Category Archives: Business Writing

What’s Your Role? Part II

In my last post, I pointed out that some writing problems have underlying business issues. Here’s an example. (I’ve altered some of the details.)

I was working with a client who wanted to update the writing practices in his office. He was right: the memos and letters I looked at were wordy and old-fashioned.

But I thought there was a deeper problem. One example was a memo from an employee whose department had a problem with a piece of equipment. The service technician said it was time for a replacement.

He recommended a different machine that he thought made a lot of sense for the business. She’d known him for years, trusted him, and agreed.

The memo was…whew. It explained what the machine did and why the company needed it. It rambled through the whole history of the service and repairs on the malfunctioning machine.

The employee attached an estimate of the repair costs and a brochure about the new machine. At the bottom she wrote, “For your attention and use.”

* * * * *

Cleaning up clumsy sentences and pompous wording is always useful. But this company needs to address some personnel problems. I suspect there’s a lack of trust between the boss and the woman who wrote the memo.

As you move up the organizational ladder of a business, your responsibilities tend to spread out. Instead of knowing one area extremely well, you have a little bit of knowledge about many areas.

You have to trust your employees. They usually know their area better than you do.

The woman – let’s call her Diane – dealing with that malfunctioning machine knew what she was talking about. She wouldn’t be there otherwise. Writing a long history of the machine and what it does shouldn’t be necessary. (If Diane isn’t competent, that needs to be addressed before you start tackling her writing issues.)

Most of the time you should put your main point first. (The exception is when you’re giving bad news. In that case, soften it a bit.)

Readers are confused by a memo that starts with a series of details: “Last week the [name of machine] started shutting down in the middle of a cycle. Since then it’s been displaying a 271 ERROR message.” Where is this going? It’s confusing and wastes time.

Here’s how the memo should begin: “Our [name of machine] is no longer functioning properly. Frank Donaldson from Acme Equipment says that it’s not worth repairing. He recommends replacing it with [name of machine].”

Diane can go on to say that Frank is trustworthy – his recommendations have saved your company a great deal of money over the years. She can attach his estimate for the repairs and a brochure about the new machine.

A friend who read a draft of this post suggested that trust may not be the issue – perhaps Diane just needs to be taught how to write more efficiently. That’s true!

But often it amounts to the same thing – only this time it might be Diane who doesn’t trust her boss. She’s afraid he’ll get angry if she doesn’t provide every tiny fact about the issue at hand – “We purchased the [name of machine] on July 17, 2011.”

Maybe that’s a relevant fact – maybe it’s not. My point is that in a well-run business, you don’t dump everything you know into a memo or letter. You do some critical thinking before you start typing. Efficiency should always be one of your top goals.

Roles and responsibilities


What’s Your Role?

Yesterday I needed to cancel a routine appointment. I went to the appointments page on the medical office’s website and found a 404 ERROR notice – the same notice I’d seen a month ago when I made the appointment.

I used the phone number posted there and pressed 2 for appointments. A recorded voice gave me some directions and added, “Don’t use this voicemail to cancel an appointment.” Then there was a click.

Now what? (Please bear with me – we’ll get to writing in a moment. I promise there’s an important point coming.) I called the phone number again, pressed 3 to talk to the nurse, and canceled my appointment.

I stayed on the line and told her about the 404 notice and the less-than-helpful recorded message. She clucked sympathetically and said, “I’ll talk to Dr. Smith.”

Ye gods and little fishes. There isn’t anybody on the staff who’s charged with keeping up with the website and the phone settings?

Does someone have to “talk to Dr. Smith” if a @#%! light bulb burns out?

Here’s my point: you can have a head full of grammar, and a wonderful vocabulary, and a knack for style. But writing encompasses much more than the black marks on a piece of paper or computer screen. Most of the time what you’re really writing about is…life.

If the systems at your workplace are badly organized, you can’t write an effective business letter, report, or email.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a consulting job I did last week. An executive asked me to evaluate some emails his employes had written. He wanted to update their writing practices. Bravo!

What I found was a lot of gobbledygook and old-fashioned business terminology. But what really needed fixing was the way things were done in his office. You could see it – or at least I could – right there on those typed pages.

In short, he was the real problem. He’s also a good guy, and he appreciated my recommendations. They will be the topic of my next post.


Effective Business Writing

I’m going to give you a paragraph to read and think about. Here’s the situation. A  large organization has invited a famous speaker to make a presentation. It’s impossible to predict how many people will show up. The committee chair – Jane Morgan – has made a backup plan in case there’s an overflow crowd:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Based on what you’ve read, what do you know Jane and her organization?

* * * * * *

The correct answer to my question should be that – aside from your assessment of Jane’s writing – you have no opinion of Jane and her organization. How could you? You don’t know anything about Jane. Does she have a college degree? How many years has she been with the organization? Is she reliable? Is she smart? Does she have leadership qualities? You have no way of knowing.

Similarly you know nothing about the organization. Is it honest? Innovative? Successful? Does it have a useful mission?

It would be ridiculous to make a judgment about Jane and her organization based on nothing but the three sentences you read a moment ago.

* * * * * *

But I can confidently tell you that every day – in offices across the United States – thousands upon thousands of employees like Jane use everyday writing tasks to try to convince others that they’re smart and they work for a superb organization or business. I’ve got to impress everyone. Otherwise they’ll think I’m stupid. They won’t respect me or my organization.

And so they try to make each sentence as long, elaborate, and tangled as they can. Here again is Jane’s message to the committee:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Jane would save everyone’s time – including her own – if she wrote the instructions more simply, like this:

If too many people show up today, open another room, and set up a video broadcast of the presentation.

But she’s afraid to do that. They’ll think I’m stupid….They won’t respect me or the organization….

And so it goes.

Are you like Jane? I hope not. (The US government has a terrific business writing website:



Plain Language Part 3

Imagine you’re attending a social event in your community. You start talking to a personable young woman who tells you she’s a pediatrician. Later, at the same party, you talk to a personable young man who tells you he’s a children’s doctor.

Which one is more qualified to treat sick children?

Participants at a recent business-writing workshop had a lively discussion about this question. At first several members of the group thought the pediatrician was more qualified because she would have been through specialized university training for treating children. Soon, though, they realized that any children’s doctor would have gone through that program.

So what’s the difference between a pediatrician and a children’s doctor? The answer is none. They’re two names for the same thing. The only difference is that pediatrician is derived from a Greek word (paid) meaning “child.” Children’s doctor is English.

Ironic, isn’t it? We’re proud that we can speak English, a language that’s used all over the world – but we also harbor an unconscious prejudice against it. The uneasy feeling that a “children’s doctor” is less qualified than a “pediatrician” is a remnant of an old misconception that Latin and Greek are better languages than English. For many years schools did most of their instruction in those two languages. (William Shakespeare attended one of those schools.)

The result is that we often lapse into Latin or Greek words when we want to sound smart and important. In reference to sounds more intellectual than about. Cogitate sounds better than think…and so on.

* * * * *

I’ve always envied couples who have mastered the West Coast swing, a smooth and sexy dance that never looked quite right when I tried it. Some years ago I saw a local dance teacher doing a tantalizing West Coast swing with one of her students. I called her the next day and set up a few lessons to learn the moves she was doing.

About 15 minutes into the first lesson, I started to realize why that particular dance had always eluded me. The teacher showed me a better way to count the beats of music. She corrected my posture and head position. She showed me how to work through the parts of my feet – toe, arch, heel – more precisely.

A few minutes later she walked over to the CD player to choose another song. When she came back to the dance floor, I told her I was going to keep coming back so we could work on all the ballroom dances – foxtrot and waltz, rumba and cha cha, two-step and hustle, and all the rest.

Years have gone by, and I still take one or two lessons with her every week.

 * * * * *

Ballroom dancing has its own vocabulary, and my new teacher could have tried to impress me by talking about contra body movement position, proprioception, hip abductors, guapacha timing, and so on.

But she didn’t. Instead she focused on teaching me what I came for: becoming a better dancer.

When I go to a doctor, a dry cleaner, a service station, a dance studio…I look for signs that the people there know what they’re doing and can provide whatever it was that I came for: a cure, a clean dress, a car repair, a chance to learn.

And there’s something else I look for: someone who can answer my questions without making me feel inferior. Businesses should encourage their employees to think about this question: Do you use words to put yourself on display – or to help your customers?

(How would you answer that question?)

In my next post – the last in this series about Plain Language – I’ll be talking about using words as a bridge, a badge, or a barrier.

                  Ancient Roman Forum


Plain Language Part 2

The Nun’s Story is probably my all-time favorite novel. Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 bestseller (subsequently made into a Hollywood movie starring Audrey Hepburn) recounts the struggles of a devout Belgian nun who works in an African hospital. When World War II begins she finds herself back in Belgium, where she defies convent rules to work for the Resistance.

When I first read The Nun’s Story as a teenager, I was too absorbed in Sister Luke’s story (and probably too young ) to appreciate the novel’s sustained irony. Again and again, the convent’s rules and customs get in the way of true spiritual values – but the nuns are too absorbed in their quest for sanctity to realize what’s happening.

Today, though, I’m going to focus on a different aspect of the novel – the languages spoken in the convent. Because Sister Luke is a nursing nun from an upper-class family, she speaks French. Other nuns are assigned to the laundry and kitchen because they grew up on farms and have limited education: they speak Flemish. So we could conclude that Flemish is an earthy, robust language that can’t handle the linguistic demands of a modern corporation, hospital, or university.

And we would be wrong. After WWII, the people of the Flanders region began to rebel against the requirement to use French in schools and business. A strong push for their own language began, and today Flemish is the language of commerce, education, and science.

Linguistics experts tell us there’s no such thing as a “simple” or “primitive” or “coarse” language. Every language has the capacity for subtlety and sophistication. I once knew a counselor who studied sign language so that she could work with hearing-impaired clients. She told me that the sessions where she “talked” with her hands were no different from those where she used spoken English.

So let’s talk about English, a sophisticated and worldly language that’s never been subjected to that kind of prejudice…right?

Wrong. After William the Conqueror and his army invaded England in 1066, French became Britain’s official language. Anyone who wanted a prestigious job made it their business to master the French language. The result was a split in our language that lives on today.

Let’s use roast beef as an example. Wealthy French-speaking families could afford to buy cows for their meat. Poorer families (who spoke English) used cows for working animals and sources for milk and butter. And so we continue to call the live animal a cow (an English word); but when it shows up on a plate, we give it a French name – beef (from boeuf). Today – almost a millennium later – the language is still full of these French/English pairs: legislator/lawmaker, paternal/fatherly, attire/clothing…you get the idea. When we want to impress someone, we automatically switch from English to French.

In my next post – the third in this series of four – I’ll talk more about the prejudice against English that has so often led to mistakes, confusion, and inefficiency.

The Nun's Story



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 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.



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



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