Tips for Better Writing

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Digital Library > Building and Inspiring an Organization > Written communication "Tips for Better Writing"

Clear and effective writing is vital to entrepreneurs. If your company's literature is well-crafted, readers will see you and your company as focused and efficient. Poorly thought out and hastily written messages, on the other, could cost you business and confuse your staff.

OVERVIEW [top]Writing tops the list of skills that many entrepreneurs take for granted. They treat each memo, report or letter as one more item on their to-do lists. As a result, they rush through the process rather than thoughtfully working out the best way to compose their messages. In fast-growth companies and in this e-mail-driven world, clear and effective writing is particularly crucial. You can explain a decision, reduce misunderstandings and convey priorities in a short, well-crafted memo. If you organize your ideas and strike a confident tone, your memo can reinforce readers' positive perceptions of you and your company. Conversely, a muddled or dense memo can divert attention from your message. If you force readers to decipher your rambling prose, they may give up and conclude you're equally confused. In this Quick-Read you will find:
  • How to edit your writing effectively.
  • Ways to increase the persuasive power of your memos.
  • Tips to help you write clear e-mails.
SOLUTION [top] Business writing encompasses everything from quick staff memos to press releasesto formal correspondence. Each has a few of its own rules for style and content, but the following tips provide a foundation for clear, concise writing no matter what the occasion. Ironically, how you write is often less important than how well you edit. Mastering the art of scanning your first draft, spotting faults and fixing them is essential to ensuring quality control. When you need to write something, do it now. Get the thoughts on a page — or your computer screen — before they are lost from mind. Then advance to the editing stage, and see that your text passes inspection. What's the No. 1 point?Your main message should jump from the page. You should be able to summarize it in a sentence that starts, "The main point is …." And if you show your draft to 10 others, they should all come up with the same sentence. Is your writing conversational?The best workplace writing addresses readers directly. There's no layer of formality to muddy the message. Your draft must sound like you. Example: "Give me your best ideas" is better than "It would be greatly appreciated if you submitted your best ideas to me." Also avoid "shall," which is rarely used in conversation. Do you organize your ideas?Lucid writing presents a problem, its cause, a list of possible solutions and the rationale for the best solution. The author thus wins over readers by anticipating their reasoning process and guiding them through the issue in a logical, seamless manner. Does it look and read well?The most obvious benefit of editing is that you catch misspellings and identify poor punctuation and grammar. But there are also subtleties to consider, such as minimizing repetition of words and phrases, varying the sentence structure, writing in active voice ("We are launching a new product" instead of "New products are being launched") and keeping sentences and paragraphs short. To prune away fluff, circle each prepositional phrase. If you find sentences that contain at least three in a row, shorten them. Example: Replace "The crux of the matter in a situation of this sort is …" with "In this case.…" To strengthen your persuasiveness, express opinions boldly. Don't insert lots of qualifiers or bury your ideas or observations in a pile of extraneous words. Example: Replace "It's abundantly clear for all intents and purposes that high expenses will hurt our profits" with "High expenses hurt our profits." Avoid fancy words that don't come naturally to you — extra syllables are often just clutter. For example, write "use" instead of the overworked "utilize" — they mean exactly the same thing. To test your language, read your draft aloud. If you're unsure how to pronounce certain words or you sound unnatural reading it, simplify your wording. While e-mails are often less formal, don't use them as an excuse to abandon all rules of spelling, grammar and clarity. The extra few seconds it takes to capitalize words and use periods will encourage readers to treat your message seriously and understand it more readily. Keep paragraphs short and distinct in e-mails; big blocks of text can strain readers' eyes. If you ask lots of questions, make multiple requests or give a series of instructions, number them. This makes it easier for respondents to reply by number to each of your points. REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top] Richard Heller knows his Achilles heel when it comes to business writing: too much detail. His instinct is to overexplain, provide plenty of examples and repeat key points. Heller, the founder and head of Boulder Brownies in Stamford, Conn., has learned to edit ruthlessly. Now he likes to write a first draft, put it aside for a while and reread it with a red pen in hand. "I ask myself some questions to determine how much I can cut," he says. "Have I covered this point already? Are readers really concerned with this? Is there a simpler way to express this?" Heller's writing skills were tested when he composed a business plan. In deciding how to organize the document, he tried to anticipate and answer readers' questions. His main goal was to answer, "Why invest in this company?" He made sure that every sentence contributed to that goal. DO IT [top]
  1. Keep a business dictionary, general dictionary, and thesaurus at hand for when you need to find exactly the right words in formal communications.
  2. Replace starched, overly formal phrases, such as "in accordance with" and "as per our discussion," with more original, straightforward wording — or cut to the chase and eliminate such verbal segues entirely.
  3. Include a verb in an e-mail subject line to identify your purpose in writing. Examples: request data, confirm plans, share results.
  4. Be blunt. Avoid roundabout sentences, such as, "I'd like to propose a recommendation that.…" Instead, use "I recommend.…"
  5. Stick to the facts. Find other ways to express negative emotions. If you lash out in print, readers may dwell on your angry tone and overlook the message itself. If possible, let your response sit overnight so you can review it with a cooler head before sending it.
  6. Get to the point in a short opening paragraph. Don't make readers wade through introductory matter before they understand your purpose.
  7. Don't overdose on fancy fonts, punctuation or formatting. Use italics, underline or boldface sparingly — and avoid using all three on the same page.
  8. Before sending a persuasive memo, isolate each assertion and say to yourself, "Prove it." Confirm you have evidence, experience or other proof to support your claims.
  9. Eliminate redundancies, such as "large in size" and "past experience." Also cut meaningless words, such as "very," "extremely" or "quite."
  10. To ensure you don't write overly long, complex sentences, read them aloud. If you're short of breath after completing a sentence, break it in two.
RESOURCES [top] Books Visit a bookstore to select the general dictionary that best suits your needs. Be sure to examine those from American Heritage, Merriam-Webster and Random House. Before you buy, make sure the publication date on the back of the title page is recent. Roget's International Thesaurus, 5th edition,by Robert L. Chapman, editor (HarperCollins, 1992). For when you need just the right words for formal communications. Even then, beware of distracting the reader from your message with pretentious words and phrases. Dictionary of Business Terms, 3rd edition,by Jack P. Friedman (Barron's Educational Series, 2000). Literate Executiveby Laurie Rozakis (McGraw-Hill, 2000). A good, current handbook. AMA Style Guide for Business Writing(AMACOM, 1996). Grammar and style tips, A-Z, for common questions. Gregg Reference Manual, 9th edition,by William A. Sabin (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2001). Really detailed grammar and style tips. Business Writing: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Working Smarterby Midge Gillies (Amacom, 2000). General guidelines for various types of correspondence. The Elements of Electronic Communicationby Heidi Schultz (Allyn and Bacon, 1999). Internet Sites Writing That Works. Communications Concepts, Inc. PlainLanguage.gov 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business.Roberts Group, 1992. Articles "Experts' Tips on Writing Top-Notch Memos," Investor's Business Daily, June 15, 2000, p. 1, (800) 831-2525. "Writing Clearly, Part 1: Storytelling," Harvard Management Communication Letter, published by Harvard Business School Press, p. 6, June 2000, (800) 668-6705. "Writing Clearly, Part 2," Harvard Management Communication Letter, published by Harvard Business School Press, July 2000.   Article Contributors Writer: Morey Stettner  
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