On the morning of
a second day of a business writing workshop, one of my participants
said, "My wife is an English teacher. When I told her about the
changes in writing that you taught us yesterday, she got very upset.
She said if I ever start a sentence with the word "and" or
if I ever write a one sentence paragraph she will slap my wrist."
The man-and his
wife-hadn't understood. Business writing is different from the writing
you learn in the classroom. This is because both the readers and the
image you want to project of yourself are different.
In school, the teacher
assigns or negotiates a topic with the students. There is a specific
word count involved. A student may be asked to write a 1,000 word essay
comparing the use of symbolism in George Orwell's book 1984 and Margaret
Atwood's Handmaiden's Tale. Sound familiar? The student then scrambles
to read the books (not having quite completed the earlier reading assignments),
looks up the word symbolism and tries to make sense of the task.
The student runs
into three problems. First, understanding the assignment and pulling
the information from the texts. Second, producing the required word
count. Students soon clue into the idea that these two problems can
be solved by writing about the same point several times but using different
words. This hides the fact that the writer isn't too clear on the topic
and adds to the word count.
The third problem
revolves around image. If a student can make himself sound ten years
older and give a pompous flavour to his paper, he will get top marks.
This is difficult because of the vocabulary level. If you listen to
many teenagers words such as like, rad, yo (now in the dictionary),
duh, dissing are sprinkled throughout their conversations. None of these
will fit into an English assignment. But the solution lies in the thesaurus.
One young man I
know writes his essays according to his normal speech patterns and when
he is finished, uses the thesaurus to upgrade all the nouns to polysyllables.
It changes an easy-to-read document into a more complicated one and
certainly gives in a more ponderous flavor. And, yes, he always receives
So this is what
we learn in school: how to disguise our thoughts if we are not sure
what we are saying, how to pad sentences with unnecessary words, and
how to project the image of someone we are not.
Does this style
of writing work in the business world? Absolutely not.
Our readers do not
receive a salary for pouring over our efforts. Our readers are busy
people who want to pick up documents, read them quickly and know what
they are to do next. They also want to feel there is a live, warm-blooded
person writing to them-not the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.
Here are some tips
for today's writing:
Begin with the
idea you are speaking face-to-face with your reader.
Use the same words
you would use when talking.
Change nouns to
verbs when possible. (For example: An announcement was made by the
president. Better: The president announced)
with and, but or because, if the message calls for an informal tone.
Remove words that
don't add to the message. (For example, remove this useless filler:
I would like to take this opportunity to
Use personal pronouns:
I, we and you. (Use you more often than I.)
Leave in the words
of courtesy-please, thank you, I appreciate.
the English philosopher once said, "Little men use big words, big
men use little words."