Graham Hopkins advises writers of social care
reports and guidelines to cut the word count.
Padding is unquestionably the greatest crime
in social care writing. It even leaves pomposity and the use of
jargon gasping for breath. The challenge seems to be: why use three
words when clearly 35 will do?
However, getting to the point is easier said
than done (or written). As the mathematician and occasional
theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) lamented to a correspondent:
“I am sorry for the length of my letter but I had not the time to
write a short one.”
However, William Strunk, Jr (1869-1946)
professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York,
fought his corner well: “Vigorous writing is concise,” he declares.
“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no
unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should
have no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make
all their sentences short, or that they avoid the detail and treat
their subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Too often our words fail to tell. In the
following examples the italicised words could be left out: “A
number of refinements and minor amendments were
suggested”; “It is apparent that the bell is currently
difficult to hear in the kitchen area”; “The department is in
the process of writing a complaints procedure.”
Sometimes, simply getting to the point helps.
For example, one Community Safety Partnership Strategy took 26
words to say: “The basis of the Partnership is a number of shared
values and beliefs derived from an analysis of the problems of
crime in Barnsley. These are…” And yet all they needed to say
(which they now do, happily) is “We believe…” Thus 24 words saved
and huge sighs of relief for readers.
Social care writers also slip up by slipping
in phrases where one word would do. These include: “is in
possession of” (which could be replaced by has or have); “in the
event of” (if); “the majority of” (most); “in addition to the
above” (also); “as a matter of course” (normally); “in conjunction
with” (with); and, “you are requested to” (please).
There also appears to be an unwritten law that
says every piece of social care writing must include something
being on some sort of (usually “regular”) basis. But we also have
things on a flexible basis; part-time basis; annual basis; ad-hoc
basis and so on – on a forever-and-a-day basis. It may be tough to
hear, but this need never happen. Staff need never meet on a
regular, weekly or monthly basis again. They can meet regularly,
weekly or monthly.
So from now on you should omit, leave out and
exclude all those unnecessary and needless words that do not
contribute to what you have to say and which you don’t really need.
Or, omit needless words.
Slip of the pen…
“The family are strongly in favour of capital
punishment when admonishing their children.”
from a social work report, (anonymous
“We need to drink responsibly to ensure we do
not damage our lifestyles and our health.”
From a drugs & alcohol pack for young
people, (thanks to Stewart Russell, young persons’ support team,
Contributions welcome. Please send them to email@example.com
“Where the rent officer notifies the local
authority of a substitute determination or substitute
redetermination, it should be treated as a fresh determination for
the purposes of seeking a redetermination.”
From a housing benefit circular
Please send in examples of jargon and
management-speak to firstname.lastname@example.org