By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, The Productivity PRO®
Writing an article about effective business writing is not an easy task! Are you going to analyze every sentence I write? “Many of our major fears of writing have turned into major phobias,” wrote Mr. Gary McKechnie in his USAE January 28, 1998, review of my MPI-PEC conference session on “Effective Business Writing Skills.” I’d like to address these fears and discuss appropriate business style, recent changes in grammar, and general tips to help you write more effectively. These tips apply to your letters, agendas, event invitations, speaker confirmations, emails to hotels, contractual agreements with suppliers, promotional literature, and newsletter articles. Many writers believe correspondence requires a very formal prose. Actually, today’s business writing style is much more relaxed, friendly, and conversational than ever before! Try to write as you speak. Debbie Hubler, Director of Conventions and Meetings for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says her style of writing is usually formal and professional, but she is more relaxed with people she knows well. She’s absolutely right! The good news is you don’t have to stick with the same stuffy, boring, “legalese” of the past. Use a natural but professional voice when you write—the one you’d use when chatting with a client over a cup of coffee.
To create writing that works, follow these simple tips for good communication:
1. Use simple, short, easy-to-understand words.
Don’t use pompous language to try to impress your reader! Keep it simple. Instead of “utilize,” “substantiate,” and “demonstrate,” try “use,” “prove,” and “show.”
2. Eliminate wordy or redundant expressions and prepositions.
Why say “in view of the fact that,” when you can use “because”? Rather than “at this point in time,” simply use “now.” Instead of “a large number of,” try “many.”
3. Don’t turn your verbs into nouns by using –ion, -ity, and -ness suffixes.
For example, the phrase “offer a suggestion” would be better expressed with the verb “suggest.” “Take under consideration” should be “consider.”
4. Date your requests and make sure your words aren’t open to interpretation.
“As soon as possible,” could mean in one hour to one person and two weeks to another. “Contact me” could be by phone, fax, email, or pony express!
5. Use an active instead of a passive voice, where the subject performs the action.
“My boss signed the check,” is shorter, more powerful, and more direct than, “The check was signed by my boss.” “The letter is being typed by the secretary,” is better said as, “The secretary is typing the letter.”
6. Use gender-neutral wording.
A newspaper recently printed “President Bush and Laura arrived…” Instead, it should have said, “George and Laura arrived…” or “President Bush and the First Lady arrived…” Rather than “mailman,” use “mail carrier.” Instead of “stewardess,” use “flight attendant.” Rather than using the pronoun “he” in writing, make your sentences plural. For example, “An accountant must pass a difficult exam before he can become a CPA” is better written as “Accountants must pass a difficult exam before they can become CPAs.”
7. Eliminate overused, trite, old-fashioned expressions.
Instead of “pursuant to your request,” try “as you requested.” Instead of “in lieu of,” try “instead of.” Rather than “as per our agreement,” try “as we agreed.” It’s also perfectly acceptable to say “me,” rather than “this writer” or “one.” Marsha Temple, President of Creative Meeting Solutions and President of the MPI Rocky Mountain Chapter, says, “If my relationship with a hotel is friendly, then I can write in a friendly manner. I’m still professional, but more informal and funny.”
8. Correct typos, spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors.
Many of the rules you “grew up on” have changed over the years. Some of them are as follows:
- You may now end sentences with prepositions (e.g., for, to, under). For example when we speak, we say such things as: “Did you find what you were looking for?” and “Whom am I speaking to?” We would never say, “Did you find for what you were looking?” So don’t write it that way!
- And you may now begin a sentence with a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or, because). Because we commonly begin sentences with conjunctions when we speak, you may now do it in writing. (See the previous two sentences!)
- It is now preferable to include the second comma when you list three items in a series (mother, daughter, and sister). For example, “The money will be divided between Sally, Tom and Bill” begs the question: do Tom and Bill get 50% and Sally gets 50%? Inserting the second comma: “The money will be divided between Sally, Tom, and Bill” makes the meaning clear.
I am not suggesting you necessarily practice these new rules in your formal business writing. HOWEVER, it is not wrong if you do. Write to express, not impress! Case in point—the previous phrase has a split infinitive (oh no!), but it works. To study these and other grammar changes, you may want to pick up a copy of The Gregg Reference Manual by Sabin to fine-tune your skills.
Eleanore Swanson, CMP, Manager of Regional Programs for Re/Max Conventions, Inc., says she is “comfortable with grammar, but doesn’t bother with rules. If it sounds right and flows well, it’s fine!” She has the right idea! Don’t be so stuck on writing correctly, do what works! Pretend you’re calling the reader on the phone and type out exactly what you would say to them verbally. Then go back and check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Jennie Goggins, Meeting Planner, COBE/Gambro Healthcare Blood Component Technology Division, suggests you “don’t try to make your writing something it isn’t. You don’t need to go overboard, make your writing too detailed, or too long. Be more concise and succinct. Talk to your vendors and clients like they are special friends. This will take out the anxiousness in your writing tasks, and make the tone much more pleasant and friendly.” Great advice! Use your own style and let your personality shine through!
Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity Pro”® and the author of Leave the Office Earlier. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or Laura@TheProductivityPro.com.
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