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Monday Mornings with Madison



Clear, effective business writing is more important than ever. Thanks to emails, text messages, instant messaging and facsimile machines, our skill (or lack of skill) with words is beamed around the world in black and white instantly.

In a survey of Fortune 1000 executives, 80 percent said they've decided not to interview job candidates solely because of poor grammar, spelling, or punctuation in resumes or cover letters.  Of those same executives, 99 percent also said poor writing and grammar hurt an employee's chances for promotion.

In another study, the U.S. Navy determined it could save $27 million to $57 million a year if officers wrote memos in a plain style. Navy personnel spent more time reading poorly written memos than those written in a plain style. Similar savings could be realized in the private sector if corporations stressed good writing in the workplace.

However, the best argument for good writing is simple logic: People won't buy what they don't understand.

Here are the first five of the top 10 tips to follow the next time you write a letter, memo, report, proposal, press release, or other business document.  Follow them, and then distribute your work with confidence, because good writing is good for business.

Top 10 Tips to Good Business Writing

1. Get in a ‘writing’ frame of mind.   
All writers have asked, "How do I begin?" You begin by switching your brain into a writing frame of mind.  Athletes often develop rituals to signal to their brain that it's time to perform: Baseball batters dust their hands with dirt, dig in their heels, and take practice swings. Tennis players bounce the ball a few times before winding up for the serve.  Race car drivers adjust their helmet, pump the accelerator, grip the wheel, and adjust the mirrors.  You can develop rituals that put you in the mood to write. Some writers use a special pen. Others write better in a particular place, such as looking out a window or not looking out a window. Try some of these rituals:

Breath deeply. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths to center yourself. Listen to your breathing. Shut out the ringing of the phones, the conversations of your coworkers, the buzz of your computer.

Visualize. Close your eyes and imagine you are staring at a blank billboard in a snowstorm. The purpose of this trick is to clear your mind of thought, to wipe the slate clean. The mind can't stand a clean slate and begins to compose.

Organize your desk.  Clear away clutter that might distract your thoughts.

Rituals simply focus your inner attention on a task to come. Find one (or a few) that trigger your writing juices.

2.  Focus on the Bulls-Eye.   
Before you start to write any business document, identify the single idea you're trying to get across. Jot it down in one sentence on a note pad next to your typewriter or computer keyboard. If you were writing a news story, this would be the headline. Or if you were writing a movie, this would be the one-line description in the TV Guide. Here are some examples.

  1. You want an appointment to explain your new product. (sales letter)
  2. Using computers to track inventory will save thousands of dollars. (report)
  3. The janitorial crew will be working new hours. (memo)

Your one-line synopsis is your target and will help you begin. Large projects can be built from it, but the bulls-eye itself is neither overwhelming nor intimidating. As you write, reread your one-line reminder. It will keep you grounded, focused, and on target. Know what you want before you begin to write, and the writing will come more easily.

3. Tackle the five Ws.
Be a reporter. There is basic information people want to know — no matter the subject. In your writing, train yourself to answer all the questions your reader might ask. Everything you write may not have a who, what, when, where, and why, but at least ask yourself if it does. In good writing, omission of information is by plan, not mistake.

David (who), please review your contacts entered in the database (what) for the last six months (when) generated by the data mining exercise (where). I believe we can save marketing costs by ensuring that we have complete contact information for each person (why).

Thinking of your reader's questions before you write helps you organize your writing and makes your memos, reports, and letters as complete as an article in the New York Times.

4. Adopt a plain writing style.
It takes longer to read and comprehend a memo written in a bureaucratic style than one written in plain style. Bureaucratic writing buries meaning under run-on sentences, big words, and long paragraphs.

Plain writing will:

  1. State the purpose clearly
  2. List major points
  3. Include headings and lists
  4. Use short sentences and paragraphs
  5. Seek to express, not impress
  6. Avoid jargon

Plain writing is beautiful. If you want someone to understand your writing, put away the fancy words and contrived sentences. Say it simply. It will save your time, the reader's time, and your company's money.

5. Keep sentences short.
Effective writing avoids long sentences and long paragraphs because long sentences and paragraphs don't hold your interest. In run-on sentences and paragraphs, the reader struggles to keep from getting lost. Clear writing doesn't throw up detour signs.  It provides a clear path to understanding.

Bad: We have long yearned to create a marketing program full of energy and pizzazz that would remain in the minds of the customers and position our product as the product to end all products in our industry which should give us a good competitive edge since everyone else in our industry has cut their marketing budgets which means this is a good time for us to forge ahead and make some new customers now while everyone is either sleeping or afraid.  (Note, you could not have read that out loud without having to stop and take another breath.  Whew!)

Good: Now is the time to create a marketing program full of energy and pizzazz. This program would keep our name in the minds of our customers, position our product as the ultimate product in our industry, and give us the competitive edge.  In these tough times, our competitors are cowering in their offices and cutting their marketing budgets. By being aggressive and forging ahead, we will make new customers and corner a greater share of the market.

Check in next week for Tips 6-10 to help improve your business writing. 


"Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing." Benjamin Franklin

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