Effective Email Structure for the Four Types of Email

How your email is structured – how it is presented, organized, and what it looks like – is critical to how your reader “gets it” – or not.

While various types of online business writing are done, let’s focus on the differences between traditional paper, and email writing: format, length, and tone.

Format can be an issue. If you are part of an intranet, it is likely, in fact even probable, that the screens of all the computers on that intranet will be set the same. This will not be true for emails going to computers outside of your intranet. So if your email is format-dependent, it will be a good idea to send it as an attachment.

How about length? The maximum length for an email should be not more than one-and-a-half to two screens. Any more than that is too hard on most readers’ eyes. The result of this can be an almost imperceptible eye irritation that may result in a not-so-imperceptible reader irritation – definitely not what you’re looking for.

Tone, always a critical element in any written communication, is especially important in an informal communication like email. “Tone” is the relationship the writer establishes or reinforces with the reader.

There are four types of email:

The original

The reply

The cover letter

An attachment

The original may be a very short message, requiring a very short answer. The original will be most effective if the first paragraph follows the who-what-when-where-why-how formula, and when you do this, you will most likely also reduce the number of emails in the string.

The reply to the original may also be very short. Depending on the amount of detail required for a complete answer, it may also be very helpful to use the who-what-when-where-why-how formula to reduce the number of questions going back and forth on this subject. Remember: no more than five lines in that first paragraph.

The cover letter for an attachment is an important, but frequently-overlooked option. The writer will forge ahead, saying everything he or she has to say in the email. This often results in a multi-screen email that increases the odds of misunderstanding, or even lack of understanding on the reader’s part. If your email will be more than one-and-a-half to two screens, “attach” it, and use a who-what-when-where-why-how cover letter.

An attachment may be as long as you need it to be. The first paragraph of each section, assuming there will be more than one section, should also be a who-what-when-where-why-how paragraph.

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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What Should a Title Look Like?

The style you use to show the titles of books, magazines, plays, software, and so on has changed over the years as better technology has emerged. Even so, not all authorities agree on what this sort of “major” title should look like.

Let’s take a time out to take a quick look at the issue of style:

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is arguably the premier style guide for newspapers and publications written for the average adult reader. Also perhaps the most widely used business writing style guide.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, probably one of the most often used style guides for academic writing, defines style guidelines for the scholar. There are also specialized style guides for specialized fields and disciplines.

In addition, many universities, colleges, and schools devise their own style guides, addressing such common questions as “where does the comma go,”  “what should a title look like,” and “how many spaces should there be between sentences.” Similarly, a great many public- and private-sector organizations also produce their own style guides, similarly advising their writers how to use punctuation, or capitalize words.

Thus, we have two major styles: formal, or academic; and informal, or journalistic. Many style guides are available either in paper versions, or online, frequently on a subscription basis.

So, is there a difference between “correct” grammar and usage and style?

Absolutely. And the confusion and resulting arguments – online, as well as around the water cooler – can gobble up on-the-job hours, as well as playing fast and loose with the spirit of cooperation and respect every organization needs to be most productive.

The solution: Standardize on the style guide to be used in your office, or in your organization, and have everyone use the same guidelines.

Many organizations have a style guide that no one knows about. So find out if your organization has its own style guide.  If there is one, everyone needs to use that one!

But what if your organization truly does not have a standard style guide? Then you may use the style that seems to you most effective in making your point clearly – assuming, of course, that you are (1) using that style bit consistently, and are (2) also following the appropriate grammar rules.

Oh yes, back to titles:

What should a title look like?

The AP Stylebook says to capitalize the main words, including prepositions and conjunctions if they contain four or more letters; and to capitalize articles or short words (fewer than four letters) if it is the first or the last word in the title.

Then put quotation marks around the title, with the exception of the Bible, and reference materials.

MLA says capitalize the first, last, and all principal words in the title, including both words of a hyphenated word.

Then for the major works: books, plays, newspapers, journals, websites, online databases, films, radio or television broadcasts, performances, musical compositions, paintings, sculpture – well, you get the idea – italicize the title.

For titles of sub-sets of the major work, e.g., chapters of the book; essays, stories, or poems published as a part of the larger work; magazine or journal articles; pages of a website; TV broadcast segments – and so on, use quotation marks.

So who is right? As a practical matter, do what your boss says! Just (1) do it consistently; and (2) use the appropriate grammar rules, and you’ll be fine.

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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How to Write a Blog Post that Gets Read

As I was thinking about this post, I remembered the professor who used a “shuffle the cards” exercise in his writing class. We were all so focused on giving good, clear instructions for shuffling cards, that we forgot the obvious step number one: “Start by obtaining a deck of cards.”

So, the obvious step number one in writing a blog post that gets read is, “Do you want to blog?” There are many good ways to pass along your information. Everything from phone calls, to text messages, to emails, and beyond.

If you have decided you want to write a blog, why?

There are different kinds of blogs. There are different ways to write a blog post, and different reasons for posting your content. You may want to express your feelings about a certain issue or happening. You may have a subject, or some ideas that you just need to share. Or, you may be supporting your organization or your business. Your blog site may be a personal one, or a business one. Next come the toughest questions:

What do you want each post on your blog site to achieve? What do you want your blog site overall to do for you? Are these goals consistent with each other?

With this in mind, what reading audience are you writing your posts for? Who will be interested in what you’re writing about? Are you speaking your language or theirs – both visually, and in words? Are the readers you’ve identified consistent with your reasons for blogging, and with what you want to achieve with your posts? Do they have the resources to do what you want them to do? How will you obtain, create, and maintain a good, appropriate mailing list?

When your medium (the blog posts); the type of content you want to write about, and the type of blog site you want to create; your reasons for writing it; the reader; the tone – the personal nature or the business nature of your blog site; and your expectations for the results you will get from each post, and from the blog site overall can be expected to work together, you’re ready to write.

At this point, with your strategy settled,

  1. Figure out what you want to write about with this post. To give you clarity and focus, a good place to start is by giving the post a rough title that says what you are posting about. Later on, you can rewrite that rough title into a headline for your post.
  1. When you write your introductory paragraph(s), appeal to the interests of your readers. Let them know what this post is about. Suggest how it will solve a problem they may be having.
  1. Organize and write your content for easy reading. The longer the post, the more important this becomes. Consider using sections, lists, and visual clues such as drawings, charts, and photos; type sizes and weights; perhaps videos, and colors to help your reader follow your conversation.
  1. Make it pretty. If it looks professional, you gain credibility. Consistency in appearance helps your readers to recognize your company and your brand at first glance, reinforcing your other consistent activities.
  1. Give the post a final once-over. Revise your working title into an accurate, clear, appealing “grabber” to bring your readers in. Check for awkward spots, typos and inaccuracies. Now you’re ready to go!

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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The Six Steps to Easier Spelling

Saw a sign the other day for a fundraising “sausage and pancake’s” breakfast, and thought about how often plural words are confused with plural possessive words. The easy way to remember the difference is that plural words – unless they are plural possessive words – do not have an apostrophe. The apostrophe is only used for possessive words – plural or singular, or for contractions.

A “singular” is one, while a “plural” is more than one. Generally, to form a plural, add an “s.” There are some exceptions:

  • To words ending in a consonant plus “y,” drop the “y” and add “ies.”
  • To words ending in a consonant plus “o” or to words ending in “x,” “s,” “z,” “ch,” or “sh,” add “es.”

So, for example, “uncle” becomes “uncles“; “company” becomes “companies“; and “Jones” becomes “Joneses.”

  • You could have one uncle, or six uncles.
  • You could talk about one company, or eight companies.
  • Your friend could be Joe Jones, and his family would be the Joneses.

Note: There are a few words that change in the plural form, e.g., woman becomes women; man becomes men; child becomes children.

Did you notice that when you are making a plural word, you do not use an apostrophe?

Bonus: The Six Steps to Easier Spelling

  1. Read more. The eye recognizes words by their shapes. Have you ever looked at a word and said, “That just doesn’t look right”? Train your eye by reading more, so that it recognizes the shapes of correctly spelled words more readily.
  1. Develop a “hit list.” As you are reading, keep a pen and paper at your elbow. When you see a word that doesn’t look like it is correctly spelled, make a note of it to check out with the dictionary later. If the word is correctly spelled, put it on your “hit list.” You can also add unfamiliar words to your list.
  1. Obtain a pad of self-stick notes. There are usually about 20-25 sheets to a 2 ½” or 3” pad.
  1. Write the first word on your “hit list” on each sheet in your own handwriting. Work on just one word at a time.
  1. Post those individual sheets everywhere. On the mirror, by the coffee pot, on the front door, on the back door, on the refrigerator, and – well, you get the idea.
  1. Leave the sheets up for 24 to 48 hours, then remove them.

Follow these six steps, and the correct spelling is yours!

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

 

 

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Getting a Job; Getting Ahead – The Communication Secrets You Need to Know

Whether you are a seasoned employee or just out of school and looking for your first “real job,“ the search can seem impossibly daunting. Even when jobs are plentiful.

So where do you start?

  1. First, you need to understand what business writing really is.

When I ask my workshop participants “What is business writing?” the answers vary widely. The answer is simple and straightforward: Business writing is a tool.

Business writing is as much a tool as a shovel, a rake, or a hammer. Business writing is very different from writing a term paper; different from writing a poem, a short story, a novel, or journaling. Business writing builds from the good writing skills we learned in school, and takes the next step.

Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. So select an appropriate way to use that tool to get the job done.

  1. Next, you need to understand what that job is: What is it each piece of business writing must accomplish? Most organizations must be results-oriented most of the time to stay in business! It’s important for you to understand this. Many business writers do not understand this, nor write this way, and may not get the results that you will be able to.

Why are you writing this piece? When you are successful, what will happen? How will you know you have succeeded?

  1. Third, ask yourself what tone will be appropriate to use with this particular reader. What tone, and what style is appropriate in your industry? In your organization?

Tone  is the relationship the writer sets up with the reader. How would you describe the appropriate relationship you want to establish? You could use words to describe that relationship like “professional,” “helpful,” “technical,” “cooperative,” and so on. What is your organizational culture? Is the resulting tone appropriate for your purpose? Will it get the results you need? What is the environment in which your writing will be working?

And what style? Will your academic writing style fit in with your organization? Strictly academic writing must be totally objective, and generally uses scholarly words and phrases. Purely academic, or scholarly writing is meant to be “scholars writing for scholars,” and will not, generally, communicate well with the average adult reader, who frequently is not in the habit of curling up with a fascinating dissertation after dinner.

There are appropriate styles for most professions and disciplines that probably will not communicate with, explain, or help the information to be well understood by the average adult reader either, but are expected by readers within the profession or discipline where they are appropriate.

To be understood by the average adult reader – if that is your intended reader – you will probably want to use simpler, more comfortable words and phrases – not “vocabulary exercise words.”

Much of the time you will find, unlike when you are using the strictly academic style, that your writing needs to motivate, convince, or persuade your reader to take (or not to take) an action, or to change (or hold on to) a belief or a practice. Understanding the reader, the environment your writing must work in, and the job it must do will guide you in selecting the appropriate style.

Let me just say that in all the years I’ve been working with chief executives in business and in government, I’ve never had one ask me to teach their staffs to “write up” – to write more formally – to them. A comfortable, easy-to-read-and-grasp-quickly style is what they ask for. After all, they want to eat dinner with their families – and maybe watch some football too!

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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If You’ve Ever Said “I Wasn’t Good at English in School” Read This!

My mom used to say (and maybe yours did, too!) “If I had a nickel for every time I…”

So now I’ll say it: If you and I had a nickel for everyone who has said to us, “I wasn’t good at English in school…” or “I used to hate English class…” or “I’m not a good writer…” or even “I just can’t write…” we could retire rich!

Let’s talk about this. What many of us were taught in school to think of as “writing” was actually formal writing – writing to be used in the academic environment – scholars writing to other scholars. And we used this writing style for assignments like term papers. Later, perhaps, for theses and dissertations.

Each of us owes a huge debt of gratitude to our long-suffering, dedicated teachers who built the incredibly important writing framework that has allowed us to have the job we have; to have accomplished what we have accomplished so far.

Correct grammar, spelling, and usage are critical for any type of writing. Yet the writing produced to work in the business environment can be very different from the writing produced to work in the academic environment.

Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done.

Academic writing vs. business writing. Here are two very different types of writing to two very different types of readers for two very different purposes.

Let me give you the five things you must be very clear about before you begin to write if you want to write effectively in the business environment:

  1. Identify the piece you are going to write. A one-screen email? A 57-page attached report? A four-page proposal?
  2. Who are you writing to? What do you know about the reader? You probably know more than you think!
  3. Why are you writing? Are you writing to provide information only, and do not care what the reader does with it? Or are you writing to persuade the reader to take an action? To change how he or she is already doing something? To think a certain way? Specifically, what is it you want the reader to do?
  4. What is the relationship you want to reinforce, or to establish with this reader? What sorts of words or phrases fit this relationship? Tone is the relationship you, as the writer, set up with your reader.
  5. What are the points you want your reader to remember? Make a list. Organize your list into a logical sequence, e.g., time, procedural, importance.

Once you are clear on those five steps, just start writing.Give yourself a draft, something to work with. It may not be perfect at this point, and it doesn’t have to be. “Touch-ups” are so much easier, and so much faster than creating the perfect piece the first time.

Write a strong first paragraph that makes your point. Tell your reader who did/will do/should do what, when, where, why, and how.

Tighten up that first paragraph without losing any of these six elements. Eliminate unnecessary words, information, or phrases. You should have no more than five lines in that first paragraph. Probably one or two sentences will be about right, but not more than five lines.

Not more than five lines will work for at least 50% – probably more – of your emails if you follow these guidelines, significantly improving readership and comprehension.

Follow your organizational structure to complete a longer piece. Check grammar, spelling, and usage, making necessary changes.

To end this piece, you could summarize; tell the reader what to do; use an ending that reinforces the relationship you have set up with the reader; or – and sometimes the best option of all – just quit.

When you have the first five steps clearly in mind, your draft will go quickly. Make appropriate touch-ups – grammatical and content – and you should be good to go.

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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Passive Sentences: What is Grammar Checker Telling You?

And, I’m guessing, telling you wrong maybe 50% of the time. So which 50%? And how do you know? And what is a passive sentence, anyway? You need to be able to check the grammar checker.

To begin with, let’s look at what a sentence is. Webster’s tells us that a sentence is “a combination of words, which is complete as expressing a thought…” A sentence starts with a capital letter, and most often ends with a period (.), although it could end with an exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?). Various types of sentences are usually categorized in one of two ways: structure, or function.
Structure-wise, there are three types of sentences: Active, Passive, and Descriptive.

An Active sentence is a sentence in which someone or something does something, e.g.,

John throws the ball.

A Passive sentence is a sentence in which someone or something is being done to, e.g.,

The ball was thrown.

A Descriptive sentence is one that uses a form of “to be,” such as: is, are, was, were, will be, and so on, and may be used in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels,” e.g.,

The ball is green.

The ball seems to be green.

So what about passive sentences? Well, for one thing, they are harder to read. Harder to comprehend, and almost always longer. In the above examples, you will need six words in the passive sentence to provide the same information the reader gets from the active sentence. The four-word active sentence above (“John throws the ball.”) becomes a six-word passive sentence (“The ball was thrown by John.”)

If you are writing to be more concise, more clearly understood at a glance – use active sentences.
Strategically: A piece loaded with passive sentences will certainly discourage readership and can lead to misunderstanding – or no understanding. Can often lead to a generally bad feeling about you or your organization, perhaps even, at the extreme, to the point of mistrust. Think about some of the least-trusted sectors of our society. Take a look at how they communicate with their various publics. Although many organizations now discourage over-use of passive sentences, you will likely still see a lot of passive sentences in these written materials.

So, are passive sentences lethal in your writing? Depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Readership, or non-readership.

Occasional passive sentences are not deadly. Active sentences communicate.

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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Does Writing Really Matter?

Maybe you’ve asked yourself, in a moment of writer’s block frustration, what difference does it make if you can write well or not. More and more, writing well – conveying ideas clearly, concisely, convincingly – is becoming a rarity. And that’s not even considering the grammatical side of business writing.

Perhaps part of it is because email, the most common form of on-the-job writing, is a quick, often casually-approached process. There never seems to be the time to review an email for clarity, to tighten it up, or to polish those grammatical issues that seem so easy to forget, and are so frequently used that neither the writer nor the reader seems to notice them. And maybe that’s really the point.

But does writing really matter? I’ve got a book for you. If you haven’t read 1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, read it. Discussing the Neolithic Revolution, the point, about 11,000 years ago, when a formerly nomadic middle-eastern people settled down in permanent villages and invented both farming and the tools and agrarian practices to make it possible, Mann says, “The Sumerians put these inventions together, added writing, and in the third millennium B.C. created the first great civilization.”

Mann adds that “Writing begins with counting….The bureaucrats were not intending to create writing….they were simply adding useful features as they became necessary….”

And those “useful features,” at first represented by stylized symbols, have morphed, perhaps for the same reasons, into today’s writing.

That was then. This is now. How important is writing today? And especially, how important is it to write well in the business situation? Perhaps the more important question is, “How much more effective could we be in the business situation if we could write better – correctly, strategically, clearly? Concisely and convincingly. Does it really matter in our jobs?”

Your business writing is one way you can give “free samples” to a prospective employer. The clarity of your writing is perceived as a clear indication of the clarity of your thinking. If nothing else, clear writing demonstrates how well you can communicate your thoughts to others. No matter how brilliant your thoughts, for others to benefit from them, they must be communicated effectively.

If writing to prospects and customers is, or becomes part of your job requirements, strong business writing skills are important not only to getting a job, but in being promoted within your organization once you have the job. Communicating well is often interpreted as proof of intelligence, professionalism, and attention to detail – critical qualities for increasingly important leadership roles. A recent Time magazine article quoted a Grammerly study of 100 LinkedIn profiles over a 10-year period that found, “…professionals who received one to four promotions made 45 percent more grammatical errors than did professionals who were promoted six to nine times….”

When you represent your organization to customers, clients, or prospects, not only will you communicate your message clearly, you must also project a credible professional image of your organization.

A few ideas: Get right to the point; use active verbs; organize logically; write for your reading audience; proofread; make your material look (and be!) easy to read.

Your on-the-job writing can increase your professionalism and demonstrate your credibility. Your clear, correct, concise writing skills significantly enhance both your professionalism and your credibility. Start with spell checker, and then do an additional check with your own eyes. Do it with every piece you write – from that email to that text, to that tweet. Consistently.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment, and let’s start a conversation!

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

 

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Meeting Minutes

Meeting minutes, conference reports, action steps – whatever the assignment – here are a few tips participants in my workshops have found helpful:

  1. Always have an agenda
  2. Have a separate sheet of note-taking paper for each agenda item
  3. Use an alternate format that will allow each reader to get the information he or she needs, without having to wade through pages of notes

Let’s start with the first one – always have an agenda. Without an agenda, the meeting tends to fall apart quickly. The agenda can be as informal as a 1-2-3- list on a flip chart, white board, or PowerPoint; or as complex as a printed, formal agenda sent out with a meeting packet a week or more in advance of the meeting.

Whichever it is, when you know in advance what will be discussed, and in what order, you can prepare to take notes and organize the discussion of each agenda item at the same time, perhaps saving you the hours you might be spending now on organizing the notes that were taken in order of discussion.

You know what happens: the chair asks for a discussion on agenda item 1. There may be a bit of discussion on this item before one of the members says, “I have another meeting in 15 minutes. Could we discuss agenda item 3 before I have to leave?” And so it very well may go, leaving you with pages and pages of information to organize in the order they have been discussed.

So here’s what you do: Prepare separate note-taking sheets for each agenda item. If an agenda item is likely to be lengthy, and assuming you are taking notes by hand, you might staple two or three sheets of paper together to accommodate the discussion. If you are taking notes on a computer, prepare separate computer pages for each agenda item in advance, so you can place agenda items on the appropriate “page.”

Now when an agenda item is discussed out of sequence, there’s no problem. Simply enter the note on the appropriate note-taking page, and all the information you need on each subject will be gathered in the same place.

As for the format: For formal meeting minutes, most organizations have their own formats. At minimum the heading may include when and where the meeting was held, who was in attendance, and perhaps, who was not present. This information often appears as a first paragraph, and the heading may just be a simple title, e.g., “Minutes of the XYZ Committee Meeting Held October 22, 2013 in Sacramento, California.” Follow the practice of your organization.

For the body of the minutes, consider using the Log format. The log format can be easily adapted for a variety of uses – conference reports, meeting minutes, status reports, assignments, etc. This is an excellent format – probably the best – when you have a great quantity of information going to a number of people but not everyone needs to read everything.

By calling out the topic on the left-hand one-third of the page or screen, you will focus the reader’s attention so that the right person can quickly find, and read the right information. The discussion of each agenda item will be on the right-hand two-thirds of the page or screen. By thus directing each reader’s attention to the information he or she needs, you can significantly improve chances that the appropriate reader will read, and “get” the appropriate information, saving time all around.

As for content: Some organizations prefer detailed information on who said what or who took what position on the issue. Many organizations today, however, prefer a simple statement of the bottom line. What was decided, and how that decision was reached. For example, “Following discussion, the committee agreed that….” Or, “Following Joe Jones’s report (attached), and subsequent discussion of the issue, the committee voted to….” Again, follow the preference, and practice of your organization.

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

If this blog post would be useful to your team, please forward it, or drop us an email, and we’ll send them next week’s post for you automatically.

We appreciate your inquiries and referrals

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Stronger, More Powerful Sentences

 …and how you can write stronger, more effective sentences – beginning immediately – with your very first keystroke.

So, how can you put each sentence to work for you to get the results you need?

Sentences may be approached from at least two angles: structure, or function.

Structurally, we may designate sentences as active (someone doing something); passive (someone or something being done to); or descriptive (a sentence using some form of “to be” – e.g., is, was, will be, were, and so on – sometimes in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels.”)

If one of these three structures is not in place, if one of these three things is not happening in your sentence, it’s likely that your group of words is not a sentence.

While there is substantial research demonstrating that partial sentences, or “sentence fragments,” are a business writing tool which may, and probably will, communicate better when they are well done, writing a good, communicative sentence fragment is an art, and a skill it takes most writers some time to develop. It can be difficult to write good, strong, communicative sentence fragments consistently.

Having said that, my advice to you is not to use sentence fragments on the job, and certainly not in the academic world. Most likely the best you will get is a note in the margin saying, “this is not a sentence.” Which you already knew, but…. A sentence fragment, when well done, will not be noticed, and will most likely improve the reader’s understanding.

You might enjoy analyzing the advertisements in your favorite “expensive” magazine. Identify the types of sentences, as well as the sentence fragments in the ads you particularly like, or that you feel make the writer’s point well. I will bet that you will find mostly, if not all, active sentences and at least a sentence fragment or two. In most cases, the people who write these ads have been doing it for a long time. And in most cases they are very good, both at using active sentences and at using well-written sentence fragments. That’s why they get the big bucks!

To strengthen your sentences, try these techniques:

  1. The average sentence length for the average adult reader should be 14-17 words.
  2. Improve readability by varying the length of your words, sentences, and paragraphs.

This is a mechanical device to keep the reader’s eye reading comfortably. Too many short words, sentences, and paragraphs will bounce the eye – like riding on a rough road, or turbulence in an airplane.  Too many long words, sentences, or paragraphs can put your reader to sleep – or at least make it more difficult to follow what you are saying. All average-length words, sentences, and paragraphs become boring.

  1. If you take nothing else from this blog, here is the biggest secret to writing stronger, more effective sentences beginning immediately – with your very next keystroke:

SYNTAX!

 No, as I like to joke with participants in my workshops, “syntax” is not what you pay for beer or cigarettes. “Syntax” is moving the order of the words around in the sentence, and let’s expand this definition just a bit to include moving sentences around in the paragraph, and paragraphs in the entire piece. Syntax is perhaps the least discussed, almost invisible, yet arguably most powerful tool you have in your business writing toolbox!

Take this sentence, for example:

I will need your completed time slip in my office not later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month so you can continue to receive your paycheck on time.

 Compare the above sentence to this one, where we have moved sentence elements around a bit:

So you can continue to receive your paycheck on time, I will need your completed time slip in my office not later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month.

 Do you see a difference? Which sentence is more powerful? More motivational? Which one captures your attention better – “hooks you” into reading more?

Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. Just like a rake, or shovel, or screwdriver. Your business writing needs to do its job.

Here’s what I’d like you to try this week: Take an important sentence in a piece you are writing on the job, and play with it a bit. Move the words and phrases around. See what you come up with to strengthen your writing.

Business writing has a job to do. But it can also be fun, and mentally stimulating. Experiment with your writing, within the boundaries of grammar and the style you use in your organization. Try new techniques, new tools. And let me know how it goes!

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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