That stack of correspondence
in the upper left-hand corner of your desk often seems like it will never go
away. Some people consider it to be a fact of business life that everyone has
letters and memos in this desktop location that I often refer to as Death
Valley. That name is given to the corner because any correspondence that
ends up there "dies." It never sees the light of day again. Why? Most letters
and memos that are written in the business world aren't readable and
don't offer enough incentive for addressees to pick them up to read.
The writing disciplines
discussed here are based upon the work of a consultant friend of mine, T Frank
Hardesty. They have been modified for my individual requirements, a process
that you must also go through to ensure that the disciplines apply to your unique
situation. Although they are specifically aimed at business letters, the underlying
concepts apply to many other communication opportunities.
Notice that they are called
disciplines, not rules. Disciplines are practices that structure a related process
to make people get better at something else. For instance, a football player
will lift weights - not to become a better weightlifter, but to learn how to
use his strength more efficiently when blocking and tackling. In the same way,
these disciplines will help focus your letter and memo writing skills so that
you are aware of the impact you have on others through your daily written business
No more than 22 words
Some people are impressed
by their ability to string words and concepts together ad infinitum. They are
enamored by the strength and complexity of their sentence construction. In reality,
though, they are doing a huge disservice both to themselves and to their readers.
Long, complicated sentences are difficult both to construct and to decipher.
Short, crisp sentences are read and receive responses.
Two sentences per paragraph.
This discipline causes many
people to cringe, especially technically oriented individuals. Most people do
not know where to end one paragraph and begin the next. They look for some hidden
clue that will automatically tell them that it's time to tell the reader something
different is being discussed.
Think about it - no one
challenges where you break your thoughts. In your letters and memos, it isn't
worth deliberating at length where one thought really finishes and another begins.
Just count - one period, two periods and begin a new paragraph.
When you do this, you will
create white space. Every advertising major knows the psychological advantages
of white space. It makes a written document look readable and entices
the eye to continue. It makes a document look less imposing and more inviting
- the type of document that gets read and generates solutions.
Many people feel as if these
first two disciplines restrict their style and inhibit their ability to say
what they want to say. However, to emphasize how much can be said in 22 words
and two sentences, here is the entire story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears
told with two sentences that total 22 words:
A girl on a woodland
walk found an empty house. Because she ate, broke furniture and fell asleep,
the owners were angry.
That's it - the entire story.
In addition to encouraging a person to get to the point quickly, this skill
is valuable to those who have young children. Each night my two young daughters
ask for a bedtime story. With enough practice, that story can take about 15
seconds, allowing me to get back to the sports page before it gets cold.
Use the shortest possible
words to explain complicated thoughts.
In most cases, you'll be
able to accomplish this using words that have no more than three syllables.
If you use words that are sesquipedalian, your readers will have the
same reaction that you just had when you saw my foot-and-a-half-long word.
When people don't understand
a word, they read through it, developing their own interpretation for what's
in the memo. Don't let someone else determine what you are saying. Use forthright
words that everyone can easily understand.
To show how effectively
this can be done, reread your freshman assignment in English literature, the
soliloquy of Hamlet which begins, "To be or not to be . . ." Look closely and
you'll realize that not one word in the text is longer than three syllables,
and very few three-syllable words are present. We can all agree that the person
who wrote it knew what he was doing.
Never begin a sentence
with There is or There are.
This is a discipline that
I have added to Frank's original list. My reason is quite simple. Any sentence,
which begins with those words, buries its subject two words deeper than is necessary.
"There is a hidden meaning
in the message" can be changed to "A hidden meaning is in the message." "There
is a better way to write letters" can become "A better way exists to write letters."
In both examples, the subject is pulled forward to assume a position of greater
prominence and better communications.
Never begin a paragraph
with We, I, My, or Our.
When any of these words
appear in the prominent spot at the start of a paragraph, the writer is emphasizing
his or her own importance and de-emphasizing the opinion of the other party.
A good salesperson understands that success is determined by taking the other
individual's point of view. When a paragraph begins with a "first-person" word,
it automatically loses its sales appeal.
Yet, how often in the corporate
world have you looked at the memos that cross your desk and notice that every
paragraph begins with the word "we?" It is a pattern that, when broken, can
make succinct letters and memos stand out and get read.
Never use a semi-colon.
Very few people (mostly
English majors) know how to use semi-colons. As a result, the majority of writers
use this punctuation incorrectly.
The solution: don't use
them at all. If you are connecting two sentences by a semi-colon, put a period
at the end of the first sentence, capitalize the next word and make two sentences.
Then, of course, start a new paragraph.
Use one side of one sheet
Long letters and memos don't
get read. Short ones do. Certainly technical papers require longer explanations,
but the everyday correspondence that you create will be read more often when
it is short and to the point. And, none of your ideas will be acted upon unless
someone first picks up that sheet of paper with the inclination to find out
what you have to say.
Yes, this discussion of
business writing was a bit whimsical. It was meant to be. However, try these
disciplines for your next 10 letters and memos. If you like what you see, continue
to use them or modify them to meet your special needs.
If you don't like them,
forget this article and continue to do things the way you've always done them.
It's all up to you. Very few people feel as if they are getting the desired
results from business correspondence. A few disciplines and tweaking of the
dials might be just what are required to add that luster to the surface of your