Poor Business Writing is Not a Character Flaw!

Writing skills can be fixedPoor business writing skills are not a character flaw. Neither are they a mark of stupidity, as some of my class members start out feeling. One of them even told me, “You can’t fix stupid.”

This seriously concerns me. Talking with a group of writer friends the other day, I asked why they thought so many perfectly bright, competent business people feel apprehensive about their on-the-job writing.

Fear – of making mistakes, of inadequacy – maybe even leading to procrastination; and vulnerability – “putting yourself out there” came up from several of them. Some mentioned specific skills that business writers may feel uncomfortable using: grammar, word choice, sentence structure, inability to create interest or to make the point clearly, were some of them. While most were appreciative of the skills they learned from their English teachers, others mentioned school teachers who made them feel dumb when they didn’t “get it.” Well here’s the good news: Once you can identify where you feel vulnerable – grammar, clarity, focus, or wherever – you can fix it!

Here are some other issues we talked about:

• The feeling that you have to start and write perfectly the first time. Not true. Most good writing has been written, reviewed, and re-written. It’s quick and easy with a computer, and the “checkers” available. Just remember to put your own eyes on your writing to be sure the computer is accurate with its suggestions.

• Thinking that you were good in English in school, and not realizing there is a big difference between academic writing and business writing.

• The tendency to give too much information. Don’t try to tell your reader everything you know about the subject. Select the facts and the information that provide insight into what your reader needs to know to do whatever it is you are writing about. The “too much information” syndrome is usually caused by a sincere, and worthy desire to be complete. Too much information, or unrelated information, only leads to confusion.

• Difficulty getting started. What you have to do here is let the reader know, in the first sentence or two, (1) what this piece is about, (2) why he or she is getting it, and (3) what he or she needs to do with, or about it. If there is a deadline, you will want to include that as well. The complete first paragraph formula has been explained in previous posts, so take a look for more information. More about the first paragraph formula in future posts.

• Lack of focus. Too many interruptions in an average business day make it hard to focus. For the shorter email or note, it may not be as noticeable. For a longer piece it is. The best way I know to fix this is with my Strategic Business Writing Blueprint. Having a system to fall back on is vital in this situation. Knowing how to proceed results in the confidence you need to write well. Tip: Your subject line is a quick and easy way to focus the reader. Just be certain that what the subject line says is what you will say in your email. Again, check some of the older posts, and we will do some new ones in the future as well.

• Need for a habitual system that makes it easy to start quickly, comfortably, concisely; continue confidently; and finish strong. See the previous two sections. More posts upcoming.

• Using the best medium before starting the communication – email writing, paper writing, texting, phone calls, in-person visits, and so on – is a critical consideration before you begin.

• Using the right “tone” with your reader. Tone is the relationship the writer sets up with the reader, and is a significant portion of your communication. How do you want your reader to think about you?

• Concern about giving offense. This concern can come into play when you have a solution to a problem, but may be reluctant to present it for fear of overstepping your boundaries, and giving offense. Of course you have to know your reader, but most business people who are in a position to make a decision, or to accept or reject your recommendation, greatly prefer having a “starting point” recommendation or two to having problems moved from your desk to theirs to solve, without a good recommendation or two – with backup!

Hope you’ll find these tips and tactics helpful, and we’ll look for you next week – right here!

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Business Writing Tip of the Week: How to Say It When You Can’t Think of What to Say

How many times have you or I sat, staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike? How many times have we wished there were such a thing as a business writing fairy godmother – or at the very least, a ghostwriter, who could come along and give us a fill-in-the-blanks draft to get us started?

Soon it becomes apparent that inspiration is on vacation, and we’re going to have to handle it on our own.womanTyping250

Let’s say that your email is the type of email you write all the time. And the question becomes just how many ways can you say the same thing? So it can often be helpful to use a sort of template for the same sorts of pieces, and many companies and organizations do just that.

The downside of course is that these form letters tend to sound much the same, and are usually, of necessity, quite impersonal.

Especially from a tonal point of view, these impersonal form letters can be quite destructive to a relationship that we have worked so hard to develop with each individual reader. Obviously, it is far preferable to write most of our correspondence directly for that specific individual reader. Templates, or “form letters” are not for everyone, nor are they for every situation.

On the other hand, when carefully crafted, and especially when they are of the “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” type, they can be quite useful. Just “save as,” fill in the blanks, and you’re done!

Let’s see, for example, how this might look for a very simple standard meeting announcement:

“The (date/topic) meeting of the (name) committee will be held (at/in the) (location) (at/from) (time) on (day and date). Please see attached agenda for details.”

This simple “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” template might become something like:

“The April meeting of the waste reduction committee will be held in the third-floor conference room from 4 to 5 PM on Thursday, April 24, 2013. Please see attached agenda for details.”

The RSVP request will be your second paragraph, which could also be a “saafitb” paragraph.

Be sure that the attached agenda details include who will be responsible for each report, or presentation agenda item, so the responsible person will be prepared.  It’s also a good idea to send a quick reminder email to each of these individuals. You may even have a system that does this automatically.

You probably have a number of standard emails you create on a regular basis. Try developing your own “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” templates for these sorts of emails, and see if it makes the process easier and faster.

More complex repetitious communications will require a more complex format, but the principle is the same: You want to avoid as much repetitious key stroking as you reasonably can, using the “blanks-to-be-filled-in” to provide both the specific information for the piece you are writing, and to personalize this information for your specific reader. This will go a long way toward avoiding the impersonal “form letter” tone, while speeding up the process.

For example, a persuasive proposal should begin with a persuasive “lead” paragraph clearly summarizing exactly what the proposal is, and stressing the benefit to the reader, or to his or her company or organization. Quick tip: Increase the effectiveness of your proposal by starting with the benefit.

As appropriate, other sections of the persuasive proposal could include, for example:

• Significance of your proposal. Why do? Why need? Why now?

• Proposed time schedule.

• Resources required/Resources available.

• Changes that will be needed.

• Similar programs/activities. Review and evaluate how, and how well they worked. How were they the same, and how did they differ?

• Projected positive results, with time frame and evaluation criteria.

• Anything else your reader needs to know to decide in your favor.

And finally, you will have a very strong, very clear, very persuasive conclusion to the material covered, in benefits-to-the-reader terms.

 

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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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