Monday, March 7, 2011

The End

This will be my last post on this blog until further notice. I am taking a hiatus to reconsider its overall value.

On that note, it seems appropriate to write this post on the topic of "ending well." How does one end a business letter, a formal proposal, a trade journal article? Are there any universal principles that work for all forms of business writing?

Yes, there are at least two: Always end on a memorable note, and always make your ending sound like an ending. If your text simply peters out, no one will remember anything you said 24 hours later. If you stop anywhere besides at a logical ending point, people will be scratching their heads and wondering what was cut off.

In business writing, the most common means of fulfilling both purposes is the call to action. Do you want readers to buy your product, fill out a survey, write a letter of protest to Congress? Tell them so--don't make them guess--and tell them as the last thing you say. Don't give them a chance to forget by distracting them with four paragraphs of additional information.

And I close this post--and this blog--with this call to action:

Never forget that Good Writing Is Good Business. Be intelligent, be conscientious, be considerate, be professional--and let it all show in every sentence you write.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bad Writing: Pet Peeves

There are many commonly made mistakes in the world of business writing, and every one of them has the potential to push someone's buttons--hard. Murphy's Law says that the someone will usually be the person you most hoped to impress.

Why any one person finds a relatively minor error infuriating is as impossible a question to answer as why some people like spinach and others don't. And to protest "you're making a big deal over nothing" never wins friends or customers, even if true. All we can do is write as flawlessly as possible, prove our professionalism by apologizing when someone complains ("thank you for setting me straight" rarely fails to turn away wrath)--and remember that we also have our pet peeves. 

What phrasings, typos, and sentence constructions do you most hate to see in writing? Here are my top three:

My own name misspelled in a supposedly personal message. The dislike of this is no doubt universal, but it's a particular bane to those of us who bear common names with uncommon spellings. The gut reaction is, "You're just like everyone else--too lazy to look closely at the way I write my own name--and then you expect me to believe you're interested in me as an individual."

It's where its should be. All of us are taught in grade school that the possessive its has no apostrophe, yet the business world is full of college graduates who can't remember that simple rule.

That instead of who used to refer to a person. Technically, this isn't an actual error, but it grates on many of us to read "the secretary that typed the memo" instead of "the secretary who typed the memo." Something deep down says that the secretary has been reduced to an "it."

Please submit your own pet peeves as comments. I'd love to get a lively discussion going on this!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Verbal Shorthand: Not Always a Good Idea

Abbreviations and acronyms were invented long before text messaging, but serve the same broad purpose: to speed up communications. Who (with the exception of students trying to fill minimum-word-count essay quotas) wants to write out "North Atlantic Treaty Organization" eighteen times in the course of a document? Who would rather read it eighteen times when the four-letter, two-syllable "NATO" is available?

One small problem. "NATO" can also stand for "No Action, Talk Only"; "Night At The Opera"; "Not Another Teen Organization"; "National Association of Timeshare Owners"; "National Association of Taxicab Owners"; or some 50 additional possibilities. The slightest ambiguity of context can leave a sizable percentage of readers--especially those to whom an alternative meaning is the "normal" one--scratching their heads.

The proven method for maximizing both understanding and efficiency is to spell out the phrase the first time--"North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)"--and use the now-clearly-defined acronym thereafter. But as with jargon, many writers never consider that their everyday language may be someone else's first-time encounter. Unless you're dealing with an acronym that has achieved common-noun status (such as "radar" for "RAdio  Detection And Ranging"), follow the advice from the classic The Elements of Style: "Even if everyone did [know the meaning of any given acronym], there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time. They deserve to see the words, not simply the initials.... Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the reader's time instead of conserving it."

And especially these days, wasting someone's time is the unforgivable sin.

See also Acronym Finder.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Watch Those Links!

If you insist on leaving typos in e-mails, there are three areas, at least, that must be exempt: proper nouns (especially contact names); contact-information numbers (including street addresses); and the URLs of online links. Misspelling someone's name is a guaranteed way to annoy him; so is sending him to the wrong address, brick-and-mortar or electronic.

Online links are particularly tricky because they operate without benefit of human logic. If a link leads to the wrong website, the reader's only option is to return to the original message, manually check the link's URL, and try to figure out where the typo slipped in. Most people won't bother; most others will give the mistake only one chance to be obvious.

If it's important to you that your e-mail recipients follow the links you send them, here are four rules for you to follow.

1. If at all possible, copy the address directly from the page. This leaves no room for error.

2. With a page you last visited some time ago, return to verify it's still up before sending its address. Even if it was right last year, things change quickly online.

3. If no immediate access to the website is available, and the link must be sent immediately, proofread it with extra care. If you spell "California" as "Califronia" and bury that inconspicuously within a long URL, you have only yourself to blame for the results.

4. Be especially careful if linking to a well-known organization. The Internet is full of porn and other unscrupulous sites that mimic the URLs of famous names (e. g., vs. the official NASA site, to lure in careless surfers. Don't aid and abet them.

The Internet is a wonderful thing--but, like all marvels of technology, it must be used according to instructions. Make sure you give people the right instructions.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Middle Line of Readability

The field of writing is hard-pressed on one side by the terror of grammatical incorrectness (epitomized by those whose abusive third-grade English teachers told them that splitting an infinitive was a capital crime), and on the other by the idea that good writing is easy (epitomized by would-be authors who torment publishing house editors with "sure bestseller" drafts that might well have been written by someone who flunked third grade). Both extremes have this in common: they result in writing that's deadly boring to read. And deadly to its intended purpose.

If you want your business writing to convince others to use your services (and to otherwise make a good impression for you), practice walking the middle line of readability.

To avoid the trap of ultra-correctness: Write the first draft the way you'd give the same information out loud. If you were giving a verbal presentation, you wouldn't say "you would not" or use an excess of fancy-but-vague words like "facility" and "ordinances." Pretending you're talking, rather than writing, to someone keeps your language sounding natural. (If you're seriously uptight about writing the way you speak, try dictating to a secretary or recorder at first.)

To avoid the trap of ultra-informality: Don't consider the writing finished with completion of the first, written-as-spoken draft. This is where most overly optimistic novelists and bloggers fail: they spill out their words stream-of-consciousness-style and expect the deeper meaning to be as obvious to others as to themselves. Give your work a few hours or days to rest, then review it word by word, considering what might be difficult to follow, what's redundant, and what jumps too abruptly from one topic to another. The close relationship between the written and spoken word applies here too, so reading a piece out loud can help. Getting someone else to read (or listen to) it is even better.

Remember: natural language first, then the polishing to the small degree of formality that distinguishes the written word from the spoken.

What are your favorite hints for avoiding one or both of the above extremes? Please comment.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Goofs and Gaffes

Here's another list of actual quotes that show why "be careful what you say" applies to the written word as well. (Source: Edit Edit Edit (EditEditEdit) on Twitter. Pay that page a visit; there's lots more to chuckle at!)

  • "3-year-old teacher needed for pre-school. Experience preferred."
  • "Should I have a coma in the middle of this sentence?"
  • Sports news headline: "Grandmother of eight makes hole in one."  
  • "Chairman Billings asked Board members to muster support from the PTA to support the governor's task force on driving while intoxicated."
  • Notice outside public restroom: "Skeptic Tank. No foreign objects."
  • "In Pittsburgh they manufacture iron and steal."
  • "Blind woman gets new kidney from dad she hasn't seen in years."
  • Warning sign: "This door is alarmed."
  • "Man Arrested for Possession of Heroine."
  • "Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half."
  • "Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off after age 25."
  • "We provide the opportunities people with disabilities need to live dignified, fulfilling lies."
  • "When you smell an odorless gas, it is probably carbon monoxide."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Apologizing in Writing

"You never get a second chance to make a good first impression." True, but the best of us will blow that chance on occasion. When that happens, better to try to redeem a bad impression than to slink away and leave it as the only impression you make.

A simple apology does much to make amends for a poor first impression--or a gaffe of any sort. And a written apology does even more: it not only proves you have the courage to admit your faults on the record, but it carries an innate dignity that minimizes the risks of the apology itself turning into an ugly scene. And written apologies can be edited before being delivered, particularly valuable if your mouth easily gets out of control!

Here are three principles to remember if you owe someone a written (or any) apology:

1. Be prompt. The longer you delay, the greater the chance of hard feelings evolving into a grudge. Procrastination also makes the apology grow ever more difficult. Don't waste time fretting over getting it grammatically perfect. (Do, however, write fairly formally, and do proofread it; you want it to be clear you found this worth some effort!)

2. Be humble and sincere. Explain extenuating circumstances or what you really meant only when it is vital to clear the air, and only as far as you can do so without getting defensive. Anything that sounds remotely like "it was really your fault" devalues the apology and could start a worse fight.

3. Be brief. Most people have difficulty not following "I'm sorry" with a lengthy "but..." or a paragraph of groveling. To the receiving party, this is always boring, embarrassing, annoying, or even infuriating. Sum up what you did wrong; say how sorry you are for the inconvenience/embarrassment/financial loss it caused the other person; offer to make amends (be as specific as you can, and always try to give back more than you damaged); and stop.

And take comfort that a sincere apology can have even better long-term impact than a standard good first impression!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Two Key Principles of Humor

Humor. Nothing is so effective when used well--or so disastrous when handled badly. Written humor, especially, can land a sale or drive a prospect to your nearest competitor, improve a relationship or invite a lawsuit. No chuckle in the voice or wink of the eye modifies clever words; either the words are funny by themselves or they aren't. Don't try to make strangers laugh this way unless you're sure you know what you're doing.

Even if everyone finds your social messages hilarious, the identical approach may crash-land in business communications. When to joke and when to be serious is a question that differs with every office and industry, but there are two principles no humor-minded business writer should forget.

1. Act your age. No office should be full of always-dour faces, but neither should a business be staffed by thirtysomething class clowns. No one trusts the professionalism of someone who hasn't grown up yet. So to make the right impression, keep written jokes fairly low-key; think chuckles rather than belly laughs. Humorous anecdotes, especially true stories, are best; puns are fine if they don't make people groan so loudly as to stop reading. Knock-knock jokes and "cross x with y" riddles are best left to the kids' books. Things not to do include letting humor overpower the real message and slipping in material irrelevant to the main point.

2. Expect whoever reads your material to be ultrasensitive. If you don't know your intended readers, or if you know them only casually, a safe rule is "never make fun of anyone except yourself." This holds doubly true if you're writing to an individual and are tempted to build rapport by needling him; one person's good-natured teasing is another's cutting cruelty. If someone does complain that your joking hit a raw nerve, apologize without excuses, without defensiveness, and--above all--in a dead serious tone. The worst thing you can do is say something along the lines of "Ohhh, a grumbler; shall I send you some free anti-irritability pills?" This amounts to trying to bully someone into a better sense of humor, an approach useful only for making enemies.

Despite these pitfalls, a good laugh can brighten a dull day at work, which guarantees the writer will be remembered favorably. So if you have a gift for humor, by all means put it in writing!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolved to Write Better

Welcome to Good Writing is Good Business 2011!

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make my posts shorter (at least until I see if more readers comment once I stop trying to say everything myself!). So today's post will comprise the top three business writing resolutions I recommend all entrepreneurs make--no description to be longer than this paragraph.

1. Keep things short. (Surprise!) Never use three words where one will do; never use five syllables where two will suffice. And don't drop in extra information just to show off your knowledge. Consumers researching best buys in car accessories don't really care how many miles the U. S. population drove in 2010.

2. Be thorough and clear. The opposite mistake from saying too much is assuming too much about what the reader knows. Do spell out (the first time) what acronyms stand for; don't mention a current event without giving a few details on the when-who-how. (Not everyone watches CNN daily!)

3. Proofread. The more important a piece, the more thoroughly it should be proofread (if really important, it deserves two proofreaders and a week's rest before the final draft). But even with a casual e-mail, scan before sending. It's worth it to avoid a real howler (such as leaving the l out of public).

What is your suggested top resolution in the business writing arena?