This article isn’t going to turn you into a best-selling novelist; but if you follow the following advice your letters, emails, memos and reports will be much more effective.
The first thing to remember about writing anything, from a one-paragraph email to a voluminous report, is that the reader is not going to have the benefit of hearing your tone of voice or inflection, nor will the reader be able to see the expression on your face or your body language; and if they become confused, recipients of your communication are not going to be able to stop you and ask for clarification. Therefore, you have to choose your written words far more carefully than you do your spoken words. The more important the communication the more attention that needs to be paid to your choice of words, but even the simplest of written communications should be carefully crafted.
Because written words have to be more precise than spoken words they should be chosen with the view that not only can they be understood but that they should be as incapable of being misunderstood as you can make them. This requires additional thought and often takes more time than you would like. But it usually doesn’t take as much time and thought as would clearing up misunderstandings later. It’s also a lot less dangerous.
Use impact words, they’re usually more precise than generalities.
“Smashed” is stronger than “broken”
“Thrilled” is more descriptive than “happy”
“Weary” is more emphatic than “tired”
“Magnificent” is more impressive than “very good”
“Sweltering” is a vast improvement on “very warm”
Whenever you find yourself using the word “very,” take the time to find a single, more descriptive word. This is a good time to mention that you should always have a thesaurus and a dictionary within reach, and you should reach for them often.
To the extent possible make your communications human rather than institutional. The biggest problem with most business writing is that it is too stuffy and formal. For example,
Don’t say: Say:
give consideration to consider
during the course of during
Instead of saying, “Appropriate amendments will be introduced in a timely fashion,” say, “We’ll make changes as soon as the committee considers the matter, which will likely be before the end of the month.”
Avoid flowery prose. “A person’s desire for possession of material goods will, from time to time, overwhelm one’s innate sense of prudence” is a very elegant sentence. However, you have a far better chance of being understood if you say, “Greed often prevails over common sense.”
Anytime you catch yourself writing “in other words”, the preceding words obviously didn’t adequately make your point, so they need to be re-written. If you don’t come up with the words needed to plant clear images in the minds of your readers they’ll come up with their own images; and the images they conjure up may not fit the images you’re trying to convey.
There is another very simple way to improve your business writing and set your communications apart from the boring run-of-the-mill institutional standard which seems to be the norm. It’s getting rid of trite phrases, the overused expressions which, although meaningful at one time, or in a particular context, have, through overuse, become meaningless generalizations.
Trite phrases tend to be used by business people who are either in too much of a rush, or are just too lazy to search for an accurate, descriptive word or phrase. Trite phrases are always boring; they also cheat the reader out of a clear explanation of the message you’re trying to convey.
Examples of trite phrases currently popular with business executives and professionals who are too lazy to search for and develop the specific meanings they want to convey include
- At the end of the day
- Going forward
- Best practices
- Value added
- Ramp up
- Tone at the top
- Thinking outside the box
- Tipping point
- In terms of
- Ahead of (or behind) the curve
If you tend to use trite phrases, you need to break the habit. Eliminating trite phrases from your communications will make you a much more effective writer.
It’s usually more effective to write about what you are for rather than what you’re against, so whenever you have a choice it’s better to be positive rather than negative. Readers tend to relate more favorably to positive messages than sour-sounding whining and complaining.
Be specific. Generalizations are dull, boring and uninformative. “We had 102 emails, 32 telephone calls and 8 letters” is much better than “we had numerous responses.”
The active voice is always more powerful than the passive voice (if you don’t know what this means you definitely need to brush up on your grammar), verbs should be as close to their nouns as possible, and a few short sentences are usually more effective than one long, drawn-out mind boggler. However, keep in mind that it is important to vary the length of your sentences.
When you use a pronoun check to ensure that there’s no mistaking its antecedent.
Each paragraph should deal with only one topic. As with sentences, paragraphs should vary in length and never be too long. Any paragraph containing more than ten typewritten lines runs the risk of losing the reader’s attention. Every now and then a one-sentence paragraph can be used effectively for emphasis.
Be sure there’s some variety in the opening words of your sentences and paragraphs. Four consecutive sentences or paragraphs beginning with the word “I” will likely be seen as indications of both pomposity and laziness.
Get to your point right away. Unless you’re writing a mystery novel, saving the main idea until the end of your communication will simply lose your readers. No one is going to concentrate through four or five paragraphs before finding out what the communication is all about.
Be sure that anything that doesn’t relate directly to the main theme of your communication actually does add to the reader’s understanding in some way; otherwise leave it out. On the other hand, be sure you don’t omit points that would enhance your reader’s understanding of the main message.
When dealing with more than one topic ensure that each is developed fully with adequate examples, arguments, reasons and illustrations before moving on to the next. But don’t overload your communication with more evidence than your readers need to fully understand your points; one strong example is better than ten wishy-washy ones.
Don’t ramble; move in an orderly, logical, non-confusing way from your opening to your close.
You can never go wrong by using Kipling’s “six honest serving men:” who, what, where, why, how and when? Then take it one step further by answering the skeptical reader’s “so what?”
Don’t use jargon and buzzwords unless you’re certain that your readers fully understand their meanings. However, jargon and buzz words come into being because they serve as a convenient form of shorthand for cumbersome titles, phrases etc. If there’s a good reason to use jargon or buzzwords, by all means do so; but if there’s even a remote possibility that your reader won’t know what you’re talking about you must define each term when you first use it.
Any important document or communication needs to be edited. Even a short, simple communication needs to be re-read before being sent. If it’s a long document, it’s best to set it aside for an hour or two before editing. If it’s not possible to set it aside for that long, at least leave it long enough for you to leisurely fetch a coffee, or make a couple of calls, before starting to edit. When editing long documents you have to be especially critical of your opening and your closing, the opening because at that point you probably hadn’t warmed up, and the closing because by then you may have become tired and less vigilant. Anything you write while tired, angry or bored needs to be brutally edited. It’s always a mistake to send off a communication written in anger without setting it aside until you cool off.
Double-check all names, numbers and quotations.
Finally, when you think you’re finished, read it one more time.