The Ten Deadly Sins of Business Writing

(and how to avoid them)

 

by Elizabeth West

 ©2014 Elizabeth West

Introduction

 

Before I began writing professionally, I used to dread the act of typing words onto paper. Those words seemed so permanent! I actually had some reason to fear, since writing is such a powerful tool—it can either aid you or cripple you.

 

I'll never forget my first writing assignment for one editor. This was back in the days of typewritten work, when you actually saw the changes that an editor made. I handed in my work and was appalled to see its edited form: each page was a mass of red scribbles. Across the top was written: Nice work!  If this was nice, what did the bad stuff look like?

 

Later, I understood that most of the red marks were picky little details: missing commas or words that are taboo only in textbook writing. A few marks, though, were for serious errors.  Luckily, those errors did not cost me much, since my editor knew that I was a beginner. This editor already knew me and was willing to take the time to educate me about my writing sins. Now it's time to pass on the favor.

 

Not everyone is as lucky as I was then, and it is for these folks that I wrote this book.

 

I wrote it for the poor souls who unwittingly sabotage themselves whenever they put words on paper. They make errors that kill their chances with any readers. You may be one of those hapless folks yourself, or you may know one. The people this book can help are those whose personalities—on paper—are betrayed by their written work.

 

These people are all victims of horrible writing accidents: 

 

   An intelligent sales associate turns into an incoherent birdbrain.

   A witty secretary becomes a humorless dope.

   A charming manager is transformed into a pompous bore.

   An interesting co-worker becomes a bumbling clod.

 

What happened? In person, they were intelligent, witty, charming, and interesting, but on paper they mutated into some pretty scary creatures. Their true personalities were probably destroyed by one of the ten deadly writing sins.

 

And personalities are not the only victims. Sometimes entire business deals are killed by inept letters, inexact memos, or baffling reports. Perhaps readers felt insulted, confused, or stupid after reading. Or maybe the readers just assumed that the writers were not people worth knowing. In either case, the written word caused unnecessary problems.

 

A Happy Secret About Writing

 

Written communications are often your first introduction to a prospective client or co-worker. The words that you write create a mental image in readers' minds. What kind of image does your writing project? Does it represent you and your abilities accurately? Or does it create a false image that presents you in an unflattering light?

 

Great writing is a talent—a gift—but clear writing is not. It is a skill that can be mastered, and like other skills, it is mastered through knowledge and practice. I had wonderful editors who helped me learn. You may not have them, but you have this book, and it's a start.

 

I hope that this book will give you a slightly different attitude toward writing. Anyone who can talk and think can learn to write clearly. However, they must first learn the difference between written and spoken ideas.

 

In some ways, writing is like speaking, a skill that young children master. In a way, writing is even more forgiving than speech. Have you ever talked to someone and then later sputtered, "What I SHOULD have said was . .  ."? Writing can eliminate this frustration. It gives you a second chance to make your points. This second chance is called revision; it is the step that can make anyone look good on paper.

 

The happy secret about writing is that you don't have to do it perfectly the first time.  You don't even have to do it right the second time. You can just do it in some fashion and then rework it until it's right. And you don't even have to do it alone. At the end of this book, I'll let you in on a secret that's helped many a professional writer: using friends and co-workers as writing allies.

 

You can't learn all the fine points of grammar and composition in a brief booklet, but you don't need to. Most people overlook certain kinds of errors. I focused on The Ten Deadly Sins not because they are the only sins, but because they are the most important one. I call them deadly because they can kill your chances for success.

 

If you can eliminate only these sins, you will be well on your way to becoming a confident, effective writer. So start with them. Read them over; check out the examples, and see if you don't later look at written words in new ways.

 

Perhaps then you will grow to love writing as much as I do now.


 

An overview—comparing writing and talking

 

Let's start by thinking about the process of writing itself. Like talking, which you do daily, writing is a form of communication. It's a way of sharing your thoughts, ideas, and feelings with others.

 

Talking and writing are alike in several ways. Besides involving language, both affect people on two levels, a literal level and a more emotional one. The literal level consists of what the words actually say: Let's meet at noon. However, many words also suggest attitudes and feelings. For example, Let's meet at noon, Let us convene at twelve,  and We can rendezvous at lunch suggest different kinds of events.

 

Talking and writing have a few major differences. When you talk, for instance, your tone of voice, your facial expressions, and your gestures help carry your message. When you smile at a friend and say, "I can't believe you did that!" you create a warm, supportive impression. Now imagine yourself frowning and saying the same thing to a new secretary. How would your listener react then?

 

A main reason that people fear writing, I think, is because they can't see their readers' responses. You are usually separated from readers, so you can't tell how your words are received. When you talk, you can see if your listeners seem bored or confused or angry. If they do, then you pick up the pace or explain what you really meant. Writing doesn't allow you to make these on-the-spot adjustments. The words just leave your hand and have an unknown effect. If the effect is unintended and awful, you may not even know it.

 

Luckily, writing has two major advantages over speech. First, you can approach it in small stages. You can begin by doodling, making lists, jotting down notes, or just plain thinking. Then you can go on to making a first draft—a version that no one but you needs to see. Then you can mess with that until it's just the way you want it.

 

Secondly, you can wrestle with your words privately before you send them. As you work, you can make improvements and avoid many disastrous problems. In fact, that's the whole point of this book. It is designed to teach you to look at writing with an editor's eye. This can help you communicate accurately and effectively.

 

A closer look at business writing

 

Business writing is a little different from the writing that you see in magazines and books. Three major differences are worth noticing.

 

            1. The goal is to convey information quickly.

            2. The audience is specific; it is not a vague "general" reader.

            3. The writing follows one of a few formats.

 

Unlike so-called "creative writing," business writing is not designed as entertainment (although it can be entertaining). It has a job to do, and it should do it efficiently and well. Before you start worrying about the ten deadly sins, keep this point foremost in your mind:

 

All business writing should have a clear audience and purpose.

 

Now what does this really mean? It means that you should devlop the habit of thinking about your audience and purpose before you begin writing. This can take just a few second; you might run through a quick mental checklist. You might ask yourself these questions:

     Who is my intended audience?

     What is the purpose of this communication?

     What information must it include? (Imagine your audience has only one minute to read.)

     What information would also be useful, helpful, or interesting?

 

The concept of purpose and audience will soon become second nature to you. Until then, though, you might consider these.

 

Potential audiences

 

Customers

Potential Customers

 

Stockholders

Potential Investors

Employees

Potential Employees

 

Supervisors

Department Heads

 

Possible purposes

 

announce

claim

compare/contrast

congratulate

convince

correct

define

demand

demonstrate

describe

explain

inform

narrate

pacify

present

propose

report

request

review

scold

sell

summarize

urge

warn

 

Getting Started

 

After you focus on an audience and purpose, you can get started. For some people, that's easy, but many others have trouble at this point. A blank page or computer screen fills them with anxiety. "Where do I start?" they think. Here's a reassuring suggestion:

 

Start by scribbling.

 

Jot down ideas or topics in no particular order. Don't try to write sentences and paragraphs. Instead, focus on the content—what you want to say—before you get bogged down in questions of form. This activity loosens your mind.  Only after you have scribbled for a while should you start writing for real.

 

When you do start, don't feel you must begin at the beginning. Instead, start at the easiest part—the part where you know what you want to say. Often, once you've done these two steps,  the rest is easier because you're no longer looking at a blank page.

 

A Few Words About Tone

 

When you hear a friendly or unfriendly tone of voice, you recognize it immediately. Writing has a tone as well. It may not be obvious in a single sentence, but it becomes clearer in longer pieces.

 

You create a particular tone by your choice of words and by your degree of formality. For example, do you use the word cannot or the contraction can't? Do you choose a simple word, such as real, or a longer but more precise term, such as authentic?

 

In business writing, aim for a pleasant, natural tone—not stiff and formal, but not slangy either. If you are unsure about the tone of a piece, read it aloud. Do you feel like yourself while you're reading, or do you feel an oppressive stuffiness overtaking you and constricting your voice?

 

Read these two examples and notice how they affect you. Which writer would you rather meet and do business with?

 

Did you receive the shipment that we sent on June 5? We enclosed an invoice but we haven't yet received payment. I want to make sure that your parts arrived safely.

 

This letter is in regards to your failure to pay our invoice of June 5. We mailed the parts in a timely fashion but have not been paid. Your failure to pay has been noted. 


The Ten Deadly Sins

 

Now we'll take a look at each of the ten deadly sins. Read over them and look at the examples that I offer. Sometimes, you might not see the difference between the so-called "better" version and the original.  If this is the case, just move on and come back later. Remember, this isn't school. You don't have to master one lesson before you move on to the next. Just read a little at a time and see what happens.

 

First Sin: Inaccuracy

 

This is first because it is really major. If readers spot factual errors, you have lost their trust, perhaps forever. So whatever you do, check and double-check your facts.  Check the spelling of names; check dates, and look to see if you have actually written what you meant to communicate.

 

Whatever you say should need no interpretation. It should be correct and precise.  Sometimes, that's easier said than done. But these steps can help:

 

Create a guiding statement

Before you actually begin writing, ask yourself what you will include. Can you state in a sentence or two what the writing is about? This sentence doesn't have to be written, but it should be clear in your head, because it will become your guiding statement. If you can't create a clear guiding statement—one that includes your audience and purpose—you may not be ready to write.

 

Take a few second to focus your thoughts. Your writing will be better for it.

            Examples:

Lacks focus: I want to tell our clients about our new product. (What kind of thing will you tell them? What do you want them to learn?)

More focused: I want to announce to our clients that we have a new product and that it has four new features.

More focused: I want to convince our clients that because our product has four new features, it is superior to others.

 

Write a Topic Sentence

A topic sentence accurately states your main idea. It doesn't have to be your first sentence, and later you may even decide to eliminate it. But you should still write one, because this act forces you to focus your ideas even further.

 

Here's a quick way to get started. First, identify your topic, the general area that you are writing about. For example, your topic might be "improving performance," "our new product,"  or "Monday's meeting." After you've pinpointed your topic, make a statement about it. Say something that sums up your main point. Here are some examples:

 

                        Topic: improving performance

                        Different statements you might make about this topic:

    Three simple strategies can dramatically improve sales performance.

    Our sorter is still too slow; look for ways we can improve its performance.

    We would like your thoughts on a seminar that we care considering: Improving Record-Keeping for Expenses.        

                       

                        Topic: new product          

                        Different statements you might make about this topic:

    Whizzo can save you both time and energy.

    Whizzo cleans rust stains without harming the environment.

    Whizzo will help your computer run twice as fast as it runs now. 

 

                        Topic: Monday's meeting           

                        Different statements you might make about this topic:

    Monday's meeting is critical, so plan to attend.

    The meeting scheduled for next Monday has been postponed.

    Monday's meeting will not end until the problem has been solved.

 

Remember, this main idea may change as you write. After you get going, new thoughts may crowd into your head and onto your paper. That's fine. You can always go back and revise your statement.

 

Inaccuracy is a devlish sin, because it can sneak in so easily. Not only must you choose your words carefully, but you must also locate them carefully. To amuse yourself, and to see how easily meaning can shift, try this activity.

 

Activity: What a Difference a Word Makes!

 

Rewrite the following sentence several times. (You can do it in your head.) Each time, insert the word only in a different place. Notice the different meaning that each sentence has.

 

                                    I tapped him on the arm.

 

 

Note:

Two common forms of inaccuracy are misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. You don't need to remember which are which, but you should know that both terms describe words or phrases that are not written in the correct places.

            Examples:

            Inaccurate: Scattered around the parking lot, I saw paper cups. (Sounds as if you should pull yourself together.)

            Clear: I saw paper cups scattered around the parking lot.

 

            Inaccurate: When leaving for vacation, a supervisor must be notified. (Sounds as if the supervisor is leaving. )

            Clear: Before you leave for vacation, always notify a supervisor.


Second Sin: Disorganization

 

Disorganization is a problem because it leaves readers in a muddle. At first, they think they know what you're saying, but then they find it hard to follow you. They either feel stupid or irritated, and often they stop reading entirely.

 

Disorganization is not that hard to fix, if you think of your work in chunks. Whatever you write for business should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. These parts do not have to be long. Sometimes, a sentence is enough. However, the parts should each serve a purpose.

 

The beginning

The beginning should let readers know what you are going to tell them. It should mentally prepare them for what is to follow. A letter that begins, "I'd like to congratulate you...." will lead readers to expect a different message from that in a letter that starts with "I am sorry to report..."

 

The beginning is the place to supply background information that readers might need. For example, if you are writing to let workers know about a new policy, you might want to remind them of the old policy. If you are writing a report about competing dishwashers, you might want to explain why the report was commissioned in the first place.

 

The middle

The middle contains the real meat of your message. This is where you express your main ideas and back them up with some kind of support. This support can take many forms, including the following:

 

anecdotes                 facts

quotations               statistics

reasons                     examples

expert opinions     descriptions

charts                       details

 

Support can convince readers or it can overwhelm them. When supporting details appear to be random, they are hard to understand and harder still to remember. Readers must relay solely on memory. However, when the support is arranged in some logical order, it is easier to follow and recall.

 

Most types of writing have a structure that is based on one or more of the following:

     chronological order

     order of importance (from least to most important or visa versa)

     problem-solution

     compare and contrast ( topic by topic, or point by point)

     cause-effect

     spatial (top to bottom, left to right, from outside in, etc.)

     classification (category and members)

      order of impression (what someone notices first, then next, etc.)

 

Often, you use a mixture. For example, you might use chronological order when you give the history of a product. You may use cause and effect when you describe why it developed a certain way. You could use spatial order to describe its appearance.

 

You can help your reader identify and understand the order by including summary sentences that tell what will follow in a section. Look at these:

            Examples:

First, let's see how this situation developed. (Readers will expect chronological order.)

The test results were surprising. (Readers will expect a contrast between what was expected and what actually occurred.)

Three warnings are in order. (Readers will expect order of importance.)

Internet users fall into two categories. (Readers expect to learn what the categories are.)

 

The end

The end of your piece is ususually the shortest part. It should let readers know that you're done, and it should do so in a way that emphasizes your real purpose. Most endings either summarize the main points, explain why the information is important, or else urge readers to action.

 

Note about form:

Certain kinds of business writing, including letters, memos, and proposals, usually follow particular formats. A format is just a standard method of organizing information. You should learn and follow these forms because they help your readers organize the information.


Third Sin: Gaps

 

Gaps are sometimes hard to see in your own work. After all, you know how your ideas are related, so whatever you write is probably clear to you. However, what is clear to you may not be obvious to someone else on first glance. You can fix this by helping your readers make connections between your ideas.

 

The simplest way is to use lots of transitions, or linking words. Transitions are links that connect ideas. They help your readers follow your train of thought and understand your organization.

 

Here is a list of common transitions. You will probably think of others:

 

To show...

Use these transitions

 

chronological order,

order of impression

first, next, finally, before, after, at the same time, afterwards, until

order of importance

more importantly, first, finally, above all, most of all

comparison or contrast

in the same way, both, all, unlike, on the other hand, conversely, however, rather, although

cause-effect

because, as a result, so, therefore, thus, consequently

spatial order

above, below, near, behind, to the left, the outer

classification

for example, for instance, in particular,

 

Another way to bridge gaps in writing is to remind readers of something that you wrote earlier. Do this by repeating words or phrases at appropriate points. Such repetition can help readers see how one sentence connects to another. It helps readers see ways in which ideas, sentences, or paragraphs are related.

            Examples:

The first group is made up of happy customers. The next group is made up of dissatisfied customers—the ones who say they will never buy from you again. Both of these groups ...

 

The first four methods are usually the most effective. However, you must use your own judgment. Sometimes, a whole new approach is needed. Other useful methods include....

 

The third kind of gap is the easiest to fix but not the easiest to spot. You create this type of gap when you write a sentence fragment instead of a complete sentence. Remember fragments from grammar class? Those were those groups of words that weren't sentences because they were missing essential parts.

 

A real sentence has a subject and verb. The subject tells who or what the sentence is about. The verb tells more about the subject. A fragment is missing one of those parts.

            Examples:

The packages arrived damaged. Broken sides and sometimes even smashed tops.  (Most readers can figure out that the packages had broken sides, but why not tell them?)

 

Every worker in this state, choosing to join the union or remaining independent. (What about these workers? In this sentence, choosing does not function as a verb.)

 

Fragments have a place in creative writing. They add zest to dialogue and add a certain style to story-telling. However, they are dangerous in business writing.

 


Fourth Sin: Vagueness

 

Vagueness will usually either irritate or confuse readers. Be as precise as you can unless you are deliberately trying to obscure unpleasant realities.

 

This is another area that is easier to fix than it is to find. Since you know what a word or phrase means to you, you may not realize that someone else conjures up a different image. To one person, the word factory might suggest a funky converted mill; to another, the word might bring to mind a spotless manufacturing plant.

 

To avoid such confusion, try to use concrete terms. Such words are opposites of abstract ones. Abstract terms are ideas—generalizations such as "happiness" or "organization." Concrete terms are ones that you can picture or sense.

 

Even a concrete term may not be precise enough. Here's a good example. Read down the list of words in the middle. The left-hand column points out how the word might be misinterpreted. You'll notice that the more precise the language becomes, the greater the the chance that everyone will picture the same thing.

 

What a reader might think

WHICH WORD?

Type of Word

Could be a boat or plane. . .

transportation

abstract

Could be a truck or bus. . .

vehicle

concrete, but nonspecific

Could be a race car. . .

car

concrete, but imprecise

Could be an old clunker. . .

4-door sedan

concrete and precise

 Oh, that's what it is. . .

1998 Mazda 626 LX

concrete, precise, specific

 

Another form of vagueness is the pronoun that does not refer to anything on the page.

            Examples:

   We placed our order last week, and they promised it would be delivered within ten days. (Who promised? The advertisement? A secretary? What is being delivered?)

 

  It has been suggested that... (Who suggested? See section on passive voice)

 

Precise language tells readers exactly what they need to know. Here are examples of vague and precise sentences.

 

Vague

Precise

Do not make cold calls. This practice will have a negative impact.

This practice will increase our costs.

or

This practice will anger clients.

I need the report ASAP.

I need the report by noon on Friday.

All workers must wear protective gear.

All workers must wear safety glasses.


Fifth Sin: Wordiness

 

Most editors know this rule of thumb:

 

You can usually cut 30% of most written work and even the writer won't realize it.

 

Begin by thinking in idea-sized chunks. Ask yourself: Does my reader really need to know this? Often, writers include details to show how thorough they are. Yet certain details bog down readers. Could such information appear in an appendix?

 

The real solution to wordiness—cutting, trimming, and tightening— takes place during revision, after you have finished writing. If you revise during writing, you will often lose track of your ideas because you have shifted your focus to wording or grammar.

 

First write your ideas. Get them down on paper. No one has to see them. Then go back and worry about the language. Then, when you are revising, look for unnecessary or redundant words or phrases, such as those underlined below:

 

advance planning

ask a question

completely filled

in order to

by means of

for a period of six weeks

for the purpose of

 

my personal opinion

arrived at a time when

end results

it is important to note that

This will remain true for some time in the future

at a later date

 

 

Often, there are several ways to say something: long ways and short ways. A short way is easier to read and easier to understand.

 

Long Way

Short Way

 

at the present time

now

involves the use of

uses

during the course of our research   we learned

research showed

experienced growth

grew

limited in size and weight

small and light

disbursements

payments, payoff

remunerate

pay

 


Sixth Sin: High Readability

 

Readability describes how hard it is to read a particular piece of writing. Readability is usually expressed as a grade level. First grade readability is easy; twelfth grade is harder.

 

Most adults can read quickly and comfortably at Grade 8-10 level. This is the goal that you should strive for. Few business writers even think about this, though. (A readability check of a current business textbook showed a readability level of 19.6. The average sentence length was 57.5 words!)

 

In general, two factors influence readability: sentence length and word difficulty. Check your favorite newspapers and magazine. How long are their average sentences?

Reader's Digest averages 10-17 words per sentence; Smithsonian  averages 24-30.

 

Average Sentence Length

Degree of Difficulty for Educated Adults

 

8-15 words

easy

15-20

standard

20-30

hard

over 30

very hard, usually unnecessarily so

 

Keeping sentences short may require effort. However, remember this rule of thumb:

                                   

Easy writing is often hard reading.

 

The vocabulary you use can also influence readability. Some words are harder to read than others.

 

Harder

Easier

 

 

terminate

end, fire

activate

start

initiate

begin

modifications

changes

correspondingly

in the same way

accordingly

so

prioritize

rank, put in order

utilize

use

facilitate

help

 

Word order—the way a sentence is constructed—can also influences readability. Readers can most easily understand sentences that follow this order:  First the subject, then the verb, then an object or modifiers.

            Examples:

            The machine runs best when the temperature is between 30 and 75 degrees.

                 subject     verb                modifier (a modifying clause)

 

The next examples are harder to read. Also, they emphasize the temperature rather than the machine. (Perhaps that is your point. If so, then express this more directly.)

            Examples:

When the temperature is between 30 and 75 degrees, the machine runs best.

 

The temperature of the room in which the machine is located will affect operational efficiency. For peak efficiency, the temperature should remain between 30 and 75 degrees.

Helpful Note

In general, be suspicious of the following constructions:

 

Too many words that end with -ment, -ity, -tion, -ance.

 

achievement

ability

application

existence

enhancement

convertibility

connection

performance

establishment

possibility

optimization

significance

management

flexibility

utilization

importance

 

Too many of these strung together make material hard to read. Often, a crisp, active verb could be used in place of a flabby -tion noun.

            Examples:

            The ability to cut costs will put us ahead of the competition!

            Improved: We can cut costs and win new clients.

 

            The performance of the widget has been enhanced considerably.

            Improved: The widget now works faster than ever!

 

Strings of phrases

 

            It is the intention /  of this committee / to make a determination/ of need /  in relation /       to the health insurance coverage / of this company/ and its employees. (26 words)

 

            Improved: This committee plans to determine the health insurance needs of the company and  its employees. (15 words)

 

Strings of nouns

Sometimes, the word choice makes readers struggle. A string of nouns may need to be decoded.

 

            The transportation utilization committee.

            Improved: The committee to plan how many buses we need

 

            You will see a red plastic input line coupler.

            Improved: You will see a red plastic coupler. That holds the input lines.

 


Seventh Sin: Monotony

 

Readers have trouble reading boring material. Nothing pulls them along. Most writers fear this criticism of their work because they worry that perhaps they are the problem instead of their words. Maybe they are boring—maybe, but probably not. What is more likely is that the writer has lost sight of the audience.

Never fear. You can always give the poor readers a little help. Here are some common problems and solutions.

 

Problem

Solution

Too many long sentences or too many   short choppy sentences in a string.

Vary sentence length. Break up long sentences into two shorter ones or combine short, choppy sentences.

Use bulleted lists instead of sentences.

 

One word repeated too often.

Use a thesaurus to find a synonym or reframe the sentence completely, so that you can use these, they, it instead.

 

A sing-song or choppy rhythm or a monotonous plodding pace.

Avoid placing the same kind of words in the same place in several sentences.

 

            For example, try moving the headline...

            Try moving the headline, for example...

            Move the headline, for example, or...

            What can you do? Try moving...

 

Long sections filled with dense text. Just looking at such a page is disheartening.

Break the text into shorter paragraphs. Use headings, lists, charts, and other graphics to break up the monotony.


Eighth Sin: Passive Voice

 

When the subject of the sentence performs an action, the sentence is in the active voice.

            Ralph drove the car.

 

When the subject is acted upon, the sentence is in the passive voice.

            The car was driven by Ralph.

 

Most times, the active voice is the best one to use. It is easier to read, livelier, and more precise. Furthermore, it makes someone or something responsible for an action.

           

Passive: The issue of convertibility can be decided later on the basis of objective testing.

Active: Testers can later determine if the product is convertible.

 

The passive voice is useful when the agent that performs the action is unimportant, less important than the action, or unknown.

            Examples:

Your goods will be shipped tomorrow. (Does the buyer care who ships them? Not really...)

 

Seven new houses were built this week. (Various people built them...it's the number that matters.

 

If a plastic tray is dropped, it will not shatter. (Anyone—even you or I—could drop it. Let's not assign blame.)

 


Ninth Sin: Sexism

 

You must use gender-neutral forms in the workplace. Women make up half the world. You are inaccurate if you ignore them, and many people—of both sexes—find sexist language insensitive and old-fashioned.

 

No one likes to be left out, so avoid terms that exclude women. Many terms, such as salesman, assume that all sales people are male. You may not think such terms are harmful or insulting, but many readers will. Instead of sexist terms, substitute gender-neutral words, such as sales clerk.

 

Sexist

Neutral

mailman

Mail carrier

policeman

Police Officer

workmen

workers

to man the booth

staff, run, operate

Gentlemen:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

To the Service Department:

my girl

my secretary

 

Also, be careful about emphasizing qualities in women that you would not point out in men. Often, writers point out a woman's attractiveness, clothing, or marital status in situations where they would never do the same to a man. Giving hairstyles as much importance as accomplishments will not endear writers to their female readers.

 

Can you see what's wrong with these phrases?

            Examples:

            Poor: Engineers and their wives... (Is every engineer in the world male?)

            Better: Engineers and their spouses...

 

            Poor: Doctor Tsao, a mother of two,... (Is she being used for breeding purposes?)

            Better: Doctor Tsao...

 

            Poor: Greetings, gentlemen and Ellen... (Will Ellen feel like part of the team?)

            Better: Greetings, everyone...

 

            Poor: Everyone read his report...(Alienates half the population.)

            Better: All project managers read their reports.

 

The solution to sexist writing need not be awkward or weird. Often, problems can be fixed by rephrasing the questionable sentence. Try using plural forms. Use the phrase "his or her" only as a last resort. (If you really want to impress readers, once in a while slip in a "her or his.")

 


Tenth Sin: Jargon or Trite Expressions

 

Jargon is specialized terminology used by people in a particular field. Police use words like perp (perpetrator), real estate folks use P & S (purchase and sale agreement), and all sorts of people use acronyms, such as WADS (wide-area data service).

 

Jargon is a form of shorthand. Frequently, it is useful. Often, though, it is confusing, so use it with care. Readers hate to feel stupid, and they will resent your thoughtlessness if they feel stupid because of your insensitivity or laziness.

 

Hints:

     Use jargon freely if you know that your audience is made up exclusively of people in your field. (example: a report given to a department head)

     Use carefully if your audience is or may be more general. Cover yourself by defining terms the first time you use them. (example: a press release, even if aimed at a trade magazine.)

           

When in doubt, try out a word or phrase on a friend in another field. Many people do not know the meaning of the following, for instance:

 

            in-service         interface          catchment area           functionality

 

Trite expressions are tired or trendy phrases. Sometimes, they fit perfectly. Everyone knows what "the bottom line" means. However, more often, trite expressions lose meaning or power through overuse.

            last but not least                       vitally important

            take the ball and run with it   pushing the envelope

 

Replace trite expressions with fresher, more original language.


Afterword—a Sneaky Shortcut

 

Many of the ideas in this book require a cold eye—a little distance from your written work. You have to be able to distinguish what the words on the page say from what you hope they say. Often, this chilling clarity occurs naturally if you have enough time. Throw a written draft into a drawer for a month, and when you reread it you will see your words with a fresh eye. By then, you will have forgotten what you meant to say. Instead, you will be forced to see what your words actually do say.

 

Unfortunately, much business writing is written under pressure. You don't have the luxury of time. You can't wait for that fresh eye to develop. Luckily, help is at hand. You can do what most professional writers do at some time or another: you can call in a second (and even a third) reader.

 

This requires a bit of foresight if it's going to work. First, you need to select someone who wants you to succeed and is willing to spend the time really reading what you wrote. Second, you need to ask the person in a way that will get you what you want—helpful feedback.

 

Most people are less interested in your words than they are in your feelings. They want to be kind. They want to be supportive. They are predisposed to like what you wrote. You, on the other hand, want them to be ruthless, brutally honest, and critical, even picky. After all, they are an ally helping you avoid a public display of one of writing's deadly sins.

 

How can you enlist their aid? One tip is to acknowledge human nature: Don't ask them to ignore their humanity and say something bad about your work. Guaranteed, most folks will automatically answer Yes if you ask "Did you like it?" or "Is this OK?" (Don't believe them—they're being kind and supportive.) They will answer Good if you ask, "How is it?" (They're still being kind and supportive.) Such responses are well-meant but not helpful. To get helpful answers, you must ask questions like these:

 

   What part was easiest to read? What part was hardest?

   What words or sentences were hard to understand?

   What sections need clarification?

   Where could I trim a few words ?

   If you were a potential customer, what part would you look at first?

  Can you find places where the tone changes? Is the tone appropriate for the audience?

 

All of these questions require your reader to get specific. They also suggest that you are aware of flaws in your work; your readers will be safe if they make suggestions. Questions like these make you and your helpful readers into partners, all working together to wrestle with written language.

 

Second readers give you a safe view of how your writing will be received. Chances are, if your second reader doesn't understand something, others will have difficulty too. Even if you think the words on the page are clear, rework them to make them even clearer. No one wants to decipher written material. Everyone wants simply to read it. When they can, readers feel smart and competent. Better yet, they believe that you are smart and competent, too.

 

Have fun.

 


Appendix

 

(clip and save)

 

The Ten Deadly Sins of Business Writing

1.      Inaccuracy

2.      Disorganization

3.      Gaps

4.      Vagueness

5.      Wordiness

6.      High Readability

7.      Monotony

8.      Passive Voice

9.      Sexism

10.   Jargon or Trite Expressions

 

 

Useful Books to Own:

   up-to-date standard dictionary, such as Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

   a thesaurus or synonym finder

         a standard grammar book

   The Elements of Business Writing by Gary Blake and Robert Bly. Paperback.

   The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Paperback

   The Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press is expensive but useful if you do a lot of writing. It contains extensive information on correct presentation of titles, hyphenated words, alphabetical lists, documentation, indexes, scientific terminology, and similar subjects.