10 Sins of Business Writing
Perhaps you’ve seen one of the many tests circulating on social media that “prove” errors don’t affect our ability to comprehend written communiqués. But is the popularity of tweeting, texting, and messaging desensitizing us to poor grammar and spelling?
Don’t believe the hype. The ability to express yourself clearly and concisely is still a highly respected — and sought-after — skill in today’s business world. If you disagree, go ahead and fire off an incoherent email that’s riddled with errors to your customers. A few people may not mind (or even notice), but most will.
Careless writing can ruin your credibility, so it’s critical to build a reputation that’s polished and professional. After all, that’s how you will influence people to spend their hard-earned dollars on your products or services.
To become a stronger writer, avoid these 10 common mistakes:
- Relying too heavily on technology — Software that checks your spelling and grammar can miss problems with word usage. Always leave enough time to proofread your documents carefully. Grammar Girl offers excellent tips for improving the proofreading process.
- Ignoring tone — Without the benefits of body language and tone of voice, it can be tough to convey your intentions in writing. That’s why so many people misinterpret written messages. Read everything you write out loud to gauge what readers may “hear” as they read your words. Rewrite anything that could come across as rude or harsh.
- Being long-winded — People often choose to be wordy because they don’t want to seem curt. Go ahead and get to the point; your readers will appreciate conciseness. People tend to scan long messages, so shorten yours to ensure that they pay attention to its important points. Eliminate unnecessary words — adjectives and adverbs are a great place to start — and redundancies, such as “absolutely necessary,” “plan in advance,” and “basic fundamentals.” If you must send a lengthy missive, provide a short summary (two or three sentences) at the top.
- Using jargon and acronyms — If you are communicating with someone outside your company, replace any industry-specific terms or shorthand with language that they’re more likely to understand. If you must include jargon, define it in layperson’s terms. Spell out acronyms.
- Filling your writing with buzzwords and clichés — Shun phrases such as “think outside the box,” “low-hanging fruit,” and “push the envelope.” These don’t improve your writing; they serve as filler that muddies your message and distracts from your key points.
- Choosing fancy words when plain ones will do — We’re not asking you to dumb down your writing, but high-brow vocabulary forces some people to stop reading to figure out what you mean. Opt for the simplest expression of your ideas to reach the widest audience.
- Writing run-on sentences — Rambling prose can cause confusion. Think: Lots of commas are a sign that you need to break your sentences into shorter ones. Doing so will make your writing easier to digest.
- Failing to include a call to action — Determine what you want the recipient to do upon receiving your document, and open with this information. Provide details after that. Example: “Please respond to this email to confirm that you accept the terms and deadlines I’ve outlined below.”
- Applying ugly formatting — Typing words in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is jarring and can be interpreted as “yelling.” Italics and bold type can make text hard to read, particularly when overused. Use them sparingly, such as to denote section headings or to emphasize key points. For long documents, use bullet points or numbers to make lists or instructions easier to scan.
- Resorting to passive voice — People often are afraid to be direct. Instead of “You/I didn’t file the report on time,” they say “The report wasn’t filed on time” to avoid placing blame. However, passive construction can lead to misunderstandings. For example, “The extension needs to be filed by July 1.” Who should file the extension? You haven't assigned anyone the task, and thus it may not get handled. Always make it clear who is responsible for what: "Dan, please file the report by July 1."
Jaimy Ford is a business writer and editor. She writes subscription newsletters, training tools and blogs that focus on professional development, leadership, productivity and more. Her goal in everything she writes is to provide actionable advice that you can put to use immediately.