If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone complain that they don’t like writing and that they prefer something more objective like math, I’d be at least as rich as I would be if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone use the old cliché “if I had a nickel…”
“Writing is so subjective,” they say. “There just aren’t any rules about what makes it good or bad.”
Okay. Yes. Writing is not like math, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t predictable rules that make your written communications easier to read and easier to enjoy, especially when it comes to business writing. What makes it so frustrating for most people is that many features of good writing are difficult to consciously recognize and so they feel subjective. If you can master the use of those features, your writing will have a much bigger impact, even of your readers don’t know why.
So what’s one easy feature you can start with? Parallelism.
At its most basic, parallelism simply means that each element of a group (such as a list of product features or a service offering) follows the same grammatical pattern. Consider the following lists:
Our services include
- complete backups of all your systems.
- We guarantee complete recovery.
- running diagnostics regularly.
- chocolate milkshakes for everyone.
Our services include
- complete system backups.
- guaranteed recovery.
- regular diagnostics.
- chocolate milkshakes.
If these lists were on brochures for two different businesses you were looking to hire, which one would you say is more professional? They have exactly the same information in them, but the first one is just hard to read. It slows you down and makes you think harder about what it’s saying and what that means to you. (If you don’t see it, try reading them out loud.)
Why? Because each element in the first list follows a different grammatical structure. The first item is a sentence fragment that completes the list’s introductory phrase. It has a couple of adjectives and a noun that tie in nicely with the idea that the list is going to convey the individual services that make up the larger business offering.
The second item, however, throws all that out the window by using a complete sentence. Two is followed by item three, which completes the introductory phrase just like item one, but instead of using a regular noun (as in the first item), makes use of a gerund (i.e. a verb ending in ing that functions as a noun in a sentence, but is still a verb and is thus modified by adverbs like “regularly”, etc.). The last item is parallel to the first, but not with the others (just as item one isn’t parallel with them).
Whether or not you understand the grammar behind all that, you still struggle with the first list. Can you read it? Sure. Can you understand it? Of course. Is it good writing? No, because good business writing is all about being clear and easy to reading. Non-parallel lists are neither of those.
We humans look for patterns when we read and if we don’t find them, we have to work harder to achieve comprehension. Parallelism offers the kind of patterns that we love, whether we’re consciously aware of them or not, because they make us work less when we read so we can get on to the good stuff.
Incorporating parallelism into your writing on this level is easy. Whenever you’re writing anything that involves elements that are supposed to serve the same function in the document as a whole (like our lists above or section headers, etc.), make sure they grammatically agree, noun for noun, gerund for gerund, question for question, fragment for fragment.
That’s pretty straight forward, right? Let’s see if we can dig a little deeper.
Other Kinds of Parallelism
One nice thing about parallelism is that you can take it pretty much as far as you want and with each new level, you make your writing better. So far, we’ve only talked about grammatical parallelism, but the best business writers strive for parallelism in every aspect of their writing.
As we saw with our lists, grammatical parallelism makes a piece easier to read, which makes it more engaging. Let’s look at two other kinds of parallelism that can also improve your writing.
Structural parallelism is similar to grammatical parallelism, but on a bigger scale. Instead of worrying solely about sentences or phrases, you’re looking at larger elements in a document. Again, the point is that each related element should be the same.
Suppose you’re writing a product scenario guide. The purpose of the guide is to demonstrate how your product works in a variety of situations. Thus, in the guide, you need several sections that are structurally the same, i.e., the scenarios. Just what does “structurally the same” mean? Let’s break it down:
- Each scenario should have the same divisions and those divisions should have the same name in each scenario, such as “The Situation,” and “The Problem,” and “The Solution.” You don’t want one scenario that has all three divisions and another that only has “The Problem” and “The Solution.” This one’s pretty easy to accomplish.
- The content of each of these divisions should be the same. For example, if one scenario has “Bob can’t verify the quality of his backups,” as its problem and the next scenario has, “Jennifer is worried because she’s running out of storage space and management won’t give her resources for new hardware,” then they’re not structurally parallel. The first is a simple statement. The second is a compound-complex sentence and explores the implications of the problem, not to mention its look at Jennifer’s state of mind. Neither is wrong, but they function differently within the structure of the scenario and so create a disconnect in the mind of the reader. The reader now has to go into each new scenario unsure of what to expect. Again, this may or may not be conscious, but either way, it means more mental work.
- The content of each division should also be grammatically parallel. If the “Problem” on one is a simple phrase, the others shouldn’t be complete sentences. Again, neither option (fragment or sentence) is wrong, but they should all be the same.
Thematic parallelism starts crossing into the “subjective” realm a little, but it’s still something to consider. Essentially, thematic parallelism takes the ideas of grammatical and structural parallelism and applies it to the themes and ideas of the document.
For example, if you’re writing a list of reasons why chocolate milkshakes are the best tool an MSP can have in his or her toolbox, make sure that each item in the list actually speaks to that topic. Don’t go on any tangents (at least not without explicitly calling them out as tangents). I’ve read a lot of lists where the first seven are on task but eight, nine, and ten veer off course and end up introducing totally new ideas. Maybe they’re interesting ideas, but they’re not thematically parallel. Consider shortening your list and leading into those ideas in some other way.
Each level of parallelism I’ve described here takes a little more effort, but your writing (and your readers) will thank you for it. Your communication with your clients will be that much clearer. One good way to practice parallelism is to look for it in stuff you read. You’ll find it gets left out all the time and once you know what to look for, you’ll see non-parallel content everywhere. Training yourself to see it in others helps you to see it in your own writing, which helps you make your own writing better.
And when you’re confident in your parallelism skills, I’d love to see that article about chocolate milkshakes.