By Terry Corbell
The Biz Coach
25 Best Practices for Better Business Writing
If you want to accelerate your career or turbo-charge your business, one of your priorities should be good communication.
Good writing is necessary in a myriad of ways, including letters, advertising copy and presentations.
A lack of writing skills will can hold you back or even hurt your career.
In my experience to avoid the most-common errors, here are 25 tips:
- Focus on lucidity or clarity. Write so that your readers will understand your intended meaning. Articulate your thoughts so that the average person can understand them.
- Use an economy of words. Short sentences are best unless you’re writing for academia or the scientific world. Eliminate unnecessary words and repetition. Less is more.
- Avoid the latest jargon. Write simply. In an effort to impress readers, some writers mistakenly use the latest buzz words or phrases. It won’t impress articulate senior management.
- It’s best to capsulize your points. When writing letters or reports, start by stating your information in a condensed form so that it summarizes your points in an easy-to-understand way. You should anticipate important reader questions. Like in journalism 101, answer the following: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Hint – ask yourself: “What do I want the reader to know?”
- Professionalism counts. That means avoiding unnecessary enthusiasm or exclamation points. If you’re writing for a job opening, use the salutation, “Dear…” Close your letter or email with “Sincerely” or “Best regards.” Even if you don’t know the person, “Best” or “Regards” will suffice. The rule of thumb: Before you complete your writing project, consider how others will view it, as though it might appear in a newspaper or public-agency record. And remember, the Internet is forever.
- Use correct grammatical structure. Your sentences should be complete, not fragmented, and contain a subject, verb, and object. A writer who is skilled at diagramming sentences will undoubtedly communicate skillfully.
- Employ subject-verb agreement. If your subject is singular, your verb is plural (“He wants an agreement”). If your subject is plural, the verb is singular (“They want an agreement”).
- Know the right pronouns to use. A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun. The most common errors involve the use of “I” vs. “me.” The pronoun “I” is the subject in a sentence (“I want the project”). Me is the object (“Send the project to her and me”).
- When to use “saw” vs. “seen.” “Saw” is the simple past-tense form of the word, “see.” While “seen” is the past participle of “see.” For example, you want to write “I saw the bird” and “I have seen the bird.” (“Seen” requires a helper verb, such as “has,” “had” or “have.”)
- Properly insert your periods when using a quotation. Insert your period outside the quote. However, journalists, such as the practice in this news portal, place the period inside the quotation.
- Here’s how to use “that” and “which.” “That” is a restrictive clause and it’s used to explain important information (“We don’t sell trucks; cars are the only vehicles that we market”). More often than not, it isn’t necessary to insert “that.” When using “which” remember it’s a nonrestrictive clause, and it introduces supplemental information that isn’t deemed vital (“Our salespeople have a variety of ways to make good commissions, which is important for their incomes”).
- Correctly use prepositions. A preposition is a word that links nouns, pronouns and phrases. A preposition introduces the object of the preposition. In a prepositional phrase, for example, “The plane is on the tarmac.” (“On” is the preposition.) Typical prepositions include above, after, at, by, for, from, in, into, of, on, over, to, under, up, and with. Remember – don’t end your sentences in prepositions.
- When to use “who” or “whom.” When in doubt, remember it’s “to whom or for whom something is done.” For example, “She was asked whom will be affected.” Otherwise, whom is preceded by a preposition, such as: “At whom did she yell?”
- How to use “a” vs. “an.” Correct usage depends on the type of words that follow the “a” or “an.” Use “a” when it precedes a noun that starts with a consonant, “He wants a plane,” or a consonant sound, such as “That was a unicycle.” Use “an” before a noun starting with a vowel, “She wants an elephant,” or a noun with a silent “h”, such as “I want $100 an hour.” When the “h” is pronounced, you can use “an,” including this instance: “He was an hysterical complainer.”
- Possessives need attention. You add an apostrophe to change your nouns into a possessive form. Here’s how to use a singular possessive: “Did you see the bird’s unique colors?” Plural possessives require that the apostrophe follow the “s” in the noun: “All of the birds’ colors were red.” If there is not a question of possessiveness, then there isn’t an apostrophe.
- Avoid common mistakes in using “affect” vs. “effect.” “Affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. For example, “On a sunny day, the bright sun affects my vision when I try to catch a baseball, and it has an effect on whether I catch it make an out.”
- Save your copy as successful templates for future prototypes. If you’re successful in writing a good piece – save it –especially, if you sense that you will be writing a similar document for another occasion. You’ll save time, which is money in your wallet. Be sure, though, to substitute the right salutation or other information in the new document.
- Insert a call for action. Don’t end your writing in a nebulous way. Make it clear what you hope or expect. For example, suggest setting a time or appointment. Give two options for the reader to consider. Ask the reader to choose the preferred option.
- Focus on correct genders, names and titles. These three are the most-important words to readers. Make a mistake with one of these and you’ve offended the readers. By far, these are the most-important words in their vocabularies.
- Use courtesy. Be sure to thank the persons for their consideration. Use the term, “please,” whenever you want something. You’ll find that 98 percent of all communications provide an opportunity for one or both of these courtesies. Avoid the trite, dreadful phrase: “Have a nice day.”
- Prevent buyers’ remorse. Enhance your odds for success by including a “buyers’ remorse” statement. Remind the readers about the benefits you’re proposing, and how pleased or glad they’ll be.
- Contact information in e-mails. Your signature should include your contact information, for your reader’s convenience to reach you. If you have an idea or product to market, remember convenience is one of the top five reasons for success.
- Proofread your work. Yes, it’s easy to overlook errors, and it’s important to double check your tone of writing. One trick I use is to read the information aloud. That makes it easy to prevent embarrassing errors. If you write something while you’re in a bad mood, proofreading becomes even more important. Showing anger is not OK in business.
- Use your spell check. Misspelled words are not good for your image. As a safeguard, spell check is a good service. NOTE: However, Microsoft Word’s spell check isn’t 100 percent accurate. In many cases, you’ll have to override the software.
- Confirm whenever possible. When you receive an e-mail document a strategic partner, even unanticipated, don’t leave the person hanging. Respond with a confirmation. It’s considered good manners.
Not intended to be all-encompassing, these 25 tips avoid most of the errors I’ve seen as a business-performance consultant. If you’re not supremely confident in your organization’s writing, consider hiring a qualified freelance writer.
From the Coach’s Corner, best practices in business writing can be learned.
For adhering to the most-commonly accepted standards for journalists, see “The Associated Press Stylebook.”
Here are other resources:
- “The Elements of Style” William Strunk and E.B. White
- “The Chicago Manual of Style”
“I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”
- Steve Martin
Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.