Writing

Become a Better Business Writer in 2 Easy Steps -- a No-Tears Guide

A new series on good writing, starting with some of those annoying grammar rules you should have learned in high school -- but didn't.
Become a Better Business Writer in 2 Easy Steps -- a No-Tears Guide
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Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
8 min read

Blogs. Press releases. VC pitch letters. Websites. Mobile apps. Marketing content: Chances are, you’ve wasted valuable time staring at your first draft, then taking a break and coming back to stare some more -- while you wondered how to get that crucial message of yours across to customers or investors.

Related: 10 Quick Tips for Better Business Writing

You’re still unhappy with the result. And one big reason may be all those questions bubbling up about grammar, syntax and the principles of good writing.

As an Entrepreneur editor and adjunct professor of business writing at New York University these past 10 years, I want to help ease your pain.

That’s the reason behind a new series of Entrepreneur posts debuting here, which will explore what good writing is -- and isn’t -- in short, easily digestible bites. Grammar will loom large, of course, but also syntax -- the way words are (or should be) put together -- as well as transitions, sentence variety, dangling/misplaced modifiers, restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses, the evils of nonparallel text and much more.

Posts will each contain two parts: first, grammar; and, second, good writing practices. We may even wade into the murky swamp of the (changing) trends in American punctuation.

All this has been fodder for endless numbers of books (recommended: Better Grammar in 30 Minutes a Day) and expensive courses (like mine). But it’s yours, for free, care of Entrepreneur. So, without further ado, here is the first post on pronouns and wordiness. Hope it helps!

Grammar lesson: pronouns

The first thing to understand about pronouns is their various uses: a substitute for nouns (he, she, it, you, they, we, etc.); a possessive (my, your, his, etc.); an object (him, her, them, us, etc.); and a reflexive (myself, yourself, yourselves, themselves, etc.)

Reflexives are used for emphasis: The CEO herself will address the board; or, I did it myself. The rule for when a reflexive is permissible is that the person to whom the “self” refers is already in the sentence. This means that you can’t say “My brother and myself will attend.” The correct form would be, "My brother and I ..."

Another big pronoun question is whether to use the plural “they” or “their” when referring to a single entity: An example of this is, The company laid off all their staff.

Some publications are now allowing this use of the plural pronoun to refer to a single entity; it’s colloquial, after all (meaning common in everyday speech). But purists like me (and most publications) are sticking to the singular pronoun:

The correct version? The company laid off all its staff.

Then there's the gender problem that possessive pronouns can present, as in Everyone has his job to do. Clearly, not everyone is male. So, do you resort to the awkward "his or her"? Sometimes, that may be necessary.

Some publications, on the other hand, use just the female pronoun "her," perhaps to demonstrate political correctness. Some use the male and female possessessives interchangeably. To me, the best strategy is simply to pluralize the whole sentence or use "we." So the above sentence becomes "We all have our jobs to do" or, "All employees have their jobs to do." 

Next, there’s the who vs. whom dilemma. And, here, you have to think carefully whether you’re referring to a subject (doer of the action) or object (receiver of the action). Therefore, the sentence, The board didn’t know whom to choose is correct (turn it around as "choose whom"). 

But, The board didn’t know whom would be the best director is incorrect. Notice that extra verb "would be" in this sentence. It’s dangling out there on the end and needs its own subject. That subject should be “who.”

Related: 6 Helpful Hints for Writing Sterling Business Prose

Next up is the common problem of "it's" vs. "its." The first is a contraction ("it is"). The latter is the possessive. No exceptions!

Then there's the question of whether an antecedent is a person (referred to by "who"/"whom") or a thing, like a company (referred to as "it," never "who."

Finally, there’s the issue of vague pronouns. This means you have to be careful whenever you use the pronoun "it." If you have a pronoun and no clear antecedent (meaning the person or thing to which "it" refers), stop! Use a noun instead.

As an example, the sentence “Her foot hit the glass door and broke it” leaves the reader guessing. That "it" at the end could refer to either the door or the foot having been broken. Don’t commit that grammatical crime! Instead, rewrite the sentence to make your meaning absolutely clear: She broke her foot when it hit the glass door.

Pronoun problems seen in Entrepreneur article drafts and their fixes:

The problem: North Face, an American outdoor product company, gave their customers a chance to climb the Himalayan mountains in Nepal by way of virtual reality.

The fix: gave its customers

The problem: When you picture a leader, what kind of person comes to mind? Are they strong, decisive, cool under pressure?

The fix: Is he or she strong, decisive, cool under pressure? 

The problem: 3 Companies Who Make the Environment a Top Concern

The fix: that make the environment

The problem: By providing better customer service, engaging in actual conversations with your target audience and solving pain points for consumers, it becomes easier to hit your revenue

The fix: you will find it easier to hit your revenue

Writing lesson: combating wordiness

Imagine that the words you've just written on the screen are a soaking-wet towel. Now, imagine "wringing out" that towel. That's what good writing is: the tightest, smoothest version of that first draft that you can manage. Here are some strategies for making sure that you meet your goal of crisp, efficient writing.

Shun the passive: Using the passive form of a verb (Public concern has been given an impetus by the findings of the commission) adds extra words and takes away the writing "zip" that the active voice, in contrast, promotes (The commission's findings heightened public concern).

Substitute verbs for nouns: The sentence, Consumer demand for sugary soda has been falling is not as strong a sentence as Consumers are demanding less sugary soda.

Stop using all those dumb, wordy phrases we've all used for years: By and large, for all intents and purposes, has the ability to, all of a sudden, the majority of, it is my feeling that.

Be concise! Avoid the first two phrases, and for the others, substitute can, suddenly, most and I feel.

Avoid those familiar but redundant (and flowery) expressions: 2 o'clock in the afternoon, to the fullest possible extent, enclosed herewith, past history, until such time as, pursuant to our agreement, cooperate together, close proximity. Instead, be concise! Substitute 2 p.m., fully, enclosed, history, when, as we agreed, cooperate, nearby.

Avoid repetition, such as: The best managers help their staffers become better staffers. Instead, write, The best managers help their staffers excel.

Reduce your use of throwaway clauses (like "which is" and "in order to") to phrases, and phrases to simple words: Instead of, We visited Detroit, which is the center of the automobile industry, write: We visited Detroit, center of the auto industry. Instead of John's stylish pants, made of imported cotton, write John's stylish, cotton pants.

Simplify and strengthen verbs. Use them instead of noun phrases: Instead of The CEO stated that because of the down market, she could not make a prediction about the company's future performance, write, The CEO stated that because of the down market, she could not predict the company's future performance.

Related: 19 Tips to Immediately Improve Your Writing (Infographic)

The problem (from the first draft of an Entrepreneur post): a paragraph that's both wordy and repetitive (note the many versions of "build" -- bolded here):

The money you make from the sale of your company and the financial security it grants you is the most important thing. But the value of the sale is bigger than just your financial take. Building and selling a company is a very hard thing; 93 percent of all tech companies fail, according to the Startup Genome Report. You not only built a company, but you also built one successful enough that someone bought it. This builds a lot of credibility with potential future investors. Investors and partners want to do business with people who know how to build companies and make profits. Make sure that you build.

Can you rewrite the above paragraph to make it tighter, snappier and non-repetitive?

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