisome matter is the issue of de-escalating business activity.
After: Another worry is a drop in spending.
Before: Investors are experiencing serious problems due to the present conditions.
After: Investors are struggling with lower returns and higher fees.
Before: The company pledged improvements in terms of union communications and cost overruns.
After: The company promises to cut spending and negotiate with union leaders.
Before: The current issue at hand is the sign-in process.
After: Users can’t sign in.
Before: App maker Happy Snappy Industries says it will once again have the best-performing applications in the cell phone and tablet market.
After: Happy Snappy Industries says it will have the best-performing apps on the market.
Before: In this specific case, officers face the task of clearing the area where passionate protesters are congregating.
After: Officers are trying to clear the park full of shouting protesters.
There are many city laws that taxi drivers have to obey. Here’s one that a lot of people don’t know about, especially tourists: Drivers are not allowed to ask you where you’re going before you get into the cab. Also, once a passenger is in a cab, a driver is generally not allowed to refuse service. Breaking either of these laws can result in a fine starting at $200.
One big problem: Driver shifts end during the afternoon rush hour. This is apparently so the next driver for the day can also make a little more money. But this leaves less cabs on the road when they’re most needed. Some drivers returning their cabs will avoid announcing they’re off duty right away (via their lights). The goal is to squeeze in one more fare by asking people where they’re going. If it’s on the way, and not too far, they might let you in.
Here’s my latest rush-hour experience with a fellow commuter I’ll call Cynthia. We were in Manhattan, in the 60’s near the West Side Highway. Our destination was 5 miles away; basically a straight shot up the Highway.
Cab Driver #1
Driver: “Where are you going?” Cynthia told him. Driver: “I can’t.” The driver then mumbled excuses and said something about needing cash for the ride. We that one go.
Cab Driver #2
Driver: “Uptown?” Cynthia said yes. Driver: “How far?” Cynthia told him. Driver: “That’s too far. I need to turn my car in.” Cynthia, half yelling: “If you’re not going to give people rides, turn your light off!” We watched him drive away. He turned his light off. We laughed, and then waited an uncomfortably long time for a cab with a light on. We considered walking to the subway, but were now morbidly curious how long this would take.
Cab Driver #3
Driver: “Uptown?” Cynthia said yes. He let us in the car.
Driver: “Where are you going?” Cynthia told him.
Driver: “That’s too far. I have to turn in the cab.”
Cynthia: “But you found out where we were going and let us in.”
Driver: “Yeah, but I can get fined if I don’t turn in the car on time.”
Me: “That’s cool. We’ll just leave and take your medallion number…”
Cynthia: “No. We’re in your cab. You kick us out and you’re breaking the law. We have your medallion number and I’ll call you in.”
Driver: “Well, if you’re going to get me in trouble, I’ll take you.” The guy started driving.
Driver: “Do you want the West Side Highway?”
Driver: “Well, there’s going to be a lot of traffic.”
Cynthia: “Great. Traffic is awesome.”
Obviously, this guy had too much luck breaking the rules and was used to the average 2.6-mile trip. (About 75% of rides are 2 1/2 miles or less. 20% of rides are a mile or less.) He definitely wasn’t used to passengers calling him out.
–Always get a receipt when you pay for a cab. It has all the juicy information on it, including the driver’s medallion number.
–If you’re in a really bad mood, get info off the cab if the driver turns you away.
–If a driver pulls over for you, never look into the window and tell him where you’re going. Get in first and then tell him.
–If you have luggage with you at the curb, be prepared to have some available cabs drive by you. Drivers generally don’t like taking people to the airport.
–If you’re in Manhattan, “Uptown?” can mean “Are you going north?” It doesn’t necessarily mean “Are you going to the physical area known as Uptown?”
–Look online for a bazillion other websites that have tips.
Here’s a news article about the most recent Supreme Court decision. It’s from someone working for a legitimate website. The post butchers the English language and leaves out some important facts. If I had to talk with the writer, here’s what I’d tell her. I’m leaving out the name of the website and writer on purpose.
Editors have different ways of changing copy. Some rewrite a lot. Others try to keep as much of the original as possible. I lean toward working with what’s there, changing headlines and sentences only if they‘re confusing or misleading. Then I add facts as necessary. Just remember that anyone can debate how a published article is written. Everyone has a different style. That said, there are many mistakes that editors will acknowledge across the board.
Amazon will not pay Workers for Time Spent to pass through Security Checks: Supreme Court
–“Will not pay” is confusing. “Doesn’t Have to Pay” is more accurate. How about this: “Amazon Workers Won’t Get Paid for Time Spent at Security Checkpoints: Supreme Court.” That’s shorter and clearer.
–Your headline is the main piece of your article that will catch a reader’s eye. Your first words should resonate with the reader. So it’s a good idea to focus on the employees.
–You have a mixture of “title case” and “sentence case” in this headline. I hope your employers chose a style guide for you to use. If not, pick one up. AP, API, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.
On Tuesday, Supreme Court ruled out that Amazon workers who fill orders for electronic commerce company Amazon. com will not be paid for the time that they spent waiting to pass through security checks. Before the decision, the company had to pay the warehouse workers for that time that they spent during security checks at the end of their shifts.
–Avoid starting your article with non-essential facts you can push down, like “On Tuesday.”
–It’s “the Supreme Court” or “Supreme Court Justices.”
–“Ruled out that” isn’t the best wording. Neither is “will not be paid.”
–“That they spent” suggests this case is only about retroactive pay. Also, the word “that” can often be removed from sentences.
–You have a space between “Amazon” and “.com” It forced “com” down to a new line, creating an “orphan.”
–You use “Amazon” twice in the first sentence. That’s a signal you should rework it.
–I can understand why you’d want to explain what Amazon.com is, but most readers already know, and “electronic commerce company” is a little bloated, especially right off the top.
–Amazon never had to pay workers for the screenings. That’s why the lawsuit came about in the first place. If you mean “had to pay” because of the Circuit Court decision, you need to make that clear.
The decision would be beneficial for retail companies that routinely check workers to avoid employee theft. According to the court, the federal law does not need retail companies to pay their employees for extra time they spend in the companies as because it is unrelated to their primary job duties.
–This is so confusing, it makes me think English isn’t your first language. Or that you were so pressed for time, you published your first draft.
–It’s “federal law,” not “the federal law.”
–The phrase “does not need” is bizarre. A federal law doesn’t need anything.
–“Retail companies” can be shortened to “retailers.”
–“For extra time they spend in the companies” is missing a word or two.
–It’s not “as because.” Just “because.”
–“Primary job duties” sounds wrong to the ear. Like corporate jargon. Could just be me. Either way, as you rewrite that whole sentence, think about using a different phrase.
The employees who brought the lawsuit have been employed by Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc. According to some employees, they used to wait for more than 20 minutes to clear security before they can go their homes. Amazon had disputed those claims.
–“Have been employed by” includes the wrong verb tense.
–It’s not “they used to wait.” It’s “they wait.”
–All the other articles I’ve read on this decision have said “25 minutes” or “more than 25 minutes.”
–Your last sentence should be worded differently. Try “Amazon disputes the claim.”
–It would be nice to know that Amazon not only disputes the claim, but that it also estimated employees spend “less than 90 seconds” in line.
Before Supreme Court’s decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had announced that workers should be paid for screening process as it has been performed for the company’s benefits. But, according to Justice Clarence Thomas, the security checks are not principle activities of the company.
–Again, it’s “the Supreme Court.”
–It’s “U.S.” Not “US”
–It seems you have a problem with “the.” In this paragraph, it’s “the screening process.”
–The last half of your first sentence is a little mangled. Example… “As it has been” uses the wrong verb tense. Also, it’s “company’s benefit,” not “company’s benefits.”
–You can remove the comma between “But” and “according.”
–Your last sentence is redundant. You explained this fact earlier. Use another quote from Thomas or a different Justice.
Thomas said, “Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings, but to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers”.
–This quote should be lower, or removed entirely. You need to explain the Portal-to-Portal Act first.
According to Thomas, his decision is based on a federal law called the Portal-to-Portal Act. The law exempts a company from paying for pre-work or post-work activities. The case was filed by Amazon warehouse’s two former workers, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro. Lawyer of the workers had argued that spending time during security checks was work because the company required the workers to do that.
–Your first sentence makes it sound like only Thomas made this decision. He’s not the only Justice. In fact, this was a unanimous decision. You should have added that.
–“Pre-work or post-work activities” is a little vague. “Activities” is an abstraction.
–Your second sentence is passive. That forced you to mangle the wording.
–If you name the two employees, do your readers a solid and say they’re from Nevada. And you really need to mention that this is a class-action lawsuit.
–“Lawyer” should be “Attorneys.” Plural. There’s never a single attorney working on a class-action lawsuit that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Also, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. But for conversational purposes, they’re often used interchangeably.
–You need to work on verb tense and overall grammar.
–You also need to work on structuring your sentences so you can avoid saying the same word repeatedly. “Workers” is an example here. You use it far more than “employees.” Mix them up, especially in the same paragraph.
–You need to help readers follow the story. This will require you to move some facts around. Start with the big picture, but avoid using the same wording as your headline. Your first sentence can include something about this being a blow to employees. In the next sentence, think about adding what the broad implications might be for companies in general. They could be saving billions upon billions of dollars… retroactively and in the future.
–Important: Nowhere in your article do you explain that this lawsuit was brought against Integrity. It’s Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk. You also don’t add that there are similar class-action lawsuits against companies. This new decision will have an impact on them.
–Knowing more about the justice system in general will help you avoid some of these errors and omissions. Focus on how cases are appealed and pushed up the ladder.
Here’s a question from reader “Just Curious.” He recently moved to Manhattan and is wondering about the dog population here.
“I guess I noticed the crazy amount of tiny dogs right away, but now it’s cold out and so many of them are dressed in sweaters/sweatshirts. They stand out more. If you put my dog up against a Great Dane he seems small, but he towers above these lap-sized things. What’s up with the small dogs?”
The answer you hear most often is that living space in NYC is a little tight, so smaller dogs are easier to “deal with.” Even people who don’t live in the city can come to that conclusion. But there’s another very important factor: Numerous landlords put a weight limit on dogs they’ll allow in their apartments. A few people who I’ve talked to say a 20-pound limit is a good average. So if you move to the city with a bigger dog, you might run into the frustration of looking around for a long time before you can find a place for you and your pet. (Plenty of landlords won’t allow dogs at all.) I hope you’re not going to ask me why there’s a restriction on dog size. It makes no sense. First off, humans that sign rental agreements weigh more than 20 pounds. It shouldn’t have anything to do with dog hair because it doesn’t cause any damage, and some larger dogs can shed less than smaller ones. It can’t be about urine, because it’s possible for both small and large dogs to pee in the house AND there’s nothing worse than cat urine. Seriously.
There’s also a semi-joke answer: Considering the high rent prices, it might be nice to spend less money on dog food. But did you know small dogs typically need to consume more calories per pound of body weight than larger breeds?
You might end up wanting to know what the most popular breeds are. If you ask the American Kennel Club, NYC’s top 5 dog breeds for 2013 were: Bulldog, French Bulldog, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. BUT… If you check the city’s own numbers, the top dogs are: Yorkie, Shih Tzu, Chihuahua, Maltese and Labrador Retriever. If you check the top breeds by zip code, small dogs are the ones that consistently show up all over the five boroughs. Not only are the Yorkie, Shih Tzu, Chihuahua and Maltese rather small, they’re also among breeds that don’t shed, or shed very little. Less hair for people to vacuum up.
Since I’m on the subject, NYC requires dogs to be licensed. The city estimates only one in five dogs actually are, which would mean 80% of owners are risking a minimum fine of $200. The licenses aren’t too pricey: $8.50 per year if you can show documentation that your dog is spayed or neutered. If you want your dog to keep its reproductive organs, the price jumps to $34.
Most Snow, Single Storm
February 11-February 12, 2006
Most Snow, Single Season
75.6 inches (6.3 feet)
Most Rain, 24 Hours
October 8-October 9, 1903
Most Rain, One Year
Highest Storm Surge
Oct 29, 2012
14 feet (recorded at The Battery during Hurricane Sandy)
Highest Recorded Wind Gust
October 14, 1954
February 9, 1934
July 9, 1936
Records date back to 1869. Measurements taken from Central Park unless noted.