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Write Brain

Writing well means using your head.

"I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork." --Peter De Vries

From the looks of much of the business writing I encounter, many people must share De Vries' sentiments. To be blunt, it would seem most of us either have fallen in love with our own words or, at the other end of the spectrum, perceive any business writing as no more than a necessary evil.

Finding just the right mix between an economy of language and personal style should be the quest of everyone who has to write something on behalf of his or her company. The written word is a powerful communication tool for anyone in business. Clear, concise writing, however, is as endangered as the whooping crane. The few surviving members of the "writerus exactus" species would likely offer these observations:

  • The ability to write well is not a luxury--it's a necessity. Research has shown that being able to write clearly and concisely, with a minimum of clutter and a dash of originality, can not only save a company money, but it can also enhance the writer's image and career. To be more specific, if you anguish for hours over a memo or report, it can become costly, with no guarantee that the reader will understand the point you're trying to make. If, on the other hand, you can quickly organize your thoughts and transfer them to paper or screen, you will be more productive and have greater influence over customers, employees and prospects.
  • Many business writers fall into one of two camps: 1) the Androids and 2) the Overkillers. As you might expect, the Androids show no feeling in their writing. Their memos, letters, reports and summaries have all the warmth of an MBA textbook. They forget the courtesies that belong in good business correspondence and may unintentionally distance themselves from the reader by using impersonal jargon.

Conversely, Overkillers, in an attempt to explain themselves and impress the reader, undermine their efforts by being verbose and unclear. Thoughts get tangled and ideas become obscure when they are camouflaged by too much verbiage or flowery language and buzzwords.

Maybe you see yourself as fitting into one of these camps, or at least needing to polish your own writing. If you want to improve your business writing, eliminate costly errors, increase productivity and generally boost your business image, here are some tips:

1. Decide what you want to say before you say it. What is the main point you want to make? What are the minor ones? Put them in order.

2. Aim for simplicity. Try to restrict your sentences to 25 words or less and use short, specific words. The more your writing resembles clear conversation, the easier it is to read.

3. Don't ignore readers' needs. The time you spend organizing, simplifying and personalizing will save readers time and frustration. Most people want to be able to scan something quickly to find out what it's about, what it means to them and what they should do about it.

4. Use powerful words that get right to the point. For example, use now instead of at this point in time. Use many instead of numerous, first instead of initial, do instead of implement. And avoid using these puffy, inaccurate terms: impactful, irregardless, empowerful and so on. Drop the buzzwords and metaphors. It's refreshing to read something that is said simply.

5. Pay careful attention to grammar, spelling, sentence structure, tense and the general appearance of your written pieces. Using the active voice and personal pronouns also makes correspondence easy to read. And make an effort to keep your writing positive, professional and non-sexist.

Leann Anderson is the owner of Anderson Business Resources, a Greeley, Colorado, company specializing in customer service, marketing and business etiquette. E-mail her at landerson@ctos.com.

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This article was originally published in the November 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Write Brain.

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