Business Writing Workarounds

Pen and Paper“Workarounds,” a word borrowed from the techie community, has become an interesting part of our business vocabulary, generally meaning if the way you usually do it, or are supposed to do it, doesn’t work, or if you’re not sure how to do it, here’s how to work around it to get the job done.

Many of us were taught – or at least thought we were taught – that there is only one correct way to write. Certainly when you are talking about a prescribed type of writing, say a thesis or a dissertation, that is true.

But in business writing, workarounds can get that piece of writing done both quickly and correctly, and can be useful when we’re not certain of the grammatical correctness of what we have written. There are many correct ways to get the job done, and in the typical business situation we do not have time to spend figuring out how to fix a particular phrase or sentence exactly as written. Business writing is not, and should not, be an English class exercise. Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. And the writing itself should be correctly done to enhance your professionalism and credibility.

So let’s talk about a couple of quick, correct workarounds.

1a. Here’s a very common grammatical error. So common, you may not see it at first:

Each employee will have a chance to show their best practices at the conference.

 The grammatical error in this sentence is that you are talking about each employee. One at a time. Singular. Each employee’s individual best practice (or practices) is not their best practice, but his or her best practice or, if more than one, practices. If you were fixing that sentence as written, to be correct, you would say:

Each employee will have a chance to show his or her best practice (or practices, if each is allowed to show more than one) at the conference.

 If you know that all of the employees we are talking about are female, you could just use “her best practices….” If all of the employees we are talking about are male, then use “his best practices….”

But if the employees are a mixed group – some male, some female – or if you don’t know the composition of the group by gender, use his or her.

 That’s the grammatically correct way to fix that specific sentence, keeping it generally as is.

Here’s one workaround that could avoid the seeming awkwardness of his or her:

 Each employee will have a chance to show an original best practice at the conference.

 If some of the employees will show more than one original best practice, the sentence could be:

Each employee will have a chance to show original best practices at the conference.

 1b. The problem in the original sentence is that each employee (singular) does not match up with their (plural). Another way to make the original sentence grammatically correct would be:

Employees will have a chance to show their best practices at the conference.

In this corrected version, Employees (plural) matches up with their (also plural).

2. Often, and this also happens frequently when you are editing someone else’s writing, as well as with your own writing, the sentence is such a mish-mash of stuff that fixing it as written is overwhelming.

Work around it. Get to the “bare bones” of what you (or the writer, if you are editing) are trying to say. Then re-write, to make it both grammatically correct, and understandable.

So – to be sure you are writing correctly and clearly when you are not sure:

Step 1:  Recognize and identify the error, errors, or cause of confusion.

Step 2:  Make your correction, using a good grammar guide or a good “workaround.”

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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coaching,consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email


More About the Business Writing Trend: Short!

Last week, we said that “short” is not what we really want, when we are looking for clearer, faster communication; when we want the reader to “get it” and to act on it now. TwoBusinessPeople175

What we are looking for is “concise.” “Short” can cause you a lot of problems, cost you more time, and result in lost productivity. You need to anticipate the questions you must answer for your reader before he or she can do what you are asking him or her to do. “Concise” – providing the information your reader needs, in as short a space as possible – greatly increases the odds that you will get what you need at all, and probably much sooner.

The second part of this is to make your writing faster and easier to read.

We already talked about alternate formats, cover letters, and whether to pass along this information at all. See last week’s post here.

Here are three more things you can do:

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Cost-Effective Marketing Part 2: Words and Phrases

Last week, we said that your day-to-day business writing should be your most cost-effective marketing tool (see the post here), and promised you some words, phrases, and techniques that will help.

PileofWords180Whether you are actually writing to persuade, or just passing along some requested information, the overall tone – the “feeling” your reader gets about you, and subsequently the way he or she thinks about you, and about your organization, is absolutely critical to the success of the piece you are writing, and in a larger sense, to the success of your organization overall.

So here goes…

1. Today, as the saying goes, “less is more.” That does not mean abrupt or incomplete. Give your reader everything he or she needs in as short a space as possible. Use the no-more-than-five-lines first paragraph formula, and, in five lines or less, you can be both as short as possible, and provide the information your reader needs, to do what you need him or her to do, much, if not most of the time.

2. If you have the time for this practice exercise, work with a longer sentence (yours, or someone else’s) and see how few words you can turn it into. For example, how can you tighten up the first nine words of the first sentence in this paragraph? How about, “For practice…” Usually a little thought and a quick re-write can help. What is really the point of what you are saying? How much of that detail does your reader need? What are the “bare bones” of your message/sentence/phrase?

Another example: “They went to the store, and while doing so, stopped by to see Mary.” Can you get the “bare bones” down to three words? How about “They saw Mary.”

3. Use a format that allows you to get as much information as possible into as little space as possible. Bullet points, for one example. Remember that formatting may not hold in the body of the email, and you probably should use an attachment when your message is format dependent.

4. Choose specific words. Words that leave no doubt what you mean. For example, how many is “few”? How soon is “ASAP”? Who is “everybody”?

5. Choose exactly the right word to clarify and to reinforce your message using fewer words. How many ways can you say, “send”? Or “situation”? Or “important”?

6. Use “comfortable,” easily-understood words, talking neither “up” nor “down” to your reader.

7. Think about the phrases you may use habitually, for example:

To get what you need, tell your reader what to do:  “enclosing for your review” becomes “please review the enclosed.”

To create a “they’re easy to work with” tone: “I’ll have to (look that up)” becomes “I’ll (look that up) for you. “I can’t (get to that until Friday)” becomes “I’ll have that for you Friday.”

Interestingly enough, using these two particular phrases will also change your feeling about the task, resulting in less fatigue for you by the end of the day.

To position yourself, or your recommendation, think about the relative power of the following phrases: I think, I know, I believe, I’d like to, I am convinced, I can, there is no question. “I don’t think” (an all-too-common phrase) will probably not be helpful.

To encourage initiative, instead of “I don’t see anything wrong with that” try “sounds good to me,” or “let’s do it.” Even an enthusiastic spoken “O.K.,” will work in a conversation, maybe not so much in writing.

So that’s it for today. Take some time this week if you can, to think about, and to try some of these words, phrases, and techniques.

See you next week!

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We’ll be happy to come to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, email us at or give us a call at 503/292-9681. 


Proofreading Quick Check

It seems like most of us are in a constant rush: the perfect environment for email errors that seem so determined to happen. Errors that make meaning unclear, and – worst case – result in time-consuming additional explanation, and “fixing.”

What’s needed is a fast mental checklist of some of the unexpected, but potentially lethal things you can look for quickly before hitting the send button.LoupeProofreading200

  1. Of course you will start with the built-in spell- and grammar- checkers, being aware of their shortcomings: words correctly spelled, but in the wrong place, e.g., “at” for “an,” “to, too, two” (which one do you need?); words that don’t mean what you think they mean; the “passive” incorrectly questioned, and so on. The old eyeball still needs to look the piece over.
  2. Then you will check for absolute word clarity. Did the word(s) you used say what you mean? Many words sound very similar, but have quite different meanings. Two prime examples: formally vs. formerly (which would you use if you meant “used to be”?); and expedient vs. expedite (which would you use to mean “to speed,” or “to hurry”?)
  3. Now look at comprehension. Is there a chance your information could be misunderstood? Are you saying what you mean? If you offer a “new member program” is the program new, or is the member new? A “new-member program” (with the hyphen) would clearly be for new members only. A “new members-only program” would make it clear that the new program is only for members, but the members could be either new or existing. The “new member program” could be interpreted either way, and could lead to some time-consuming emails and conversations to clarify what you meant.
  4. One final checkpoint that is too often overlooked: Take a hard look at words like he, she, it, they, we. Is it clear just who you mean by “he”? Or what is “it”? Arguably, this is right up near the top of the list of the most common sources of confusion, and can lead to rumors, office problems, and a lot of misunderstanding – all of which takes time to fix!

To receive your Business Writing Tip of the Week automatically every week, please subscribe to our newsletter. We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.


Business Writing Tip of the Week: “Spin”

Can you remember when “spin” was what we did as little kids to make ourselves dizzy and fall down? And then we all laughed so hard?SpinningTop175

“Spin” is not a laughing word today, is it?

In the kindest terms, maybe we could say “spin” is “putting the best face on it,” or maybe just call it “reframing,” helping your reader to see the positive side of what might normally be considered a negative.

For example, pretend you are the copywriter for an advertising campaign promoting a new housing development. Here are some of the facts about this housing development you must deal with. See if you can turn each of them – which would normally be considered negative – into a positive statement about the development:

  1. The new housing development is across the street from the main entrance to a busy urban airport, and directly under the flight path.
  2. There are sidewalks on only one side of the street.
  3. The playground has only one swing.
  4. No required minimum landscaping will be provided.
  5. There is a dangerous swamp in the southeast corner of the development.
  6. The model home blew up last Friday.

Now let’s have a little fun with this exercise. Take a couple of minutes to turn each of these probably negative statements into positive ones.







So what did you come up with?

Perhaps on negative #1, you thought how perfect this new housing development would be for the busy business traveler, saving commute time, and allowing his or her family to be alerted to his or her return.

Negative #2: Did you think about the sidewalks provided for safe walking, or greater privacy with reduced foot traffic?

For negative #3, how about “Children’s playground thoughtfully designed for cooperative play, and to support sharing.”

“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stretch your imagination and create the unbelievably beautiful garden you have dreamed of, and only imagined until now,” might work for negative #4.

And of course the dangerous swamp in negative #5 can easily be translated into an unusual wildlife preserve allowing your family to observe nature at first hand.

Finally, the model home in negative #6 that blew up last Friday?  “Only one home has not met our rigorous standards, and it was promptly removed last Friday.”

You’ve probably come up with many other negatives-into-positives, and I hope you have had some fun with this exercise. Let us hear from you!

Now that we have the general idea of negative-into-positive with this light-hearted exercise, let’s get a little more serious. Over the next week, listen for “reframing” statements. Listen to the ads, listen to the news, listen to your co-workers, customers, and clients. Listen for how your family members – kids are particularly good at this – manage to “put the best face on” what could be a negative situation or fact.

Word choice can also be a tool of “spin.”

We all recognize connotative words, words like “propaganda,” “gossip,” and “manipulate” – words that carry baggage. Words that in and of themselves can create a negative emotion. And of course there are also words that in and of themselves can create a positive emotion.

But let’s talk about “neutral words,” and how they can be ramped up, or ramped down to inflame emotion, or to calm emotion. For two examples, let’s use the words “situation,” and “important.”

How many ways can you think of to say “situation”? Take a minute here to jot down half a dozen or more as they occur to you.

Which of these words might, under certain circumstances, create a panic? Which are the potentially inflammatory words? Crisis? Disaster? Catastrophe?

Which of these words could you use to calm a general sense of panic? Which neutral words tend to minimize the serious nature of a crisis? Situation? Issue? Matter?

Now let’s look at “important.” Well just how important is “important”? Not very is it? How much attention do you pay when someone says, “This is an important issue”? Let’s ramp it up a bit. How about critical, crucial, life-threatening? Dire, desperate, or grave? Even there you can see various levels indicating just how important this issue may be.

And to ramp it down? Important? Worth consideration? Or fairly serious?

While thinking about the quality, nature, and potential effect of the words you use may not be critical, crucial, or life-threatening, probably not even dire, desperate, or grave, I do hope you will find it worth your consideration this week.

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 We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.


What was that again?

Take a quick look at the following sentences. Can you see what the three of them have in common?

  1. The troops fired into crowds protesting the return of the religious leader.
  2. John and Bob were in the coffee room when Bill Smith and Art Jones from accounting walked in. Words were exchanged, and the two wanted to argue about the hiring policy decision.
  3. Army helicopter pilots reported seeing steam plumes venting from near the top of the smaller mountain last week, but they disappeared shortly after the observation.

Whatever else these sentences may have in common, none of them tells the reader who did what. Take another look.

In sentence1., who was protesting the return of the religious leader? Was it the troops who were protesting? Was it the crowds? And in sentence 2., who was it who wanted to argue? And how about sentence 3.?

Creating confusion is easy to do when the writer knows so much about the subject that it all seems clear at first glance. So now look at sentence 1. How can you make it perfectly clear who was doing the protesting?

Perhaps you said something like.

“The troops, who were protesting the return of the religious leader, fired into the crowds.”

Or, if it had been the other way around, perhaps something like,

“The troops fired into the crowds, who were protesting the return of the religious leader.”

And how about sentence 2. How could you make it clear which two wanted to argue?:

This one is relatively easy, right? All you need to do is substitute the names of the would-be arguers for “the two.” So fixes are not always that complicated. The hard part is to recognize when what you have written is not as clear to the reader as it was to you when you wrote it.

And now for sentence 3.  Who was it who disappeared?:

This one is probably the most common source of confusion created by the writer. Is “they” the pilots (oh no!) or the plumes? This sort of confusion is also the easiest to spot when you proofread your writing before you send it. Just look for words like  “they,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “it.” Then substitute the name or description for that word.

Fixing this sort of confusion – who did what? – can be relatively easy. The trick is to be aware of, and to recognize the sentences that will be confusing to the reader. Then fix them.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •


Blogger Tip #1: Make it readable

This week, we’re welcoming blogger Marilyn Tycer. Marilyn is a graphic designer and blogger, and we’ve asked her to share some of her tips for bloggers.

Tip #1: Make it readable.

Now that you have a subject for your blog, and some ideas for posts, what comes next? Start typing! But it’s important to take care to craft your blog posts into something readable. So before you hit the “Publish” button, take a moment to revise your writing. While the subject of your blog might be popular, your blog probably won’t get a lot of followers if your writing is hard to read or bland. Continue reading


Review: Writers INC

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Writers INC is a valuable resource for writers of all ages and all genres. While intended for high school students, it contains a wealth of essential information that is relevant to business writers.

A quick look at the Writers INC table of contents:
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Good writing, or just good rewriting?

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” –Louis D. Brandeis.

I don’t believe that there isn’t good writing, but much of what makes a piece of writing good is the effort put into revising and rewriting it. However, many times, people agonize over trying to say things perfectly while writing a rough draft, and they get so caught up in perfectly articulating one sentence that they lose momentum and the rest of the draft suffers for it. Remember to see the forest through the trees! Just get something written down on paper, and then revise, revise, revise.

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A fun story about “woman” vs. “women”

Happy New Year, everyone!

My granddaughter shared a funny story with me. She works in a middle school and was helping a student revise his work. The assignment was to make a comic strip about a scene in the book Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, and this particular student chose the scene where the young woman protagonist is humiliated because she has to wear her brother’s underpants and everyone at school finds out. (It is a very amusing book, to say the least!) Continue reading