Put zing into your writing starting today with WriteTips
WriteTips is our revised and expanded version of these tips. It’s now available in Kindle, Nook, and PDF formats for as low as 99 cents. This is a small book, a quick read, with longlasting impact. Keep a copy on your e-reader or your computer. Refer to it often. Good writers land the jobs and promotions, save time and money, and contribute to their company’s bottom line. Good writing is good business.
WriteTips includes an updated 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business PLUS 20 extra WriteTips, keys to writing effective e-mails, how plain writing is more powerful, how to get rid of business jargon and win readers, and more. Find out how to get your WriteTips now!
11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business is a booklet written for and distributed to participants in Sherry Roberts’ business writing seminar. Use these tips to get a faster, more confident start when working with your memos, letters, reports, emails, and news releases. For more writing resources, see our Books on Writing page.
- Begin with one grain of sand.
- Give the who, what, when, where, and why.
- Step up to bat and take a few swings.
- Adopt a plain writing style.
- Keep it short.
- Give the reader a map.
- Be active.
- Cut unneeded words and prune windy phrases.
- Watch out for these four commonly misused words.
- Stress benefits, not features.
- Give your writing the conversation test.
11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business
Clear, effective business writing is more important than ever. Thanks to the facsimile machine, our skill (or lack of skill) with words is beamed around the world in black and white.
In a survey of Fortune 1000 executives, 80 percent said they’ve decided not to interview job candidates solely because of poor grammar, spelling, or punctuation in resumes or cover letters.
Of those same executives, 99 percent also said poor writing and grammar hurt an employee’s chances for promotion.
In another study, the U.S. Navy determined it could save $27 million to $57 million a year if officers wrote memos in a plain style. Navy personnel spent more time reading poorly written memos than those written in a plain style. Similar savings could be realized in the private sector if corporations stressed good writing in the workplace.
But the best argument for good writing is simple logic: People won’t buy what they don’t understand.
Try some of the following tips the next time you write a letter, memo, report, proposal, press release, or other business document. Then distribute your work with confidence, because good writing is good for your business.
1. Begin with one grain of sand.
Before you start to write any business document, identify the single idea you’re trying to get across. Jot it down in one sentence on a note pad next to your typewriter or computer keyboard. If you were writing a news story, this would be the headline. Or if you were writing a movie, this would be the one-line description in the TV Guide. Here are some examples.
- You want an appointment to explain your new product. (sales letter)
- Using computers to track inventory will save thousands of dollars. (report)
- The janitorial crew will be working new hours. (memo)
Your one-line synopsis is a grain of sand; it will help you begin. Large projects can be built from it, but the grain of sand itself is neither overwhelming nor intimidating.
As you write, reread your one-line reminder. It will keep you grounded, focused, on target. Know what you want before you begin to write, and the writing will come more easily.
2. Give the who, what, when, where, and why.
Be a reporter. There is basic information all people want to know — no matter the subject. Train yourself to answer in your writing all the questions your reader might ask. Everything you write may not have a who, what, when, where, and why, but at least ask yourself if it does. In good writing, omission of information is by plan, not mistake.
John (who), please study the cost of fish (what) for the next three months (when) at our Seattle facility (where). I believe we can save money by purchasing fish for our performing dolphins from a new Alaskan source (why).
Thinking of your reader’s questions before you write helps you organize your writing and makes your memos, reports, and letters as complete as an article in the New York Times.
3. Step up to bat and take a few swings.
All writers have asked, “How do I begin?” You begin by switching your brain into a writing frame of mind.
Athletes often develop rituals to signal to their brain that it’s time to perform: Baseball batters dust their hands with dirt, dig in their heels, and take practice swings. Tennis players bounce the ball a few times before winding up for the serve.
You can develop rituals that put you in the mood to write. Some writers use a special pen. Others write better in a particular place, such as looking out a window or not looking out a window. Try some of these rituals:
- Deep breathing. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths to center yourself. Listen to your breathing. Shut out the ringing of the phones, the conversations of your coworkers, the buzz of your computer.
- Visualization. Close your eyes and imagine you are staring at a blank billboard in a snowstorm. The purpose of this trick is to clear your mind of thought, to wipe the slate clean. The mind can’t stand a clean slate and begins to compose.
- Affirmation. Look in the mirror and say “Good morning, writer.” Repeat this until you believe it.
Rituals simply focus your inner attention on a task to come. Find one that triggers your writing self.
4. Adopt a plain writing style.
It takes longer to read and comprehend a memo written in a bureaucratic style than one written in plain style. Bureaucratic writing buries meaning under run-on sentences, big words, and long paragraphs.
On the other hand, plain writing:
- States the purpose clearly
- Lists major points
- Includes headings and lists
- Uses short sentences and paragraphs
- Seeks to express, not impress
- Avoids jargon
In writing, plain is beautiful. The next time you want someone to understand your writing put away the fancy words and convoluted sentences. Say it simply. It will save your time, the reader’s time, and your company’s money.
5. Keep it short.
Effective writing avoids long sentences and long paragraphs for the same reason you avoid the long-winded conversationalist at a party. Like the party bore, long sentences and paragraphs don’t hold your interest. In run-on sentences and paragraphs, the reader struggles to keep from getting lost. Clear writing doesn’t throw up detour signs; it offers shortcuts to understanding.
No: We have long yearned to create a marketing program full of energy and pizzazz that would remain in the minds of the customers and position our product as the product to end all products in our industry which should give us a good competitive edge since everyone else in our industry has cut their marketing budgets which means this is a good time for us to forge ahead and make some new customers now while everyone is either sleeping or afraid.
Yes: Now is the time to create a marketing program full of energy and pizzazz. This program would keep our name in the minds of our customers, position our product as the ultimate product in our industry, and give us the competitive edge.
In these tough times, our competitors are cowering in their offices and cutting their marketing budgets. By being aggressive and forging ahead, we will make new customers and corner a greater share of the market.
6. Give the reader a map.
If you want your readers to navigate the road of your writing and reach the proper destination, make the going easy for them. Use these devices to make your business documents more readable
- Paragraphs. Start a new paragraph as often as it is logically possible. What is easier to read: a newspaper or a law tome? Readers will muddle through long paragraphs and pages of unending text only when they need the information. Newspapers learned long ago that they have only seconds to grab the reader’s attention and keep it; a story composed of several short paragraphs appears more accessible than one that resembles a scientific paper.
- Bullets and lists. Bullets are typographical symbols (boxes, circles, asterisks, dashes) that draw attention to a particular piece of text. These are excellent for lists, which are wonderful signposts themselves. Any information that you can boil down into an easy-to-grasp listing boosts the readability of your writing. Bulleted lists work well for outlining the steps in a process.
- Subheads. Use mini-headlines to break up the copy in memos and letters and direct the reader through your writing.
Don’t lose your reader. Remember it’s not only what you say, but how you say it.
7. Be active.
If you were one of those people who yawned when your eighth grade English teacher began her lecture on active and passive voice, wake up. What you don’t know about active and passive voice may be putting your readers to sleep or making them suspicious of you and your ideas or product.
A sentence written in the active voice is the straight-shooting sheriff who faces the gunslinger proudly and fearlessly. It is honest, straightforward; you know where you stand.
Active: The committee will review all applications in early April.
A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.
Passive: In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee.
Passive writing is popular in business because it helps the writer avoid responsibility and remain anonymous. Customers are suspicious of writing that evades responsibility. Employees and managers distrust ideas that appear more vague than strong.
8. Cut unneeded words and prune windy phrases.
If your readers respond with “say what?” after finishing one of your memos or reports, you may be using businessese and doublespeak. Businessese is language we use not because it is clear or effective, but because we get into the habit of using it. Businessese promotes lazy, self-important writing. Consider these precise, everyday substitutes for businessese words
- Find out instead of ascertain
- Send out instead of disseminate
- Use instead of utilize
- Plan instead of strategize
- Best instead of optimum
Doublespeak is finding a complicated, highfalutin way of saying a simple phrase. Doublespeak also cares more about self-importance than clearly communicating with the reader. Here are some ways to simplify your language.
- Janitor instead of sanitation engineer
- Apparently instead of it would appear that
- Explain instead of furnish an explanation for
Be a ruthless gardener when it comes to weeding words. To paraphrase a popular commercial, “just say it.”
9. Watch out for these four commonly misused words.
Some words in the English language take a constant beating in business correspondence. Be one of those writers who use them properly and pleasantly surprise your readers. Your conscientiousness may sell your next idea or product.
- That vs. which. Which often follows a comma and introduces a phrase that provides additional information not essential to the meaning of the sentence. That introduces a phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence.The report, which is twenty pages long, is mandatory reading. (Which introduces additional, but unnecessary, information.)The report that is twenty pages long is mandatory reading. (That points out a characteristic of the report and distinguishes it from a ten-page report.)
- Hopefully. This doesn’t mean I hope. Hopefully, I’ll finish the report by noon. Do you mean you’ll finish the report in a hopeful frame of mind by noon? Or do you mean you hope you’ll finish the report by noon? Say what you mean: I hope to finish the report by noon.
- Very. Avoid this lukewarm, unspecific adverb. I’m very happy that you elected me chairman of the Society for People with Super Sensitive Feet. Is very happy happier than just happy? Why not overjoyed or: I’m tickled to be the new chairman of the Society for People with Super Sensitive Feet.
10. Stress benefits, not features.
Everything you write in business, from sales letters to budget plans, is intended to elicit a response. You want someone to do something. In the sales letter, you want a client to grant you an appointment so that you can demonstrate your latest product. In the budget proposal, you want the board of directors to fund a new project in your department.
To be successful in business and in writing, you must persuade. Persuasive writing stresses benefits instead of features. Your reader doesn’t care how many bells and whistles your product has. The reader wants to know what your product is going to do for him.
Consider the perfume industry. Perfumeries do not sell stuff that makes you smell nice (the feature). They sell romance — how he will court her after she sprays it on (the benefit).
Feature: Our widget has three new attachments — a cat feeder, a plant waterer, and a thermostat controller.
Benefit: Buy our widget with its three new attachments and, finally, relax on a vacation. Our widget works while you enjoy yourself. There’s no need to worry; our widget will make sure your cat is fed, your plants are watered, and the temperature of your home is maintained at a constant, fuel-saving level.
11. Give your writing the conversation test.
After you have finished writing your memo or letter, read it aloud. Ask yourself if you would say to your reader what you are writing. Trust your ear. Wherever your writing is stuffy, wordy, or impersonal, rewrite it.
- Use contractions to warm-up your message and take the starch out of stiff sentences.
- Delete words, sentences, and phrases that do not add to your meaning.
- Make it personal. Speak directly to the reader, human to human. Remember people don’t do business with businesses; they do business with people.
Copyright © 1992 The Roberts Group
Sherry Roberts is the author of Book of Mercy, a fun book about a serious subject, and Maud’s House, a riotous novel that explores creativity and community.