Archive for October, 2011

Six ways your schoolteachers sabotaged your business writing

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

1. They got you used to a captive audience
At school, you handed in your homework and it came back marked. This process taught you that every word you wrote would be read and evaluated by someone deeply interested in your thoughts.

Things couldn’t be more different in business. Your colleagues and clients are busy people with a hundred different demands on their time. And unlike your teachers they aren’t paid to read your stuff.

The lesson: In business, unlike at school, you have to fight to be read. Accept that most people will scan your words. Make it easy on them by using headers, bullets and short paragraphs.

2. They taught you to write with a beginning, a middle and an end

At school you learned that any essay must have an introduction and a conclusion. The meat of your argument came in the middle.

Judging by the number of business documents we’ve seen that begin by setting the scene, explaining the context and generally “warming the reader up”, this is a hard habit to shake.

But in business, you don’t have the luxury of the preamble. Your readers are time-pressed, so you need to dive straight in with your main point.

The lesson: Before writing that email, memo, web page or report ask yourself “what do I want my reader to do as a result of my words?”. The answer gives you your first line.

3. They taught you to pad, not prune
At school, you were told to expand on your answers. And while this trained you to think more deeply about questions, it also taught you to value padding over pruning – as editor Bill Harper has also argued.

Alas in business, sometimes people really do just want a “yes” or “no” answer. Filling pages for the sake of it is more likely to exasperate than impress your reader.

The lesson: Prune, prune and prune again! Once you’ve reached the point where you’re happy with your work, go back and cut 20%.

4. They rewarded you for using fancy words
When you were introduced to a new word at school, your teachers no doubt asked you to use it in a sentence to prove you understood it properly.

This task was essential because it increased your vocabulary. But it also subtly rewarded you for using words that were new and strange and only just within your grasp.

Pretentious words, nasty neologisms and impenetrable corporate jargon are your adult equivalent.

But such words are letting you down. In business, your goal is to be clear and persuasive, not to impress some authority figure.

The lesson: If there’s a choice between a short word and a long word, go for the short one. For example, say “start”, not “commence”, “after”, not “subsequently” and “change”, not “adjustment”.

And never use a word you wouldn’t use outside the office – do you “align”, “integrate” or “leverage” things at home?

5. They made you distance yourself from your words
At school, we were taught that overt references to the reader (as “you”) or the writer (“I”) were a no-no. In academic or scientific writing this approach made you sound more persuasive because you appeared objective.

For example, in the chemistry lab you were taught to use a passive form, such as “the sodium chloride was added to the test tube” rather than the active form “I added the sodium chloride to the test tube”.

Or in a literature essay, you’d win points for a formal expression like: “Hamlet’s fatal flaw might be considered to be procrastination”. You’d probably lose marks for the more familiar: “You could say Hamlet’s fatal flaw was procrastination”.

Alas, the reverse is true in business writing. In business, address your reader as “you” and she feels a connection with you. Refer to yourself as “I”, and you sound accountable.

Compare: “It is regrettable that mistakes were made in the dispatch of the order” with “I’m sorry your order didn’t arrive on time”. Which would you rather hear?

The lesson: Learn to spot passive verb forms and rework them so they’re active. Address your reader as “you”. This article, for example, contains over 70 references to “you” or “your” – that’s nearly 10% of the whole text. Does it sound any less authoritative for its friendly approach?

6. They taught you outdated rules about grammar

You can’t blame your teachers for instilling in you the rules that apply to academic prose. And if you went on to university, such rules probably fared you well.

But as any writer will tell you, in business writing it’s perfectly OK to start a sentence with “and” or “but”. In fact, doing so can make your sentences shorter – and your writing easier to read.

Similarly, contractions aren’t a problem if you’re after a conversational style.

And if a split infinitive just sounds better to the ear, feel free to boldly go there.

The lesson: Break the rules if the result sounds better and is easier to read. Develop a writer’s ear by reading your work aloud.