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What’s Wrong With This Excerpt?

Wanting to improve my skills in Spanish, I picked up a book about Spanish verbs to study. In the introduction, the writer makes two stylistic mistakes that business writers must avoid if they want to engage their readers. Can you recognize the problems in the excerpt below?

Beginning on page vii, I show you how to form a present participle in Spanish, and I give you examples. I also give you the common irregular present participles and the many uses of the present participle.

Beginning on page ix, I show you how to form a past participle regularly in Spanish, and I give you examples. I also give you the common irregular past participles and the many uses of the past participle.

The first error is that the author puts too much emphasis on himself. The two paragraphs contain as many Is as yous. But readers of self-study books don't care about the authors. They care about what the books offer them.

Here is a revision without the use of I:

Beginning on page vii, you learn how to form a present participle in Spanish, with examples that include the common irregular forms. You learn the many uses of the present participle.

Beginning on page ix, you find out how to form a past participle in Spanish, with examples of both regular and irregular past participles. You learn when to use the past participle in Spanish.

With the I problem fixed, the relevance question comes up. Does the information about present and past participles belong in the introduction? Is it relevant to readers? Or is the author just meeting a requirement to include an introduction with a certain number of words?

I say cut this information from the introduction. After all, in a book on Spanish verbs, it is obvious that readers will learn how to form present and past participles by reviewing examples–and will learn when to use particular verb forms. Giving this information in the introduction feels like a plodding effort to increase the word count.

But readers of self-study books never want more words. They want ease and efficiency. A more exciting introduction would tell them what they will be able to do easily and efficiently once they have mastered their verbs.

Whenever you find yourself struggling over how to state the obvious in a section of a book or report, stop. Instead ask yourself whether the obvious even belongs there. Perhaps the same information can be covered in a heading in the table of contents, for example, "Present Participles: How to Form Them, Where to Use Them" or for non-grammarians "How to Say Swimming, Playing, and Similar Words in Spanish" or "How to Tell a Lively Story in Spanish."  

I am tempted to assert that people don't even read the introductions to many self-study and reference books. But then why was I reading the introduction to my verb book? I will admit it: I was avoiding the hard work of memorizing those present participles, past participles, and other verb forms.

Syntax Training


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “What’s Wrong With This Excerpt?”

  • You do what I and, I assume, most other writers do when we read “for enjoyment”–we read with our editorial eyes. It would be nice to be able to sit down and enjoy a book without noticing every little mistake. It’s a rare joy to read an article or book that has NOTHING we would change!

  • Karla, yes, we are alike. I do notice errors and weaknesses in writing. But I am glad to say that I often read books and articles with no noticeable errors. I simply enjoy them, without seeing them as topics of future blog posts!

    Thanks for commenting.


  • I can’t agree more. Sometimes this kind of over-stressing oneself influences the readers’ desire to read on the book.

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