The article, “How to Improve Your Business Writing“ from the online Harvard Business Review, includes a short list of helpful writing tips. You’ve heard them all before, but a refresher is always helpful because it can remind you of key tips you may have forgotten that can immediately improve your on-the-job writing. Here is the article, edited for clarity and space:
Overworked managers with little time might think that improving their writing is a tedious or even frivolous exercise. But knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively, winning business, and setting yourself apart. “As Marvin Swift memorably said, clear writing means clear thinking,” said Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” Here are some helpful reminders about how to write simply, clearly, and precisely.
Think before you write
Before you put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, consider what you want to say. “The mistake that many people make is they start writing prematurely,” says author Bryan Garner. “They work out the thoughts as they’re writing, which makes their writing less structured, meandering, and repetitive.” Ask yourself: What should my audience know or think after reading this email, proposal, or report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, you’re moving too quickly. “Step back and spend more time collecting your thoughts,” Blackburn advises.
Make your point right up front. Many people find that the writing style and structure they developed in school doesn’t work as well in the business world. “One of the great diseases of business writing is postponing the message to the middle part of the writing,” says Garner. By succinctly presenting your main idea first, you save your reader time and sharpen your argument before diving into the bulk of your writing. When writing longer memos and proposals, Garner suggests stating the issue and proposed solution in “no more than 150 words” at the top of the first page. “Acquire a knack for summarizing,” he says. “If your opener is no good, then the whole piece of writing will be no good.”
Cut the fat
Don’t “use three words when one would do,” says Blackburn. Read your writing through critical eyes, and make sure that each word works toward your larger point. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence. There’s no need to say “general consensus of opinion,” for instance, when “consensus” will do. “The minute readers feel that a piece of writing is verbose they start tuning out,” says Garner. He suggests deleting prepositions (point of view becomes viewpoint); replacing –ion words with action verbs (provided protection to becomes protected); using contractions (don’t instead of do not and we’re instead of we are); and swapping is, are, was and were with stronger verbs (indicates rather than is indicative of).
Avoid jargon and $10 words
Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and your reader will assume you are on autopilot — or worse, do not understand what you’re saying. “Jargon doesn’t add any value,” says Blackburn, but “clarity and conciseness never go out of style.” Garner suggests creating a “buzzword blacklist” of words to avoid, including terms like “actionable,” “core competency,” “impactful,” and “incentivize.” You should also avoid using grandiose language. Writers often mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple one will do is a sign of intelligence. It’s not.
Read what you write
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is your point clear and well structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise? Blackburn suggests reading passages out loud. “That’s where those flaws reveal themselves: the gaps in your arguments, the clunky sentence, the section that’s two paragraphs too long,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or friend — or better yet, several colleagues and friends — to edit your work. Welcome their feedback; don’t resent it. “Editing is an act of friendship,” says Garner. “It is not an act of aggression.”
(Part 2 of this article will be published in the April issue of Writing Tips.)
- The first year Chicago dyed its river green for St. Patrick’s Day was 1962.
- The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the U.S. was held in Boston in 1737.
- The real St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was born in Britain around 390AD to an aristocratic Christian family.
- In the U.S., 34.7 million residents are of Irish ancestry, more than seven times the population of Ireland itself.
- Legend has it that wearing green makes a person invisible to leprechauns who will pinch someone if they see them.
- The world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade is held in Dripsey, Ireland. It’s a total of 77 feet (23.4 meters) long: the distance between the tiny village’s two pubs.
- Every day, more than 10 million glasses of Guinness are drunk around the world. On St. Patrick’s Day, 13 million pints of Guinness are sold worldwide.
- The largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world is held in: Toronto, Chicago, New York City, Dublin?
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
ancillary | AN-suh-lair-ee | adjective
• of lower or secondary class or rank; providing additional help or support
“Keith felt that improving new-hire training should be ancillary to improving monthly sales.”
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Select the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.
BOLD : FOOLHARDY
- lively : enthusiastic
- natural : synthetic
- generous : spendthrift
- wise : thoughtful
- creative : childlike
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Chauvinism, which means exaggerated or aggressive patriotism, is derived from the name Nicholas Chauvin, a character in the popular 1831 play La Cocarde Tricolore, in which Chauvin was depicted as being fiercely loyal to Napoleon. Chauvin was a common last name of soldiers in Napoleon’s army, and a memoir published in Paris in 1822 mentions “one of our principal piqueurs, named Chauvin, who had returned with Napoleon from Elba.” The memoir indicates the word derives from a real person. Stories circulated about Chauvin have it that he was born in 1780 in Rochefort, France, and served ably and well in Napoleon’s army, even being decorated and granted a pension by the emperor himself. After Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena in 1815, the name Chauvin began to be applied to those soldiers who idolized the former emperor and expressed a desire to return to the good old days of the empire. In the play La Cocarde Tricolore, which satirizes blind patriotism, Chauvin was a ridiculous character who uttered the line, “I am French, I am Chauvin.” Chauvinism and chauvinist crossed the channel and began to be used in English around 1870.
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Answer: generous : spendthrift
Fun Facts Answer
New York City. It was first held there in 1762, 14 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, by a group of homesick Irish expatriates and soldiers who served with the British Army in the American colonies.
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