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?