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BUSINESS WRITING TIPS

Writing Tips guaranteed to help you write better.

In our business writing seminars, we help employees and managers improve their business writing skills. We share tools, tips, strategies, job aids, and follow-up resources to help them write better—guaranteed.

Here are five business writing tips guaranteed to help you write better immediately.

Business Writing Tip #1:
     Get Organized by Listing
     Your Reader’s Questions

Business Writing Tip #2:
     Be Positive!

Business Writing Tip #3:
     Know Where Passive
     Verbs Belong

Business Writing Tip #4:
     Do More With Less!

Business Writing Tip #5:
     Break Through Writer's Block



Business Writing Tip #1

Get Organized by Listing Your Reader’s Questions

When you’re wondering what to cover in a message, how to organize your thoughts, and what to leave in and out, forget about what you have to say. Instead think about your reader: What does your reader want to know? What are your reader's questions?

It helps to imagine a conversation with your reader. For example, if you are writing to announce a meeting, imagine telling someone face-to-face about the meeting. That person would ask:

     Why are we meeting?
     When is it?
     Where?
     What’s the agenda?
     Who will be there?
     Do I have to attend? What if I can’t?
     Do I need to prepare? How?

List all the questions your reader may have. Then consider the order in which your reader would ask them. If you have listed any of the questions in a different order, rearrange them to meet your reader’s needs.

Now, one by one, write the answers to your reader’s questions. For example:

     Why are we meeting?
            We are meeting to decide whether to hire a
            part-time permanent employee or a summer
            intern to work on the winter marketing campaign.

     When is it?
            
The meeting takes place on Monday, April 25,
            at 2 p.m. for no more than 45 minutes.

Go through each one of your reader’s questions and answer it. When you’re finished, you’re not only finished organizing—you’re finished writing! Just edit, proofread, and send.

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Business Writing Tip #2

Be Positive!

Child-rearing books advise readers to communicate positive messages to children. They counsel parents to avoid the negative “Don’t slam the door” and to say instead “Close the door gently.”

Why? In this case, the child needs to learn what’s right—not just what is wrong. Also, if we say what children can do, they see options rather than roadblocks, and they are apt to respond positively.

Adults are grown-up children. They need positive messages too. If you want to get an affirmative response from your readers, try these tips for focusing on the positive.

State what to do—not what to avoid.
Yes:
Always process orders within two days.
No:
Never take more than two days to process an order.
Say what you can do—not what you can’t do.
Yes:
We can meet first thing Monday morning.
No:
We can’t meet now. It has to wait until Monday morning.
Use neutral rather than blaming language.
Yes:
Let me clarify what I meant.
No:
You misunderstood what I said.
Use words that create a positive feeling.
Yes:
At this company we value natural resources.
No:
At this company we don't waste natural resources.
Take every opportunity to communicate positively.
Yes:
Thank you for your letter.
No:
We have received your letter.

Don’t be negative!  Be positive.

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Business Writing Tip #2

Know Where Passive Verbs Belong

If you use a grammar-check feature, your sentences probably get flagged at times for a fault called “Passive Voice.” This flag is typically accompanied by advice to “Consider rewriting with an active voice verb.”

Is this fault serious? If your sentences get flagged often, should you call a psychologist to work on passivity issues? No! In fact, our grammar-checker has already flagged three of our sentences at the beginning of this Business Writing Tip, and we aren’t worried a bit.

We aren’t worried, but we do pay attention. That’s because there is a lot of good advice about limiting the use of passive verbs. For instance, we are told to change:

“The surface should be primed” (passive) to “Prime the surface” (active). This change makes sense. Readers need precise instructions.

“Your gift is appreciated” (passive) to “We appreciate your gift” (active). This is another fine suggestion. “Is appreciated” sounds impersonal, whereas “We appreciate” feels warm.

When we make these changes, we are replacing wordy, vague phrases with concise, direct words. That’s excellent.

But there are four places where passive verbs fit just right:

1. When you don’t know who performed the action.

     Passive:

Her car was stolen twice.

     Not:

Someone stole her car twice.
2. When it doesn’t matter who performs the action.

     Passive:

The boards are pre-cut.

     Not:

A worker pre-cuts the boards.
3. When we want to avoid blaming someone.

     Passive:

The drawings were lost.

     Not:

Andy lost the drawings.
4. When we want to soften a directive.

     Passive:

This paragraph could be shortened.

     Not:

Shorten this paragraph.

Passive verbs are perfect in these four instances. Likewise, the passive verbs in our opening sentences also work well (“get flagged” and “is typically accompanied”).

Know where passives verbs belong, and you won’t be intimidated by your grammar-check software again. Our grammar-checker just flagged the previous sentence, but we know the passive verb there suits our purpose and sounds just right!

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Business Writing Tip #2

Do More With Less!

For over a decade, the message at work has been “Do more with less!” As writers, we have this challenge too. And we can be much more efficient if we use less wordiness. By cutting down on extra words, we cut down on both writing and reading time.

The paragraph below contains 70 words. Can you cut it down to 35 words or less?

This document is for the purpose of giving the reader a detailed explanation of the inventory process. It describes the activities we currently do in the majority of instances on a daily and weekly basis. In order to provide an introduction to the process for employees who work on a temporary basis, we also have prepared an overview, which describes the highlights of the inventory process in just two pages.

Here is a 30-word revision:

This document explains the inventory process in detail. It describes our usual daily and weekly activities. We also have prepared a two-page overview to introduce the process to temporary employees.

Which paragraph above is clearer—the 70-word version or the 30-word revision?

To lighten up your sentences, watch for heavy phrases like these:

for the purpose of 
=
for
the majority of
=   
most
in order to
=
to
provide an introduction
=
introduce
on a daily basis 
daily
on a regular basis   
routinely

Do you think you can do more with less? Try this experiment:

When you finish writing a paragraph or a page, imagine it needs to be one-third shorter because of space constraints. Then see how many words you can cut. You’ll probably be surprised about the excess baggage your sentences are carrying. And your readers will thank you.

It’s true—we can do more with less!

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Business Writing Tip #2

Every now and then we get stuck. The blank screen or empty page just stares at us dully. Meanwhile, the digital clock shifts through the minutes. We fidget.

Need to break through writer’s block? Then do it—break out of what you are doing and try something different. Here are a few techniques.

Imagine that you are talking with your reader. Think about the things your reader wants or needs to hear. Then “tell” (write) any part—beginning, middle, or end. Don’t worry about the perfect opening.

Write without censoring yourself. Pay no attention to whether the writing is good. Just let the words and ideas flow. Then choose your “keepers” and build from them.

Review some of your past writing that makes you feel proud. This look will build your confidence and may give you specific ideas.

Talk with coworkers. Don’t wait until you’re done to tell about your struggles. The screen is blank now.

For a project that takes several sittings, end a sitting when you know what comes next, and make a note of it. That way, you won’t face a mental block when you begin the next time. (This idea is courtesy of Ernest Hemingway.)

Take a break that includes a change of scenery, or shift to another activity.

When you’re stuck near the end of a piece and have covered everything, quit. Enough is enough!


For more ideas on better writing at work, read our articles, visit our blog, and sign up for our ezine, Better Writing at Work.


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