This is an intensely competitive world. To succeed, you have to stand out from the crowd. Develop the skill to express yourself clearly and effectively in writing. It will give you a strong competitive edge over 90% of your peers.
People who write well usually do well. Most transactions and professional relationships of consequence involve written letters, memos, reports and agreements at one stage or another. Putting something in writing forces you to sharpen your logic and the clarity of your thinking. Being able to communicate well in writing with customers, superiors, subordinates and suppliers is an essential but increasingly rare business skill. One of Apple’s strongest competitive advantages is how well it communicates with its customers.
The importance of writing well applies to virtually all fields of work. Winston Churchill referred to himself as “a strong believer in transacting official business by The Written Word.” The rewards of doing so are clearer direction for everyone, improved decision-making, fewer errors and less time lost as a result of ambiguity, misguided thinking and fuzziness in dealing with others.
Observe these basic principles to achieve effective writing of letters, assignments, proposals, memos, reports and business plans:
- Start by asking yourself what do I really need and want to say. Then, put yourself in your readers’ shoes and ask what is most relevant to them. Get clear in your mind the purpose of what you are writing.
- Convey the right attitude and tone. This influences how your readers will respond to your content and message. Avoid giving the impression of being arrogant, coy, cute, pompous, pretentious, patronizing, superior or overly humble. Above all, do not be rude or sarcastic.
- Express yourself in a clear, concise, bold manner. Be direct and get to the point. Do not use ineffectual, unnecessary opening comments or statements. Avoid wordiness by trying to explain too much or cover too much detail. If it is possible to eliminate a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph, do so. The longer the document you write, the greater is the likelihood that your readers will skim over its contents superficially.
- Refrain from writing and sending any form of written communications in anger or extreme frustration. It always comes back to haunt you when you do so.
- Make any written apologies sincere and succinct. Do not weaken or contradict your apology by adding any “but” or “however” statements.
- Always, always date every written communication and document, including all individual exhibits, charts, tables and drafts. Nothing is more irritating than being unable to know when a written document was prepared or whether you are reading the most current version of that document. When you change or revise anything, put the new date on the document.
- All written documents of any type need to have their pages numbered following the first page. Place the page number centered at either the bottom or top of each page.
Always be careful what you put in writing. If it concerns confidential information, put “CONFIDENTIAL” in all capital letters and bold print at the top of the first page of your letter or memo, or on the cover page of a report. Underline this heading in red if you wish to emphasize it even more.
Recognize that there is always a chance that any written communication or document may end up in the hands of competitors, the media or a government official. Keep this in mind when you put anything in writing, including e-mails. If you would not want to see something published on the front page of a newspaper, you probably should not put it in writing.
The organization and format of your written communications help to determine their effectiveness. Follow these points:
- Write what you have to say in some form of logical and coherent sequence, preferably in order of importance to your reader or chronologically.
- Keep in mind that the most important sentence in any letter, document or paragraph is usually the first one. The second most important is usually the last one.
- Restrict the contents of each paragraph to only one unified subject. Each sentence should relate to the same central idea being covered in the paragraph. When you go on to a new topic, start a new paragraph. Try to have the last sentence in each paragraph serve as the springboard for the next paragraph. Generally, refrain from including more than three or four sentences in a paragraph. Conversely, paragraphs usually need to comprise more than just one sentence unless you are writing a letter or e-mail. Be consistent in the way that the start of the first sentence in each paragraph is indented.
- Put lists of recommendations or anything else in order of importance or priority. Use a consistent form in giving the contents of any lists, e.g., begin each item in the list in the same way with a noun or a verb in the same tense.
- When you are listing names in any form of written communications, always do so in the alphabetical order of each person’s last name. This includes distribution lists of whom is to receive copies of e-mails, memos and letters as well as lists of people who attended a meeting. The same applies to any lists of organizations. To list people and organizations in any other order raises unnecessary political or status issues in the minds of the recipients.
- Pay attention to how your written communications look as well as what you say. Use the appropriate style of print, spacing and margins to maximize the readability of every type of written document.
- Do not use a print size and font that are difficult to read. Utilize relatively wide and consistent margins to properly frame the printed contents of each page. The left margin should be at least one inch wide, the right margin one-half to one inch, and the top and bottom margins a minimum of one-half inch, preferably one inch.
- Leave at least one-quarter to one-half inch of space between any graphic elements, such as the letterhead, the name and address, lists, charts and tables. Always indent any lists one-half inch, using bullets or numbers for each item.
Make it as easy as possible for readers to quickly find the main points you are making. Resist overcrowding your pages with too much print or information. Ask yourself, what can I do to make this letter, memo or document more readable?
The way you express yourself is critical to the success of your written communications. Incorporate these principles into your style of writing:
- Write in a natural, conversational style and tone just as you talk. Be yourself. Do not put on airs. Your objective is to express, not impress.
- Emphasize the facts of consequence and be careful about expressing your opinions. Do not exaggerate. It just weakens your case.
- Use the active verb tense, where the subject performs the action, wherever possible. It pushes your readers along in a more direct and forceful manner. Try to avoid using the passive verb tense as it weakens what you are writing and sounds tentative. “I recommend you read this book” or better yet “Read this book” are much stronger than “It is recommended that you read this book.”
- Keep your sentences and wording positive, as much as it is possible to do so. Avoid using unnecessary negatives, e.g., “dishonest” is better than “not honest”. Never use two negatives in the same sentence.
- Use lean and short sentences and paragraphs. Try not to include more than one idea in a sentence.
- Avoid using unnecessary commas. Follow the practice of when in doubt, leave the comma out. On the other hand, serious lawsuits have been caused by the misplacement of commas in agreements and contracts. Use commas to set something apart in a sentence.
- Minimize the use of semi-colons. You can use them to separate two independent clauses in one sentence but in most cases you are better off to make them into separate sentences. Semi-colons should be used to separate lists of clauses (or items) within a sentence where commas are contained within some or all of the clauses.
- Try to be consistent in the use of the same pronouns and verb tense throughout. Do not switch pronouns or tenses in the middle of a sentence or paragraph.
- Refrain from putting quotation marks around words or terms unless you have a special reason for doing so. The same applies to underlining them.
Having an effective writing style requires a combination of expressing yourself in a coherent, persuasive manner and using language that is appropriate for the type of document involved. What is appropriate for a business letter or communication may be different than what is suitable for an academic document. Differences also exist between accepted American and British expressions of language and style. Adopt a consistent style of writing that suits the type of document you are preparing. In most cases, the style of writing you use should also reflect your own individual personality and character.
One of the best ways to build your vocabulary and improve your writing skills is to get into the habit of regularly reading quality newspapers and magazines, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. Another way is to read books by well-known authors on a variety of subjects, including fiction. Quite simply, the more you read, the better writer you will become.
Here are some common points to keep in mind regarding effective word usage and grammar:
- Resist using long words when a shorter one will do or say the same thing. The shorter the word, the more likely your readers will understand it.
- With adjectives, follow Mark Twain’s advice, “When in doubt, strike out.” Similarly, delete unnecessary adverbs that essentially convey the same meaning as the verb. Avoid using redundant little qualifiers that dilute rather than strengthen your meaning, such as “very”, “quite”, “pretty” and “too”.
- Use simple, straightforward language. Avoid clichés, flowery words, technobabble, bureaucratic jargon and slang. Do not use overworked buzzwords, such as “bottom-line”, “paradigm”, “proactive”, “24/7”, “synergies” and “value-added”. The same applies to ambiguous, vague and wishy-washy words and phrases.
- Refrain from including the word “I” too many times or you will sound egotistical. “I” should only be used when you’re referring to yourself in the subject of a sentence, e.g., “I am going to the movie.” Only use “we” when you’re referring to a group, company or organization to which you belong. “We” also should just be used as the subject of a sentence, e.g., “We are going to the theatre.”
- The words “me” and “us” should only be used as the object of a verb or preposition and never as the subject of a sentence. For example, “He wants me [or us] to join the group” or “Between you and me [never “I”], he wants to join us.”
- Use “who” as the subject of a sentence or phrase in place of “he”, “she” or “they”. Only use “whom” as the object of a sentence or phrase, or following a preposition, e.g., “To whom do I owe this honor?”
- Do not start sentences with the words “No”, “But” or “However”. And, do not end sentences with “however”.
- To form the possessive of a singular noun or name, add an apostrophe and an “s” (horse’s halter, boss’s chair, Mr. Ross’s hat). For the possessive of a plural noun, add an apostrophe after the “s” (workers’ wages).
- Do not make the common mistake of confusing “it’s” and “its”. “It’s” is the shortened version of “it is” or “it has”. When you want to write that something belongs to something else, use the possessive pronoun “its” without an apostrophe in front of the “s”. The same applies to the use of “ours”, “theirs” and “yours”.
- Insert a hyphen when two words are compounded to act as an adjective for a noun, e.g., long-term plans, low-income housing, year-end figures.
- When you are referring to figures, “about” means a rough estimate and “approximately” means close to the accurate amount.
- For most writing, spell out the numbers ten and under unless you are referring to dates, financial numbers or the time of day. Use numerals for 11 and up. Be careful using “M’s” with numbers. One M equals a thousand in the U.S. and a million in the U.K. The same applies to numerical dates — 8/2/06 means August 2, 2006 in the U.S. and February 8, 2006 in the U.K. If you choose to use numerical dates, always be consistent in the method you employ to do so.
- Avoid using “etc.” at the end of a list as it always makes the reader wonder about what else you actually meant to say.
Word misusage occurs most often with the following:
- Wrongly using plural verbs when the subject is singular and vice versa. A plural subject requires a plural verb.
- The verb “to affect” means to change or influence, e.g., “The weather is affecting my mood.” The verb “to effect” means to bring about or accomplish, e.g., “Inflation is effecting an increase in prices”.
- “Because of” means as a result of. “Due to” means attributable to.
- The verb “can” means an ability to do something. The verb “may” means asking permission or expressing the possibility of doing something. “I can go to the opera but I may not do so.”
- When you want to list examples at the end of a sentence, put a comma followed by “e.g.” and then another comma (as in “, e.g.,”). Similarly, you can use “i.e.” followed by a comma in place of saying “that is” or “in other words”.
- Use “compared with” to refer to the differences in two or more items of a similar nature, such as “Last year, our earnings were $1,500,000 compared with $1,000,000 in the prior year.” Use “compared to” to point out differences in two or more items of a basically different character.
- Use the verb “to feel” to describe what you do with your hands, and “believe” for what you strongly think in your mind.
- “Irregardless” is not a word. Use “regardless”.
- “Principal” is an adjective or noun that means the main person or thing (the principal idea, the principal of the school) or a sum of money on which interest is charged. “Principle” is a noun that means a fundamental rule or basic truth.
- Using “prioritize” or “strategize” as a verb is awkward. It is better to refer to the nouns “priority” or “strategy”.
- Use “such as” or “for example” instead of “like” when you give examples. Only use the word “like” as a verb to indicate you like someone or something. Also, avoid using it as an exclamatory word by itself in speaking.
- Do not use “there’s” when you should use “there are” or “they’re” to refer to something plural. It is wrong for someone to say or write, “There’s four factors to consider.” Also, don’t use “their” when you mean to say “they are”. “Their” is the plural possessive pronoun referring to something that belongs to a group of people (e.g., “They’re walking out the door wearing their hats.”).
- Do not mix up the verbs “to scratch” and “to itch”. When you have an insect bite, you scratch the bite when it itches you. You never itch a bite.
- You “loan” money to someone and you “borrow” money from someone. It is incorrect to say you “loaned” money from someone.
Do not count on your computer’s spell-check program to flag inappropriate word usage. Most of the above examples would be missed by spell-check.
When in doubt about the exact meaning, spelling or use of a word, look it up. Consult www.dictionary.com or use www.onelook.com, a compilation of 950 general and specialized dictionaries, to obtain the correct spelling and meaning of words. For this purpose, however, I still prefer to use the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary or Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
It is vitally important to follow the correct rules of grammar in all your writing. Not to do so will quickly undermine your credibility in the minds of your readers. If you are uncertain about points of grammar, you need to make the effort to become familiar with the basics of proper grammar. It is something that is relatively easy to learn. You can do so by going to a public library or purchasing a book to consult on this subject. See the last section of this chapter for specific sources of information regarding this matter.
Finally, be aware that certain professions, such as engineering or medicine, adhere to their own generic accepted style of writing and word usage, especially in the case of their own discipline-specific reports, articles and journals. If you become a member of such a profession, you will be expected to master its forms of language and expression.
Be a tough editor of everything you write. Hemingway rewrote the first part of his book A Farewell to Arms at least 50 times. Revise, revise, revise. Simplify, simplify, simplify. If it is an important written piece, sleep on it and edit again.
The well-known authority on writing, William Zinsser, said: “With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that is not doing useful work.” To assist in achieving this goal, read aloud what you have written to yourself or a colleague. Rewrite anything that sounds awkward, confusing or repetitious.
Carefully proofread everything you write for spelling and grammatical errors, words omitted, typos, and mistakes in dates, numbers and statistics. Do not be lazy and try to proofread your writing on a computer screen. Always print off a hard-copy for the purpose of proofreading.
If you’re uncertain how a word should be spelled, again do not trust your computer’s spell-check program to get it right. Look up the word in a dictionary. Many mistakes are made by relying solely on spell-checks. “Stationary” and “stationery” are both correctly spelled but mean totally different things. It helps to keep a list of your most frequently misspelled words. Any error, mistake or typo in the final copy of your written communication automatically causes the reader to take you less seriously than would otherwise be the case and undermines your image of professionalism.
Your business letters represent a projection of both yourself as an individual and your organization. In all likelihood, the recipients receive countless other written communications of all types every working day. To have a chance of being read and taken seriously, all your business letters have to be well-written with care or they will get lost in the shuffle.
To produce an effective business letter, pay attention to these points:
- Get clear in your mind exactly what you want to accomplish with the letter. Place yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask what is most important to that person on the subject you are writing about.
- Develop a logical sequence for covering the topics you need to include in your letter, based largely on what matters most to your reader.
- In most cases, try to keep your letter to one page but do not use smaller than normal print size or eliminate the margin at the bottom of the page to do so. Depending on the content and complexity of the subject, you may need to use two pages for your letter but try to avoid using three or more pages.
- Put a brief newspaper-type headline in bold print centered at the top of the first page above the salutation of “Dear … ” to get the attention of the reader regarding the subject of your letter, e.g., New Product Launch.
- Follow all of the basic principles of excellent writing described earlier. Do not be stiff or overly formal. Express yourself in a courteous, natural manner. Inject some of your hopefully warm and friendly personality into what you are writing.
- Try to write in a concise, original and punchy style. Avoid flowery, clichéd and stock phrases. Keep your sentences and verbs in the active tense. Eliminate anything that may be of minor interest to the reader. Do not be repetitive.
- Pay special attention to your first one or two sentences. They have to make the reader want to continue to read the rest. Also, avoid using “I” in the first one or two sentences.
- In your final paragraph, briefly cover what you want or are asking to happen next.
Other recommendations regarding business letters are:
- Always try to write to a specific person by name as opposed to “Dear Credit Manager”. This is especially important when applying for a job, attempting to make a sale, or soliciting someone’s support. Make an effort to find out exactly to whom you are writing. Letters addressed to departments or positions as opposed to a specific person are rarely read or taken seriously.
- Ensure that you are spelling the person’s and the organization’s name correctly, plus using the accurate address.
- Place a colon after the opening salutation of a letter when you are using someone’s last name (“Dear Ms. White:”). Use a comma when you are only using the first name (“Dear Joan,”).
- For the signoff, use “Sincerely yours,” when the salutation is by last name and “With best regards” when it is by first name. For a punchy ending, skip any “sincerely yours” and just sign your name.
- If you are using someone’s first name in the opening salutation, in most cases you should sign the end the letter with just your first name.
- Under the space for your signature at the end of a business letter, print your full name and below it your title. Never include your education degrees after your name unless they are professional licensed degrees, such as a CA or M.D. The same applies to other types of written communications as well as your business cards. Otherwise it makes you look pretentious.
- Print out a hard-copy draft of your letter so you can proof it properly before printing the final version. If it is an important letter, read the draft out loud to yourself and think about how it will “sound” to the reader.
- Always put your full name and that of your organization together with its mailing address in the upper left-hand corner of the front of the envelope.
I strongly recommend that you develop a clearly legible, distinctive personal signature. As someone said, it takes courage and confidence to have a legible signature. Do not hide behind an indecipherable scrawl of a signature.
If you have the flexibility to create your own letterhead, put it at the top of the page with your name on the top line, your organization’s full “name” on the next line, your complete address on the third line, and your phone number, fax number and e-mail address on the fourth line. Try not to use more than one-and-a-
quarter inches of the top margin for your letterhead. If you want to include a logo and perhaps your organization’s slogan on the stationery, put them centered on the bottom of the page, using no more than three-quarters of an inch of the lower margin to do so.
quarter inches of the top margin for your letterhead. If you want to include a logo and perhaps your organization’s slogan on the stationery, put them centered on the bottom of the page, using no more than three-quarters of an inch of the lower margin to do so.
Memos are used principally to communicate information, assignments and recommendations to others internally within your own group or organization. They can vary in length from one to about five pages but the longer the memo, the higher the risk it won’t be read.
Reports are usually longer documents designed to contain more complete information on major subjects of some complexity or importance. They are usually longer than five pages in length and often contain exhibits, tables or other attachments.
The starting point for any memo or report is to select a short subject heading or title that grabs people’s attention and succinctly telegraphs what the document is about. If you are making a request for some action or decision, use a subject heading or title that begins with “Request for … .
To prepare effective memos and reports, you first need to develop an outline covering the main points in some logical sequence from the standpoint of your intended readers. In the case of reports, a common format or sequence to follow is:
- The definition of the issue or problem.
- The criteria that any solution must meet.
- The principal points relevant to dealing with the issue or problem.
- The main alternative solutions available.
- Your recommended solution and the reasons for it.
- A summary and decisive ending.
With both memos and reports, use headings and subheadings to break up the text, topic by topic, and make it easier for your readers to find the parts of special interest to them. Be consistent in the style of headings and the use of any bold-faced print.
Use the following standard heading at the top of the first page of your memos:
Subject: [What the memo is about. Keep it short.]
To: [The primary person who needs to read the memo. If more than one, list them one below the other. Do not include positions or titles with their names.]
From: [Your name.]
Copy: [Anyone else who definitely needs to receive a copy.]
Lengthy reports and other business documents require a cover page, followed by a “Contents” page and then an “Executive Summary” as the first section. The table of contents should give the starting page numbers for each section and at the end include a listing of any tables, charts and appendix materials contained at the back of the report. The Executive Summary should be no longer than one or two pages, highlighting the most important points, recommendations and conclusions contained in the report. All memos, reports and other business documents should always be dated, preferably on the first or cover page.
If you have access to the Internet, use search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, to assist in researching the subjects of your business reports. These search engines are absolutely amazing in terms of the amount of available information you can easily obtain through them.
Handwritten notes are an excellent way to express your appreciation or congratulations to colleagues and other business associates in a personalized manner, whether they work inside or outside of your office. Take advantage of any opportunities to send such notes, including birthdays and anniversaries. By doing so, you are in effect saying, “I’m thinking about you and I don’t take our relationship for granted.”
Whenever someone outside of your organization takes you out for a business meal or to an event, it is usually an excellent idea to send a letter to say thank you within a maximum of three days after the occasion. The same applies if a person makes a special effort to assist you in any way. Your expression of appreciation has much more impact when you take the time to handwrite it as opposed to sending a typed thank-you note, letter or e-mail.
When you come across a newspaper or magazine article that might be of interest to someone you know or have met, send it to that person with a signed handwritten note saying, “Thought you might be interested in the attached.”
If someone in a colleague’s family dies, again send a handwritten note saying, “I was sorry to hear about … Please accept my condolences. She was a great friend and will be dearly missed by everyone.” Do the same with good news, such as the arrival of a newborn baby in the family.
In most cases, sign such notes with your first name. It is also a good idea to put your full name and address on the outside of the front of the envelope so there is no confusion over who sent the not.