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11 Strategies for Being a Great Business Writer

November 13, 2000
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Although many of the rules we learned in grammar school still apply today, there are some new strategies that apply to the art of business writing. Use the old, but incorporate the new.

  1. Say what you have to say. Don’t spend a lot of time at the beginning of your writing with a lot of throat-clearing phrases that you can get along without, such as "at this juncture, I thought you might be interested in knowing" or "I can assure you I’m sincere when I say," or "In light of recent developments." Get right (write!) to the point as quickly as you can.

  2. Stop when you’ve said what you want to say. When you’ve said what’s important, go on to your next topic.

  3. Don’t belabor the obvious. If you’ve already made a point, don’t try to make it two or three more times. For instance, if you give something away, give it away. Don’t say you give it away "for free." Or you plan "in advance." If someone’s pretty, say she’s pretty. Don’t say she’s pretty in appearance. If she’s tall, say she’s tall, not "tall of stature." The same rules go for "small in size," or "stocky in build." Get rid of prepositional phrases that just prop up other words.

  4. Don’t tie yourself in knots to avoid repeating a word. Don’t say: "Freddie was offered an apple and a banana, and he chose the slender, yellow fruit. Say "the banana."

  5. Be direct. A lot of writers back into what they want to say, instead of saying it straightforwardly. For instance, they’ll write: "Our conclusion was that he should be dismissed," instead of, "We concluded that he should be dismissed." Say things directly, not indirectly.

  6. Don’t make yourself the center of the universe. Don’t use too many personal pronouns and insert yourself -- and your interests -- into your writing unless you need to.

  7. When using adjectives and adverbs, put them close to the word they’re modifying.

  8. Put the verb close to the noun (the subject). In other words, put the doer near what’s being done. Don’t think you have to split a sentence in the middle with a lot of intermediary clauses.

  9. Make sure that for every pronoun, there’s an antecedent. This means that if you use the words "it," "he," "she" or "they," make sure you’ve set the sentence up correctly so the reader knows who or what is being referred to.

  10. Make sure you’ve got the time and the place clear in everything you write. A writer might say, "While the merger specialist was vacationing in Aspen, she said she secretly put the squeeze on Mr. Buyout." But this is unclear. Does it mean the merger specialist put the squeeze on Mr. Buyout while she was vacationing in Aspen?

    Or does it mean she said that while she was vacationing in Aspen, she admitted that at some previous time, and in some other place, that this had happened? Sometimes writers throw in times and places willy-nilly in their sentences, which muddies the water. Make sure readers can understand where, what, and to whom the action is happening.

  11. When you use images, make sure you don’t mix them up. This is called using a mixed metaphor. Many politicians are guilty of this, saying things like, "This bone of contention is a thorn in my side and an albatross around my neck." It’s better to stick to one image and run with it.

      SOURCE: Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, (Riverhead Books, 1996).

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