Our blog explores all aspects of writing and proofreading, and passes along effective business writing tips. Do you have questions or concerns about workplace writing? Then join our discussion!
Before starting a writing project, write a brief description of your audience. Do not simply write: sales force. Write: “sales force, highly trained, most with college degrees, 50% men/50% women, overachievers, overworked, and feel left out of the loop here at headquarters.” Such a profile will allow you to write your letter or report with their point of view firmly in mind
You are your own worst proofreader. That’s a common theme in the writing world. Because we are so close to the words we write, we will often read “in our heads” what is not actually on the page. We see the word “conect” on the page, but read “connect” in our heads. That’s how typos slip through the cracks. Here are four tips to help you prevent typos.
1) Let someone else read your work.
2) Turn on the auto-correct feature on your computer.
3) Read what you write out loud.
4) Read what you write backwards. That’s right: starting with the last word you wrote, read right to left. This way, each word stands out and you will not gloss over any typos in the document.
But of course you can. Here’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage has to say on the topic: “It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as many stylebooks have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence).”
The Chicago Manual of Style agrees: “There is widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”
For example: Everyone decided to vote against Bob’s idea. But Pat disagreed.
So there you have it. If beginning a sentence with but “works” or “sounds right” for the sentence you are writing, then do it.
Use parallel construction, that is, a consistent form, when listing several ideas.
Correct: Pat respects people who are honest, reliable, and sincere.
(The verb are makes sense with each of the three adjectives at the end of the sentence.)
Incorrect: Pat respects people who are honest, reliable, and have sincerity.
(Here, are does not make sense with have sincerity, and the noun sincerity is not parallel with the two adjectives honest and reliable.)
“His Majesty the King requires that the Royal Chancellery in all written documents endeavor to write in clear, plain Swedish.”
King Charles XII of Sweden, commanding his troops in Eastern Europe, 1713
When Stephen King attended a Mets baseball game years ago, it started to rain so hard that the umpires stopped play. During the rain delay, King whipped out his laptop and typed a few pages of horror using his raincoat as an umbrella. There’s a lesson here. Too many businesspeople wait for the “perfect” time and situation to write: when there’s absolute silence, the lighting is just right, their schedule is clear for the next two hours, and so on.
Free yourself up and you’ll free up your writing too. Don’t wait for just the right conditions. Write when you have ten minutes to spare in your cubicle or an hour to waste on a plane or train. Get your ideas down on paper or your hard drive, and go back to them later when you have more time. You’ll take the pressure off yourself and your writing, and accomplish more.
The rule of thumb for writing newspaper articles also applies to writing clear and concise emails: Once you’ve explained the Who (your audience)? What (you want to tell them)? When (if it applies, if not, skip it)? Where (if it applies, if not, skip it)? Why (you’re telling them this)? and How (if it applies, if not, skip it)? STOP WRITING!
Major style manuals (for example, The Chicago Manual of Style and the Modern Language Association Style Manual) agree that Latin abbreviations, such as, etc., e.g., and i.e., should not appear in your everyday writing. You should only use them in footnotes, endnotes, tables, and other forms of documentation.
So instead of writing i.e. (the abbreviation of id est), in your business report, write that is. Instead of writing e.g. (the abbreviation of exempli gratia), in your cover letter, write for example. Let’s face it, most people don’t know what the abbreviations stand for—I often see i.e. and e.g. used interchangeably—so using them can affect the clarity of your writing… in a bad way.
One of the major tenets of plain writing is that simple, straightforward language is more powerful than flowery, verbose writing. This is common knowledge among writers, and has been for centuries:
“I never write metropolis for seven cents when I can write city and get paid the same.” Mark Twain
“Use the smallest word that does the job.” E.B. White
This quote by William Penn (1644-1718) also applies to writing in the 21st Century:
“Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood.”