The Business of Business Writing

“People just can’t write any more!” “I get letters, memos, and reports every day that no one can understand.” “What do they teach them in school these days?” These are common reactions from business people when they are asked, “What is the most frequent problem you have to live with these days?”

There is really no need to elaborate on the problem; anyone in business or in the educational system knows it exists and that it is serious. It’s fruitless to moan about why this has come to pass, how much better it was in the old days, or how people have changed. It’s more important to understand what can be done to alleviate the problem and to realize that the ability to write well is an essential skill for today’s business.

Several studies have found that the ability to communicate effectively is at the top of the list of essential skills one must possess in order to be promoted. This is because the need for clear, concise writing has become indispensable as business becomes more complex and the layers of management expand. Whether you are writing a letter, a memo, or a detailed report, it is imperative that it be lucid, brief, and persuasive. If your readers can’t understand what you are trying to say, your career advancement will surely suffer, to say nothing of the effect on your firm.

In these days of “customer-driven” business, you simply can’t afford to generate ill feeling by sending out bad letters. The following, sent by a bank to one of its customers, is a good example of a bad letter. The recipient was a businessperson who had been dealing with the bank for 14 years.

Date: (stamped in red ink)
Name and address: (written by hand)
Salutation: (none)
You are presently in default on your mortgage loan repayment as stipulated in the mortgage document. Our records show the arrears to be $_______. Accordingly, the full amount of the arrears owing is demanded within five (5) days from today. You are further advised that in the event this demand is not complied with, it is the Bank’s intention to proceed with whatever action is necessary to protect its interest.
The __________ Bank
By: (unreadable signature, title written in)

This letter is poorly written. It contains errors in grammar, style, and format, and its tone is unfriendly and abrasive. What is even more important, the writer did not accomplish his or her purpose. The message the sender was trying to convey was that the bank had run out of the postdated cheques the customer left on deposit and that it needed another year’s supply. Instead, it infuriated the customer, who immediately took steps to pay off the mortgage and move his business elsewhere. The bank is still using the same letter.

Executives shouldn’t have to be bothered with this kind of poor writing, nor should they be asked to unravel perplexing proposals or unclear communications. We are all too busy to be hampered by writers who confuse us, yet it happens all the time. Take book reviews for example. They ought to be a great way to save time; that’s why we read them. However, if they are poorly written, they fail to do their job. The following appeared as the opening paragraph of a review of a new business book:

“When great change is ushered in with fanfare and promises of an easier life, it’s easy to let those promises, those better future days become blinders. Not only can actual benefit blind us to concomitant disadvantage, but we may fail to see detrimental, inherent ruling images of paradigms that shape the implementation of a work-saving device. In Brave New Work-place, Robert Howard shows the image of the technological present where apparent future ease masks the loss of important human values.”

Does this make you want to run right out and buy the book? Hardly! “Detrimental, inherent ruling images of paradigms” – give us a break! The book may be great, but the reviewer’s writing style effectively kills our interest. This writer obviously suffers from an affliction known as sesquipedalianism; that is, the tendency to use very long words. University students often fall into this practice in order to sound more learned than they are, or because they believe baloney baffles brains.

Anyone who can read, can write. Not everyone is a good writer, but he can learn to write well. It really is a skill and, like any other skill, it improves with instruction and practice. If you want to improve the quality of writing in your organization, there are several approaches you can take. You can help your people learn through books, you can have someone teach them, or you can hire someone to do the writing for you.

There are bushels of books on the market on how to write. Look for a book that covers most of the major kinds of writing: memos, letters, reports, proposals, minutes of meetings, feasibility studies, sales letters, and even letters of complaint. The book should be easy to read and filled with practical hints, models, exercises, check sheets, and other devices that help readers understand quickly and apply the techniques to their writing tasks immediately.

But not all people learn easily on their own. Some are better off attending a writing course or workshop. Normally one or two days in length, these should be tailored to meet the needs of your organization and to match the level of proficiency of your people. Be wary though. Not all writing courses are the same. Besides the variance in cost (ranging from $50 to $600 per person), they also vary in the quality and experience of the instructors. English teachers or university professors don’t always make the best instructors for people in business and industry. Working effectively with adults, applying the right techniques, and selecting the right material can make or break your writing course. In-house, tailor-made workshops designed and taught by experts are generally better than courses offered to all comers.

Ernest Hemingway said: “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes out easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” The trick is to make it come out in the first place, and then learn how to make it perfect. Everyone can write but not everyone’s writing says what he wants it to say. Finding the right kind of assistance can help you avoid the following kinds of problems that appear in letters sent to a government office.

“In answer to your letter, I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope.”

“Unless I get my husband’s money pretty soon, I will be forced to live an immortal life.”

“Mrs. Jones has not had any clothes for a year and has been visited by the clergy regularly.”

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