Category Archives: Business Writing

Polish Your Resume

I just read a terrific article about resumes. If you’re searching for a job, you’ll find some excellent advice by reading “Gone in Six Seconds” by Danielle Krause. (You may have to do a Google search to find it – I’m having problems getting the link to work.)

What really excited me were the writing tips. For example, Danielle Krause recommends listing your specific achievements instead of describing yourself in glowing terms (“dynamic,” “innovative,” “strong communication skills”). Have you won any awards? Implemented any significant changes? Completed any important projects? Krause’s “be specific” advice applies to almost every type of writing.

The usage tips are just as useful. Krause says she reads many resumes that contain the following mistakes:

  • errors with capital letters
  • inconsistent punctuation with bullet points
  • inconsistent verb tenses
  • mistakes in parallelism

I see these mistakes repeatedly in many types of writing tasks. So here are some tips:

  • Capitalize brand names and organizations – Apple, Excel, Chamber of Commerce.
  • Don’t capitalize job titles, college majors, or careers – administrative assistant, accounting, nursing, law enforcement. Languages are the exception because they’re always capitalized – English, Tagalog.
  • Don’t use periods with bullet-list items unless they’re complete sentences (like these).
  • Stick to present or past tense. Don’t mix tenses.
  • Parallelism adds a professional touch to your writing. If a sentence contains a list, make sure all the parts match. (You can learn more about parallelism at this link.)

Resume Dollar



Business Writing Tips Part IV

We’ve been discussing strategies for better business writing: Reach outbe efficient, be professional, and make sure you’re up-to-date. Today’s topic: Make sure you’re up-to-date.

This means getting rid of words and expressions that make you sound like a 19th-century business writer: “Thanking you in advance,” “the above-referenced,” “take cognizance of.” In the last hundred years, successful businesses have aimed to project a warm, human image. Correspondence that sounds like a machine talking started to disappear (thankfully!) when Queen Victoria died.

Thank you is a fine (and modern) business phrase: You don’t need to add “in advance.” (Do you do that when you’re asking for a favor in person? Probably not!) And when you’re writing about a person, product, or case, there’s no need to write “the above-referenced”: It’s obvious whom you’re referring to.


Business Writing Tips Part III

We’ve been discussing strategies for better business writing: Reach out, be efficient, be professional, and make sure you’re up-to-date. Today’s topic: Be professional.

How do you do that? In two ways: By creating the impression that you have plenty of time to devote to whatever task you’re doing (even if you’re huffing and puffing to meet a deadline), and getting everything (including usage and spelling) right.

Professionals are never in a hurry – or at least they never look as if they’re in a hurry. (Suppose you were having surgery. Would you want your doctor to rush through the operation? I don’t think so.)

How do you create the all-important I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world-to-get-this-right impression? In several ways: Neatness. Accuracy. Refusing to cut corners (no abbreviations, no text-speak). Getting the details right. If you’re writing a business letter and don’t know someone’s position, or you’re unsure about spelling the name, do a Google search or make a phone call.

When I was in college, I used to work as a temporary typist to earn spending money. One day I landed in the office of the president of McGraw-Hill publishers. I was given a letter to New York’s governor to type – but first the secretary called the library to check on the correct way to do the envelope and the greeting. I was impressed. What a great lesson for a college freshman and future professional! (In case you’re wondering, you put “The Honorable Nelson Rockefeller” on the envelope, and the greeting is “Dear Governor Rockefeller.”)

The other principle, getting everything right, begins with fact-checking and ongoing efforts to educate yourself about English usage. And there’s one more thing, also learned during my days as a temporary typist: Get someone else to check your work before you send it out.

The topnotch secretaries I worked with always asked me to proofread their work. It was unnerving to have an expensively dressed and coiffed executive secretary ask me, a humble temp, to check a letter or report. Once again I learned a vital lesson: Successful people cover all the bases to ensure that everything is right.

Next time: Tip #4, be up-to-date.


Business Writing Tips Part II

Today’s business writing tip (#2) is be efficient. (Click here to read #1, “reach out.”)

“Be efficient” means making every word count so that you don’t waste your (or your reader’s) precious time. Get rid of needless words and get to the point quickly.

Take a look at these phrases: blue in color, respective offices, month of September, individual employees, three different companies. They’re all time-wasters.

Why not just write “blue,” “offices,” “September,” “employees,” and “three companies”? What’s the difference between a “respective office” and an “office”? Between an “individual employee” and an “employee”? Between “three different companies” and “three companies”?

While you’re at it, get rid of time-wasting information like “We received your letter” (obvious) and “Joe Smith forwarded your inquiry to me” (so what?).

Effective openings would be:

Thank you for your letter of March 4.

Yes, we can special-order the polo shirts you asked about in your November 6 letter.

Or you can use a subject line (“Your March 4 letter”) or (“Order 631750”).

Click here to read more about business language.

Next time: Be professional.



Business Writing Tips Part I

Reach out, be efficient, be professional, and make sure you’re up-to-date. Follow these four guidelines, and you’ll be an effective business writer. (Click on the links to read Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)

Today’s post – about reaching out – will be the first of four about business writing.

What does “reaching out” mean, and why is it important to business writing?

Reaching out means connecting personally with the person who’s reading your email, letter, or report. It might involve information, a compliment, an affirmation, a question, an anecdote, or a simple “thank you.” Often it’s placed in the first sentence or first paragraph. Here are some examples:

Thank you for your interest in our software.

It was a pleasure meeting you at last week’s conference.

I’ve checked into the problem you encountered in our First Street store last week.

Because your health is important to us, we want to remind you that it’s time for your annual checkup.

We appreciate your taking the time to complete the enclosed survey.

Notice how different these sentences are from traditional openings for business letters:

This is in reference to your April 4 email.  WEAK

I am responding to yesterday’s phone call.  WEAK

We received your letter of November 3.  WEAK

I am director of the recycling program, and I will be answering your inquiry.  WEAK

These traditional openings are time wasters that don’t provide any useful information to your customers and clients. (If you have some important information that your reader needs right away, put it into a subject line: Your letter of May 12. Order #163524. Case 310.)

But what if you’re writing to a company? Why should you provide a friendly tone?

The answer is that companies can’t read: Only humans read letters and emails.

Suppose you’re the dean of a private school, writing to tell students about the procedure for registering for next semester’s courses. A list of regulations, reminders, and deadlines does nothing to make students feel confident coming to you with questions. On the other hand, a friendly sentence or two enhances your image and builds loyalty to your school.

This letter serves to inform you about dates and procedures for Spring Registration.  COLD

I hope you’re looking forward to the Spring Term as much as I am. In this letter I’ll be giving you some important information about Spring Registration. WARM

But why should you bother? The answer is that businesses, institutions, and agencies usually have limited opportunities to build user  loyalty. You should take every opportunity to showcase your professionalism.

Sometimes an extra sentence or two can put a lasting shine on your image. The results are well worth the extra minute or two that it takes to write something friendly and positive.

Today’s Quiz  ANSWER

The sentence is incorrect. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. (Britons and Canadians do it differently.)

Here’s the correct sentence:

My favorite line dance is “Neon Moon.” CORRECT


More about Plain English

I just finished reading a fascinating history of Facebook (David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect – highly recommended). According to Kirkpatrick, Facebook has a number of carefully designed features that have contributed to its colossal success. One is founder Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that nothing should be allowed to interrupt users’ experiences with Facebook. For this reason, popup ads have always been banned from the site.

There’s a lesson here for writers. Anything that interrupts the flow of ideas should be banned from your writing. Look for ideas that wander away from your main point and – the subject of today’s blog – extraneous words slow down and interrupt your readers’ experience. To put it another way: Writing plain English should be your goal.

Here’s a list of words and phrases to watch for. Each one is followed by a recommended substitute:

single click (click)

pulldown menu  (menu)

large in size  (large)

utilize  (use)

if or when  (if)

preregister  (register)

preplan  (plan)

prearrange  (arrange)

for the purpose of  (for)

if the event that  (if)

a rainfall event  (rain)

blue in color  (blue)

And here are two words you can often delete: individual and different. Take a look at these examples:

Individual members will receive two tickets to the conference. (What’s the difference between a member and an individual member? Nothing!)

Members will receive two tickets to the conference. CORRECT

Three different people asked me for directions. (What’s the difference between three different people and three people? Nothing!)

Three people asked me for directions. CORRECT