This is a risk management article on IRMI.com discussing seven tips for improving your loss control documents.
Throughout the world of insurance—including loss control, claims, workers compensation, underwriting, and customer service—people struggle to write clearly and concisely. Writing effective letters not only helps establishes a professional image, it has many other benefits, including:
Avoiding lawsuits by keeping an appropriate tone throughout all communications with claimants
"Selling" settlements quickly by using persuasive techniques
Retaining employees, by offering them training that helps them master their job and lifts their morale
Saving hundreds of hours caused by claimants misinterpreting communications
Yet, as I travel from company to company teaching "Effective Business Writing for Insurance Professionals," I am often amazed at how many writing problems I see in reservation-of-rights letters, loss control recommendations, customer service correspondence, denial letters, memos to upper management, and letters to opposing attorneys. These errors not only result in more than $1 billion in lost productivity in the insurance industry each year, they also alienate insiders, cause delays in settling claims, and can cause a huge on-site morale problem as insureds call for "an explanation" of a letter they've just received.
Take a look at your department's letters and you're likely to see stodgy and antiquated phrases, wordiness, redundancy ("current status") jargon ("not to present code"), and needlessly long words. You're also likely to spot lengthy sentences and paragraphs. Don't be surprised if you find errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling as well as problems with format, tone, and persuasiveness.
The following tips are aimed at identifying the main writing problems faced by loss control people, giving examples of each, and offering advice on undoing these deep-rooted problems:
1. Avoid Stuffiness and Awkward Phrasing.
Not "Loss control will adhere to the company's objectives," but "Loss control will follow the company's objectives." Not "If you should have any questions," but "If you have any questions." Avoid "This letter is to confirm a loss control visit made to your facility on May 5." "Confirm" is the wrong word: you've already made the visit. How about, "This letter summarizes a loss control visit...."
Avoid "and/or." It's very awkward and doesn't reflect conversational speech. Most of the time, you could say either "and" or "or." For the rare occasions in which you want to express the concept of and/or, rewrite the sentence: Instead of "I will see you on Tuesday and/or Wednesday." Write "I will see you on Tuesday or Wednesday or both days, if necessary." Also, forever banish "Please find attached."
I personally inspected several of the chairs and found the screws are loose on several chairs and the legs are breaking in the same spot every time.
I inspected several of the chairs and found lose screws on several as well as broken chair legs all in the same spot.
2. Avoid Wordiness
Not "Our 2002 plan will be to emphasize," but "Our 2002 plan emphasizes." Not "I am asking that you please notify me," but "Please notify me." Not "on a regular basis" but "regularly." Instead of writing "Mr. Smith's response to this was that the glove would cause a product liability claim," write "Mr. Smith said that." And instead of "Jones has not taken the needed steps to address this issue," write "Jones has not addressed this issue."
Avoid the buildup of meaningless phrases. Take these sentences:
During the course of our meeting, a discussion was held with Mr. Covello regarding loss trends that may have occurred for this restaurant location. It was learned during our discussion that no significant accident trends have occurred at this facility during the course of the policy year to day.
Mr. Covello said that no significant accident trends have occurred during the policy year to date.
Here are some other common wordy phrases and concise substitutes:
can be in a position to
bring an end to
consensus of opinion
of a confidential nature
despite the fact that
make a recommendation that
due to the fact that
perform and analysis of
in the amount of
as you may or may not know
as you may know
on an annual basis
in the majority of instances
in the very near future
3. Avoid Hedging
Get rid of weasel words, "when possible." See how easy it is to add a hedge? Avoid perhaps, maybe, and "It is my understanding that." Instead of saying "I plan to make a follow up phone call to OSHA," write "I will make a follow-up phone call to OSHA."
Here are some other hedge words and phrases to use with caution:
in a timely manner
in most cases
in our opinion
as much as possible
in some cases
as circumstances dictate
make an effort to
at your earliest convenience
more or less
4. Don't Assume
Don't assume that just because you make a recommendation, the reader always understands the ramifications of that recommendation or the benefits in following your advice. For example, in one loss control recommendation we saw, the writer started by writing, " Store no more than 150 gallons of Class I, Class II and Class IIIA liquids in a flammable liquid storage cabinet, and of this total not more than 60 gallons should be of Class I and Class II liquids...This action will limit the quantity of flammable liquids that could be consumed in the event of a possible fire."
This vague and bureaucratic sounding benefit is attached to the end of a lengthy paragraph. I suggest having a subhead, How This Benefits You, that personalizes the issue: "By limiting the quantity of flammable liquids that could be consumed if a fire broke out, you'll minimize your risk of suffering a serious loss of life and property."
5. Use Active Language
In loss control writing, when what is being done is more important than who is doing it, passive language is not only acceptable, but preferable. But for the rest of the business world, passive language comes across as weak and tentative.
Thirty-five years ago, the noted lexicographer Eric Partridge referred to passive language as "passing the buck." When you write "It is recommended," you are walking away from taking responsibility for your actions.
Not "Storage arrangements must be changed," but "Change storage arrangements." Not "The courtesies extended to me were appreciated," but "I appreciated all your help." Instead of writing "It is suggested that this mesh guard be replaced with one that meets present safety standards," write "Replace the mesh guard."
6. Avoid Antiquated Phrases
Get rid of "enclosed please find..." (What, exactly, has to be found?) "under separate cover" (I picture a big spaghetti pot cover!), and phrases such as "deem it advisable," and "Please do not hesitate to contact me." Don't write: "I hope you agree with the above reasons." If you've just named the reasons, you can write: "I hope you agree with these reasons." Get rid of "If you should have any questions." Instead, write "If you have any questions."
Here are a few other common antiquated phrases and their substitutes:
at your earliest convenience
by next week
beg to differ
feel free to call me
please call me
from now on
I am in receipt of
in lieu of
incumbent on me
please refrain from
please do not
under date of
7. Avoid Lengthy Sentences and Lengthy Paragraphs
When loss control or claims professionals create paragraphs that fill up an entire PC screen, their readers frequently find an excuse to avoid reading any further. Here's a paragraph taken from a loss control recommendation document:
The enclosed tables and graphs are referenced for the Past lost Experience section and the enclosed Loss Control Service Plan is a reference for the Future Service Directions section. As discussed, I have developed three new recommendations for your consideration. These recommendations can be found on a list attached to this letter. Enclosed is one of our Property Loss Control Self-Inspection Reports, which is a reference to recommendation 95-1A. This report is geared to a manufacturing plant, but I feel could be adapted to shopping centers by using the applicable sections and adding your own items on the bottom of the back page. I will follow up on outstanding recommendations with the individual property mangers for the respective locations.
This is just too long to be absorbed easily by a reader. It needs to be divided into several more bite-size paragraphs. But you shouldn't break it "any old place." Break it at a place where one series of ideas ends and a new series begins. I would break it after the sentence ending in "section," and the one ending in "page." Others could make a case for breaking it following "letter," since what follows is a paragraph about enclosures. Either way, you are helping your reader catch a "mental breath of air" by keeping paragraphs short.
Long sentences, especially ones filled with detailed introductory clauses, can derail your readers' train of thought. In tandem with lengthy paragraphs, they increase the odds that your reader will wind up confused and put off. Here's a lengthy sentence:
Loss control issues were discussed concerning driver hiring and training procedures in addition to holding quarterly safety meetings with approximately 135 drivers, including those at outlying locations.
Quite a mouthful. I would break the sentence after "procedures" and start the next sentence by saying, "We also discussed..." In this way, the reader is carried along from sentence to sentence quite easily. While you shouldn't feel compelled to create only "the cat sat on the mat" sentences, you must be ready to break up most sentences of 30 words or more.
How well written are the letters in your department? How long has it been since you've upgraded your staff's writing skills? If you value your employees, remember that a trained employee is a retained employee!
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