Six ways your schoolteachers sabotaged your business writing

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.

14 Responses to “Six ways your schoolteachers sabotaged your business writing”

  1. Elaine Swift says:

    Really good article – enjoyable to read and with lots of good advice. Thank you!

  2. Frank says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how business writing bloggers manage to dress up the exact same five or six points in a different way in every blog. This one is particularly slick. Bravo!

  3. Leon says:

    Agree with the advice. However, have to defend schools.

    I’m an ex-English teacher. Students are taught to write according to audience, text type and the text’s purpose. If they put a ‘but’ at the beginning of a sentence for effect the teacher should mark them up.

    And if they’re using the passive voice (unless it’s for effect) then I’d mark them down (or at least point it out to them), even in a formal essay. After all, it makes the text more difficult to understand.

  4. Great article, I’ve always thought that school didn’t give us good writing skills for the business world. Particularly number 3 “They taught you to pad, not prune” is one of my pet hates about being taught to write at school.

  5. Piotr says:

    I love the article. Thanks

  6. Margaret says:

    Thank you very much for such an interesting article! It really reminded me of many of the old habits I still have from school. This article gives permission to break the bonds of the old rules & fly free of them! I really enjoyed your writing style!

    Margaret

  7. [...] that’s not really the case. But this blog post, from dorisandbertie.com, a financial and business communications website, uses advice that we all [...]

  8. Jim Klakring says:

    This is the most truest article online, and it proves how teaching does’t prepare us for the real world.

  9. [...] A lot of the mistakes people make when it comes to writing web content hark back to the lessons they were taught at school. I could go into this further but there is a fantastic blog article already written about that. Find it here. [...]

  10. articles says:

    A good example…

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  11. Anni says:

    Really good and interesting article. Many good thoughts and advice. Thanks!

  12. Rana says:

    The points in this article remind me of a conversation I had not too long ago with my children’s homeschool advisor. She wanted me to grade them on their written assignments. I told her that in my world, a proposal is either accepted, or it isn’t. Those are the only grades that matter as far as I am concerned.

  13. Tedel says:

    Wow, I really liked this article. A hello from Peru. =)

  14. Nic says:

    Excellent article, but I do think that people need to have a sound understanding of grammar before they start breaking the rules. And that, alas, seems increasingly rare, as is evident from at least two horrors in the space of just 13 short responses above!

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