Archive for the ‘Quick tips’ Category

36 tips for lean writing

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

I recently met with a client at a large firm that’s trying to introduce “lean” working processes across the organisation. His team of writers were producing distinctly unlean documents, which is why he needed help.

“Lean” processes were first developed in Japanese manufacturing firms in the 1940s and the concept has spread to other businesses. The idea is that you don’t waste resources on anything that doesn’t “add value” to the end customer. It’s about achieving more with less.

We’re not massively keen on those MBA-ishly jargony words “adding value”, but we do think there’s something in this idea of lean production. Here’s how we think lean principles apply to writing. (more…)

25 quick business writing tips (and a link to 100 more)

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

1. For writing that’s easy to read, make friends with the full stop.

2. Be concrete, not abstract. Call a hose a hose, not a fluid transfer solution.

3. “However”: if in doubt, punctuate with full stop, cap, comma. However, there are exceptions.

4. Capitalising job titles? One writer I know was taught to save caps for “God, the Queen and the Editor”.

5. It may look odd, but there’s only one apostrophe in the phrase “Dos and Don’ts”.

6. “While” sounds less pretentious than “whilst”.

7. You don’t need a hyphen with adverbs ending in “ly”: a “happily married couple”.

8. Ditch the corporate throat clearing: go back and see if you can cut your first paragraph.

9. “The data are” or “the data is”? Just choose whatever you think your reader would prefer.

10. Yes, you can split an infinitive. Trust your ears, not rules invented by 18th-century grammarians.

11. Both “under” and “way” are in the dictionary. “Underway”, however, is not.

12. “Don’t” is friendlier than “do not”, though non-native speakers may prefer it spelt out.

13. Remember: “e.g.” = “for example”; “i.e.” = “that is”. They aren’t interchangeable.

14. Don’t overuse “scare quotes” – they make you look like you lack “conviction”. See?

15. The past tense of “lead” is “led”, not “lead”.

16. To quote Hemmingway, “every first draft is s**t”. Always go back and edit.

17. Be active, not passive: “we will send you the document”, not “the document will be sent to you

18. Watch out: “loose” rhymes with “goose”, “lose” rhymes with “choose”.

19. As Mervin Block says, if it’s not necessary to leave a word in, it’s necessary to leave it out.

20. Remember the three “Cs” of great business writing: it’s clear, concise and conversational.

21. Use “comprises of” to sound like an illiterate estate agent. Otherwise, just “comprises”.

22. Never use the jargon “revert” for “reply” – especially if you work with non-native speakers.

23. If your wife compares you “to” George Clooney, be flattered. If she compares you “with” him, be worried.

24. Hyphens aren’t optional. Consider the difference between “extra-marital sex” and “extra marital sex”.

25. Look! No apostrophe: 1980s, 1990s, 2000s etc.

100 more quick writing tips

Another 25 quick business writing tips

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

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1. Take a tip from Elmore Leonard: leave out the parts that people skip.

2. Use “people”, not “persons” (unless you really do want to sound like you’re arresting said “persons”).

3. Avoid tracked changes. They make work hard to proof and they’re terrible for working relationships.

4. Accept that your readers will scan. Make it easy for them with headers and paragraph returns.

5. It’s either “just as” or “equally” – never the horrible hybrid “equally as”.

6. The word “currently” is often redundant, as here: “We are currently updating our website”.

7. There’s no need for the jargon “best of breed” – “best” is enough.

8. “Imply” and “infer” mean different things: if you imply something, I might infer it.

9. “Momentarily” means “for a moment”, not “in a moment”.

10. When researching a piece, pick up the phone. You’re guaranteed to get better results than by emailing.

11. Drop the overused adjective “key” – it invariably attracts other jargon (“stakeholders”, “learnings”).

12. If you must use PowerPoint, stick to 4 or 5 bullets a slide (and 4 or 5 words to a bullet).

13. Save “takeaway” for that kebab you had on the way home last night. “Point” or “lesson” are better.

14. Remember to use an apostrophe in phrases like “one week’s notice” and “ten years’ experience”.

15. Taking minutes? Record important points, decisions and “to dos”, not “he said then she said” etc.

16. Numerals: spell out “one” to “ten”. Use figures for “11” or more.

17. Write your headline first – it will help crystallise your main point.

18. Need feedback on your writing? The more senior they are, the less they’ll rewrite for the sake of it.

19. “Now” is more powerful than wordy alternatives like “at this moment in time”.

20. Don’t call attention to the act of writing. “I hereby inform you of our new address” = “We’re moving”.

21. Far better to start a sentence with “and” than to ever use the word “additionally”.

22. Never choose a long word when a short one will do.

23. For good working relationships, get or give feedback on writing by phone or in person, not email.

24. Proofreading? Check headers, footers, captions etc both separately and as part of the whole.

25. Watch your tone: never say something in an email in a way you wouldn’t say it to their face.

See also:

More super-quick tips for better business writing

Another 25 super-speedy tips for better business writing

25 super-quick tips for better business writing

More super-quick tips for better business writing

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

See our earlier tips: 1- 25 and 26-50.

Follow us on Twitter for regular business writing tips.

51. Yes, it is OK to start sentences with ‘and’, ‘because’, ‘or’ and ‘but’.

52. Don’t say “following” when you mean “after”.

53. Try copying the style of your daily paper. It’s guaranteed to be more readable than most business docs.

54. Edit with a knife, not a pen. Only add words if they’re absolutely necessary.

55. Write about the stories that illustrate what you want to say, not the strategy behind it.

56. Pin a list of banned words on your wall. It forces you to rethink whenever you’re tempted by jargon.

57. Never write a sentence longer than 24 words. That’s the point they get hard to follow.

58. Use “you” more than “we”. Count the instances of each word and rewrite if necessary.

59. Overpoliteness can sound rude. Compare “at your earliest convenience” with “as soon as you can”.

60. Address your reader directly: “download the guidelines now” not “employees should download…”

61. Say “based on”, not “based around”. Think about it: bases sit below things, not around them.

62. No one will ever complain that your writing is too easy to read.

63. Rewriting your work isn’t a sign of failure – it’s an essential part of the process.

64. There’s a reason your spellchecker underlines “learnings”. Replace this non-word with “lessons”.

65. Is there any more meaningless adjective than “meaningful”? Avoid. Avoid. Avoid.

66. Whenever you sit down to write, keep in mind Billy Wilder’s 1st rule of filmmaking: “Don’t be boring”.

67. The word “solutions” is usually redundant. “Building solutions” v “building”: what’s the difference?

68. Save keystrokes by ditching “nevertheless” for “but”.

69. As Orwell said, if it’s possible to cut a word, do. A phrase like “by means of” is 2 words too long.

70. Never use “myself” when you mean “I” or “me”. It’s not more polite – just grammatically wrong.

71. Ditch “there is/there are”. “We won for two reasons” is punchier than “there are two reasons we won”.

72. Tempted to use the phrase “due to the fact that”? Why not simply say “as”?

73. Made a mistake? “I’m sorry” is much more powerful than “we regret that”. Which would you rather hear?

74. Avoid Latinisms like “per annum” and “per capita”. Friendlier to say “a year” and “a person”.

75. As your teachers said at exam time: just answer the question. What info is your reader asking for?

Another 25 super-speedy tips for better business writing

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

For tips 1-25, see my previous post.

26. Beware billing something as “exciting” unless your reader really will be trembling in anticipation.

27. When you reach the point you’re happy with your work, go back and cut 20%.

28. Never assume your reader is as informed as you are. Picture them as a Martian newly arrived on earth.

29. Get a writing buddy. Find a friendly colleague and agree to review each other’s work.

30. Always read your work aloud. Edit anything that trips you up or leaves you gasping for breath.

31. Don’t capitalise a phrase just because it’s often abbreviated. CSR = corporate social responsibility.

32. Don’t know the difference between “anticipate” and “expect”? Use “expect”: it’s probably what you mean.

33. With every sentence, ask: is this interesting to my reader or just to me? Delete if the latter.

34. Blank page? Don’t get it right – get it written. Then go back and edit, edit, edit.

35. There is no situation in which the pompous word “facilitate” is necessary. Use do/make/help.

36. Quoting someone in a press release/staff mag? Always use “said”, not “commented”, “observed” etc.

37. Save time and pixels by ditching “in the event that” for the simple word “if”.

38. You wouldn’t capitalise ‘plumber’ or ‘builder’, so why treat white-collar job titles any differently?

39. Written a sentence you’re particularly proud of? That’s probably the one you most need to rework.

40. Spend as much time on your headline as you do on the rest of your text.

41. Affect or effect? Most times, the mnemonic RAVEN applies: Remember, Affect = Verb, Effect = Noun.

42. The phrase “in excess of” is pompous and long-winded. Use “more than” or “over” instead.

43. Avoid turning nouns into verbs – actioned/tasked/impacted etc are horrible!

44. Ditch repetitive business phrases like transformational change/new innovation/worldwide global firm.

45. Learn to spot and simplify Latinate words (usually longer and more abstract – eg, residence v house).

46. Never ask for “approval” or “sign-off”. Ask for fact-checking and lock the doc so others can’t edit it.

47. Use “use”, not “utilise”.

48. “Unprecedented” is not synonymous with “excellent”. Save it for something that’s never happened before.

49. Google finds 1,460,000 uses of “thought leader”. Claim to be one and you’re just following the crowd.

50. Nobody’s taken in by corporate euphemisms like “rightsizing”. Dare to be honest.

Follow me on Twitter for more super-speedy daily business writing tips.

25 super-quick tips for better business writing

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

I’ve started tweeting a daily business writing tip. For those of you who aren’t on Twitter – or those of you who are but would like to have the tips all in one place – here’s the first 25.

1. Put the most important info first (how many stories in this morning’s paper did you actually finish?)

2. Always ask: “What happens if we don’t publish?”. If they can’t articulate a business case, spike.

3. Circle every word/phrase/allusion your mum wouldn’t understand. Rewrite so she would.

4. Ban -ing words from headlines in your staff mag. “Achieving success”? “Delivering excellence”? Ugh.

5. Using “the above” or “the below” in your copy makes you sound instantly officious. Remove and reorder.

6. Search for ion/ment/ence to ditch clunky abstract nouns (eg, driving improvement = improving).

7. Full stops are good. Use them. If you can’t read a sentence without taking a breath, it’s too long.

8. Avoid using the word “basis” – eg, on a timely and efficient basis = quickly and efficiently.

9. A camel is a horse designed by committee. For copy without lumps and bumps, give 1 person final say.

10. Show, don’t tell. Any business can claim to be “world-class”. Explain why yours is.

11. The word “focus” makes you sound, er, unfocused. Don’t “focus your efforts on” something. Just do it!

12. Make life easy for your reader. Follow each thought with “full stop, paragraph return”.

13. Diversity officers, please don’t use “female” as a noun. We’re women. Females belong in a zoo.

14. Not a postman or a midwife? Then find a stronger verb than “deliver”. Deliver service = serve.

15. Going forward adds nothing that the future tense doesn’t say. “Going forward we will” = “We will”.

16. Never use a word you wouldn’t say outside the office. Do you align/integrate/leverage things at home?

17. Always ask “what do I want my reader to do/know/think?”. The answer gives you your first line.

18. Never open with “As you know”. Lead with the news and then provide the context.

19. Commitment: two “m”s and one “t”. Or avoid the brain ache by ditching this overused word.

20. If you can’t imagine your dad saying it, it’s probably corpspeak. Rewrite until you can.

21. Can’t distinguish between “historic” and “historical”? Then use “past”. It’s probably what you mean.

22. Unless you aspire to be White Van Man, stop “driving”. Driving improvements = improving.

23. Only capitalise a word if it’s the name of a particular person/place/org.

24. Never use the word “regarding” when “about” will do.

25. Don’t start sentences with words like although/while/despite/given. Lead with your main point.