Tag Archives: business correspondence


In a recent post I talked about Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing. Since then I’ve been thinking the topic of resistance that she talks about in her wonderful Practice chapter.

Resistance works two ways. Writers don’t want to sit down to tackle a writing task (it’s called “writer’s block”), and readers can be just as unwilling to absorb what we’re trying to tell them.

I’m saving writer’s block for another day.  Today we’re going to talk about resistance from readers and listeners. It’s a phenomenon I run into whenever I do a Plain Writing workshop.

First, some background. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010, and President Obama signed it. It calls upon federal agencies to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand.” Here’s an example of bad business writing:

It is requested that employees extinguish illumination when the necessity for such illumination expires because of the conclusion of work-related activities requiring such illumination, such as the end of the working day.  JARGON

And here’s the Plain Language version:

Turn out the lights when you’re leaving.  BETTER

Although local and state agencies aren’t covered by this legislation, many of them are making a huge effort to simplify their documents and publications. Bravo! (You can go to www.PlainLanguage.gov for some wonderful examples and tools.)

Ever since the Plain Writing Act was passed, I’ve been conducting workshops for various local agencies. And here’s what I’ve discovered: every employee is heartily in favor of plain writing – until you ask them to give up their jargon.

Erk! RESISTANCE. Lots of it. “We’ll sound stupid!” “You don’t understand the way we do things here.” “My clients won’t respect me.”

Today’s post is going to be the first of two about this problem. I’m going to talk about a) why readers sometimes fight back and b) how to overcome that resistance. A future post will deal specifically with Plain Language.

 *  *  *  *  *  * 

Every writer wants readers to be enlightened by what we’re telling them. But here’s the thing: when your audience instantly accepts your message, there’s a good chance that they haven’t heard you at all. Genuine communication often provokes agitation, unrest, confusion, and disbelief. You’ll hear some loud voices. A few tomatoes may be lobbed at you.

Those Plain Language workshops I conduct every year are a perfect example. When I talk about strategies for communicating effectively with the public, my listeners smile agreeably and nod their approval.

But when I ask them to apply the principles of Plain Language – mutiny!

So what’s the answer? Today I’m going to cover one of my favorite strategies: Drill down into an apparently simple idea to show how complex it really is.

I’m going to use a story one of my friends told me. She was horrified one day to hear her daughter and several other teenagers talking about how much fun it would be to have a real, live baby.

Alarm bells! But what to do? My friend had already delivered the usual birds-and-bees talk, along with some warnings about the problems of single motherhood.

Her solution was a lunchtime trip to a nearby shopping mall, where she and her daughter just happened (or so it seemed!) to stroll through a store that specialized in furniture and products for babies. Her daughter was charmed by the bassinets and toys – and aghast at the prices and the sheer number of items needed to care for a baby. Over lunch Mom casually shared some long-ago memories about what it was like to be the brand-new mother of an infant.

A couple of weeks later, my friend overheard another conversation from the teen-aged group: they were talking about all the fun they were going to have in college.

Huge sigh of relief! Caring for a baby is much more challenging than taking care of a baby doll. Daughter saw some of the complexity (the furniture and products in the store) and heard about it (her mom’s stories).

In my next post, I’m going to talk about the hidden complexities of business writing. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll think about drilling down into some everyday topics that seem simple until you look closely at them.

How do you:

  • settle relationship disagreements 
  • invest your money
  • manage your time
  • buy a house
  • plan a vacation

Think too about your job, your religious beliefs, your political philosophy, a problem you solved recently…any area that absorbs your time, energy, and attention. Drill down until you find something fresh and unexpected. Take whatever you find to your readers, and watch them fight back! That’s where real communication begins, in all its frustration and glory.

I’ll have more to say about Plain Language in the next post.



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