Moran Communications, Inc.
The Write Stuff
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How to Improve Your Business Writing
Business writing, like any kind of written communication, requires rules, rules that should be followed, and, if ignored, can turn a meaningful piece of correspondence into a disaster. A poorly written letter to a customer can put your continued relationship at risk. A poorly written letter to a prospective customer can mean you’ll never have a business relationship. A poorly written website can leave potential customers shaking their heads in confusion.
Editing what you write.
Practical wisdom commands that you are the first editor of anything that you write. If the correspondence is interoffice, you may be the only one who edits it. But if the letter targets someone outside your company, or you’re writing website copy, a second set of eyeballs is essential. If the letter or web content is an important sales piece, make sure one or two managers look at it. A professional copywriter never thinks that his or her own editing is the final word, nor should you.
The Self-Editing Process
Think of editing as gardening. Your first job is to eliminate weeds. Here are some recommendations for you to follow. You may wish to create your own, but just stick to the rules.
Do Not Try to Impress the Reader with Your Brilliance
Don’t write for yourself, write for the reader. Does your product “drive the development of relevant taxonomies…?” I actually read that on a web page. I also read about a “company that focuses on holistic Business Process. …” Where do I sign? Tell the reader what your product or service can do for him or her, in other words, the benefits you offer, in plain English not “MBAspeak.”
Use the Active Tense – This is a critical rule of good writing, and one that’s emphasized in the classic Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Rather than say, “A big difference will be made by using our product,” say, “Our product will make a big difference.”
Using Microsoft Word, or whatever spell-check you use, go through the following steps.
- Common misused words – These are homophones – They all sound alike
Even though you may understand the difference between these words, when proofreading it’s easy to miss errors because they sound identical.
- There, they’re, their
- There – refers to a place, physical or abstract, such as “Put the milk there.” It can also be used with any part of the word “be” (is, am, are, was, were) to show the existence of something, as in, “There is a parade on Main Street.”
- They’re – is a contraction for “they are.” “They’re coming to get me.”
- Their – is a plural possessive. “Their flag is beautiful.”
- It’s, its.
- “It’s” is a contraction for “It is.” “It’s a cold winter.”
- “Its” is a possessive. “Its color is purple.”
- Your, you’re.
- Your – A possessive. “Your business is doing great.”
- You’re – A contraction of “you are.” “You’re looking great today.”
- Tip. Do a search on the word “you.” Yes, it’s laborious, but you will find mistakes. Microsoft spell check thinks that you, your, you’re, its, and it’s are all just fine as long as they’re spelled correctly. It’s up to you the writer/editor to make sure they are used
- Repeaters (more often typos than grammatical errors)
- the the
- is is
- a a
- .. (two periods at the end of a sentence).
- Tip – Just do a search on “the the,” “is is” and “a a.”
Let your writing sit for a while, a day if possible. Then you will come back to it with freshness. Stephen King recommends six weeks as cooling time to let a novel sit before you review the final draft. Obviously, six weeks won’t work for business writing, but for any important business communication, put some time between yourself and your first draft.
All Time Most Popular Writing Errors
The following was inspired by Ben Yagoda, author of How Not To Write Bad, Riverhead (February 5, 2013).
- Excessive wordiness. Eliminate unnecessary words. If a word is unnecessary it does not belong on a page. Example: “We recommend that every member of your sales force read, analyze and implement the following steps.” Better: “We recommend that your sales force follow these steps.”
- Weak beginnings. When possible, make the subject of a sentence a person, group, or object, rather than a concept or other intangible.
Example: “Intelligence is a quality shared by all of the students in the class.”
Better: “All of the students are smart.”
Avoid beginning a sentence with “there is” or “there are.”
Example: “There were five writers who gave readings at the bookstore this week.”
Better: “Five writers gave readings at the bookstore this week.”
- Weak endings.
Example: “Having a strong ending to a sentence is just as important as having a strong beginning.”
Better: “A well written sentence has a strong ending.” Note that the word “ending” is at the end of the sentence. It’s often best to end a sentence with a noun such as this.
- The simpler word is the best choice, usually (not always). This is not a strict rule, and always let your personal style be your guide, but simple trumps complicated. Don’t try to sound important or erudite.
Live, not reside
Buy, not purchase
Have, not possess
Use, not utilize
Person, not individual
- Spell-check is your friend, but not your best friend.
Spell-check has one job: to find misspelled words. That’s it.
What’s wrong with this sentence? “Seaman Harborrow fired a 45 caliber pistol from a distance of 25 years.” Microsoft Word’s spell-check found it perfectly okay. Of course, “years” should have been “yards,” but it didn’t bother the spell-check software because years was spelled correctly. I actually found this mistake in one of my books, but I ain’t telling which. (Yes, I fixed it).
Here are a few words that spell-check will pass by as correct, but it can be a disaster for your intended meaning: Heroine, heroin; super attendant (superintendant?); loner, loaner; bare, bear. Any others?
- Use a thesaurus with caution. Don’t use a thesaurus to find a substitute word that sounds more important. Sometimes “tool” is a much better word than “utensil.”
- Don’t punctuate by the way it sounds. Yes, how it sounds is important, but follow the rules. This is especially important with commas. Read the Elements of Style by Strunk & White and the hilarious Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. An excellent online source for punctuation is http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp.
- Words to avoid.
There are some words in the English language that are overused. The writer Bryan Garner calls them “skunked words,” meaning that they have an odor about them.
- Impact as a verb
- Unique when you mean unusual (although it may be a good choice in sales letters).
- Going forward. “Going forward, we’re going to watch our costs.” Better to say, “in the future” or “from now on.”
- A good word, but overused and misused.
- Interface, especially when used as a verb.
- Watch your qualifiers and intensifiers
Trust yourself to make a statement without adding qualifiers such as “pretty,” “somewhat,” or “arguably.” Also watch intensifiers such as “very,” “extremely,” or “absolutely.”
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain
Example: “Tom Brady is an very talented quarterback, and his passing statistics absolutely place him at the top of the league.” This is also a bit wordy.
Better: “Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL.”
Caution: Some writing pundits go nuts over the word very. They, like Mark Twain, find it a useless word. Some recommend a global search and delete of the word very for every document. Well, not so fast. It’s true that the word very can make for lazy writing, but it is a word, commonly used in speech, and it has its place in the English language. A better idea is to search on the word and decide whether to delete it case by case. In writing fiction, leave the word very to dialog, where it resides in real life. That said, the word very can be very useful at times.
- Adverbs – Caution
An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group.
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King, On Writing.
But Stephen King was writing about fiction. In non-fiction, adverb use is more acceptable, but don’t overdo it. Every time you encounter a word ending in ly, ask yourself if it’s useful. Just as it is with the qualifier word very, adverbs should be used sparingly (note that I just used an adverb).
The good news: e-mail is fast. The bad news: e-mail is fast.
Email has become so key to the way that we communicate, it’s amazing that a lot of people don’t have a handle on the basics of this powerful technology and the essentials of email etiquette.
When to use e-mail and when not to use it. Professor Nicholas Negroponte, in his groundbreaking book Being Digital (First Vintage, 1996), drew a critical distinction when thinking about communication. Should the communication you’re about to have with someone be synchronous (necessitating a give and take), or should it be asynchronous (where the back and forth between people isn’t necessary). “When should we schedule the Annual Dinner?” This will require a lot of input and ideas from all involved, so it should be a synchronous communication in the form of a meeting or a conference call. But, “Please be in my office for a staff meeting Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.” is asynchronous: you’re telling somebody simply to be there – no discussion is necessary. This is best handled by email or a text message.
Reply and reply all. If you take this to heart and learn the critical difference between these two buttons, you may save your business or career, avoid a lawsuit, and generally evade a lot of ugly mayhem in your life. This applies especially to a large organization, which, thanks to e-mail, may be geographically diverse. A message sent to a bunch of people may contain some information about which you have a strong opinion. If you express your opinion to “all,” you run the risk of seriously alienating some people. A regional manager named Bob sends a message to everybody in a group. One of the group sends you a direct email (not to all) indicating his displeasure with Bob. Instead of just replying to him, you reply to all that “Bob is a flaming idiot.” Whoops!
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: When sending an email message, always change the subject line to convey the subject of the message you’re sending. Some people, many people, through simple laziness just hit forward, reply, or reply all to send a message that has absolutely nothing to do with the current message. Let’s say you and a long list of recipients received an email a couple of years ago entitled, “Christmas Party.” Now, two years later, some of the people on that original list still send messages to the group with the subject line, “Re: Christmas Party,” although the message has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas party. This happens all the time. It shouldn’t.
Don’t be a comedian. Use humor, if you must, but be appropriate. A poke in the ribs joke may work in the hallway, but it can look weird a few years later in an old email. What seems funny when spoken can come across very differently in an email. Be careful when using humor at someone else’s expense.
Do not EMWD! What, you may ask, is EMWD? It is emailing while drunk. If you have had a few pops too many and are feeling loquacious, unplug your computer. What seemed to you like beautiful prose that evening might be horrifying when you read the response in the morning. This rule also applies to EMWA (emailing while angry). Back when we communicated only by paper mail, the tasks of printing out the letter, signing it, inserting it into an envelope, and putting a stamp on it provided a lot of waypoints for rethinking the message we were about to send. The good news is that email is fast. The bad news is that email is fast.
Do Not SHOUT! What you just read is called shouting, the inappropriate use of capital letters. It’s okay if you want to emphasize something, but it is completely tacky if this is your default font when writing anything. It makes you look like an amateur, especially when you’re shouting about something that is NOT WORTH SHOUTING ABOUT. It also eliminates your ability to emphasize something that you really want to stand out. Twitter and Facebook, for example, have no bold, underline, or italics, so all caps is the only way to emphasize a word. I will not follow someone on Twitter or friend someone on Facebook who SHOUTS ALL THE TIME.
Break up your message into bite-sized paragraphs. If you want your email to be read, put yourself in the place of the reader. Appropriate use of paragraph breaks is always a good rule of writing, but it’s critical when using the Internet or email. People expect punchier messages on the computer screen. We live in the Information Age, and we all share the responsibility to deliver information as efficiently as possible. A never-ending paragraph screams out, “Don’t read me!”
If you have a website it should be part of your e-mail address. People spend thousands of dollars on a website and thousands more trying to drive traffic to it, but ignore a simple method of getting people to visit your site: your email address. How many times have you seen a business card promoting mybusiness.com but the email address, instead of email@example.com, says firstname.lastname@example.org. Every internet service provider that hosts websites includes free email boxes. Why people don’t take advantage of this is one of the mysteries of the Internet. It’s different, of course, if you’re an employee of a corporation or organization. In that case you should use a personal email address for personal correspondence.
Use a signature. All email software programs enable you to put in a signature or contact information automatically when you begin a message. It’s a mystery why everybody doesn’t do this, just as it’s amazing that people don’t use their website for their email. You can even use different identities, for example, one as the head of your business, and the other showing you as a member of a non-profit board. Sometimes your message will result in a return phone call for clarification. Unless your contact information is there, you’re forcing the recipient to look up your phone number. If nothing else, a signature line with contact information is a simple courtesy. Not only do you make life easier on your recipient, but a signature also provides you with a valuable branding opportunity: to let people know who you are. In any email program, instructions on how to add a signature are usually found in preferences or options. Every time you send an email it becomes a marketing opportunity. It’s simple. Just do it.
Make nice. Email has become such a dominant part of everyday communication that obeying the rules of email etiquette simply makes sense. An excellent and well-titled book on the subject is called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Knopf, 2007).
It’s just good business to send regular messages to your email list. It may be an alert about your latest blog post, or that a new issue of your company newsletter is available on your website. Often, you will want to send a “blast” email to alert your list that you’ve just rolled out a new product or service.
Email marketing services such as Constant Contact, Mailchimp, or Robly do most of the work for you. If you send regular email alerts, you should definitely consider one of these third party providers. They know the ropes and make life easier.
Caution – People on Your List Should Have “Opted in”
In the “old days,” you could buy or rent a commercial mailing list of targeted prospects. Indeed, you can still do this today with regular mail. But you can’t just go out and buy or rent an email list (although it’s done). Email is now controlled by the Federal Anti-Spam Law, also known as the Can Spam law.
Spam is unsolicited email, also known as junk email.
The law doesn’t allow false header information, such as a fictitious sender or where the communication originated. Deceptive subject lines are prohibited, and you must state if your email is an advertisement. The law also requires that you provide your physical address or post office box that is registered on the email communication. You must also provide a simple “opt out” link to enable the recipient to let you know he doesn’t want to be on your list anymore. you have 10 days to delete them from your list.
The penalty for violating the Can Spam law can be stiff, as much as $16,000 per offense. It’s best to use a third party mailer such as Constant Contact, which partially insulates you. But Constant Contact will drop you for repeat violations. Email is a gift from the gods of technology. Don’t blow it.
Should you hire a freelance copywriter?
To answer that question you should first ask yourself if you have the talent in-house to write your company communications. Chances are you don’t.
The American College Board did a study in 2004, updated in 2013, of 120 major corporations in the Business Roundtable. The response rate was a hefty 53.3 percent. These companies employ over four million workers.
Take a sip of water. The study found that over one third, that’s about 1.33 million employees, are deficient in writing skills. More than 40 percent of the firms surveyed say they offer or require remedial writing courses for their employees. One respondent estimated that his company sends 200 to 300 employees annually for remedial writing training. This translates into an enormous amount of money wasted by American corporations. The study, which was headed up by former Senator Bob Kerry, also found that the price tag for poor writing is about $3.1 billion dollars a year. It costs $3,000 per employee just for remedial writing training. That American schools are screwing things up is the subject of another White Paper.
If you have a talented writer on staff, you should then question whether you can afford to divert that employee from other duties to take on writing projects. For example, a skilled programmer from the IT department has to set her work aside to tackle a writing assignment. Who does her job while she’s writing?
Writing is a craft, a specialized set of skills. A professional writer knows that writing means more than a sentence with correct grammar, although that’s essential. It means more than correct spelling and punctuation, although they’re necessary too. A writer knows that writing means communicating a message, telling a story. What is a press release? It’s a story. What’s a letter to customers or clients? It’s a story. What is a business plan? It’s a story. How about a web page? It’s a story.
The written communications between your organization and the world positions you as a serious company to do business with, or a slap-dash outfit that pays little attention to what it’s saying. It’s a crucial element of everything you do.
Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran – All Rights Reserved
A limited license is hereby given to make copies of this White Paper for others, provided that the above copyright notice and the words below appear in text.
Moran Communications, Inc. – The Write Stuff