mechanics & effect
Below are 3 convictions I personally hold about writing in general, followed by 10 common mechanical mistakes in business writing, then 7 principles that can influence the results, or effectiveness, of your writing, concluding with 3 more personal convictions about writing.
1. Writing matters. It is a skill at the top of every employer’s wish list, and good writers earn more. According to Shwom & Snyder in Business Communication: Polishing Your Professional Presence), good communicators can expect to earn up to 3x the salary of poor communicators.
2. Good writing depends on a strong foundation in the mechanics. So if you struggle with grammar or punctuation or sentence structure, conquer one new writing skill each week. There are 52 weeks in a year. Imagine how much your writing might improve in a year’s time if you take on this personal challenge.
3. Everyone should build a resource library. If you want to be a better writer, you must read good writing, and you must write. Invest in a good personal reference library on writing. Several resources are listed throughout the content on writing on this website.
Mechanics (Grammar & Construction)
Here are 10 of the most common mechanical issues in business writing,
1. Punctuation. Punctuation came into being so actors knew how to interpret and deliver their lines. Punctuation still offers direction to readers and aids meaning.
If the inheritance is divided between Bob, David and Mary, does each person get a third or is it halved?
Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, says we’ve been taught that we don’t need the Oxford Comma (last in a list). But sometimes that comma makes the meaning more clear. Your goal in writing is to be so clear that you cannot be misunderstood.
Commas are for natural pauses, such as to offset a clause. Use a comma before “and” and “but” in a sentence if you have another subject and verb following. (But consider whether a sentence with “and” or “but” is too long, and break it into two sentences if needed.)
Hyphens join words that create new meaning together.
There is a big difference in the first time-traveler and the first-time traveler.
A colon introduces something: a thought or a list.
A semi-colon joins two complete thoughts (each with its own subject and verb); a period would also suffice.
Use a dash for hard breaks. (And hit space – dash – space so that your dashes elongate and are consistent throughout your document.)
Use an ellipsis for a lingering thought.
2. Lack of agreement. This is perhaps the most common grammatical mistake in business writing.
Someone left his umbrella in my office (not their umbrella).
We want to use “their” for singular subjects like “someone” to avoid gender bias. Being a woman I am a fan of removing gender bias. It can also feel wordy to say “his or her” every time. The default used to be the male pronoun, but that’s not politically popular anymore. It has become so commonplace to use “their” with singular subjects that I have about given up fighting this rule.
A note here: don't use "their" for a single entity. Lipscomb University is an "it" not a "they."
Language is dynamic, meaning the rules change in response to our use of them. We have all sorts of terminology (email, texting, etc.), for example, that wasn’t in existence a few years ago. Subject/verb agreement seems to be a rule in transition. But historically, singular subjects (someone, none, each) needed singular verbs and pronouns to be grammatically correct.
3. Spelling. You have spellcheck. Use it. But realize that it can’t catch misunderstandings of meaning. I’ve had several students refer to the “manor of person” they were. A manor is a large estate. A manner is a type.
I’ve had students mention their “upmost” respect for someone. Upmost is shortened for “uppermost” and would refer to something like the highest branches on a tree. But in this context you want the word “utmost,” which means “the greatest” or "uttermost.”
Here’s another one: peek (to look), peak (to summit or look ill), and pique (to irritate or arouse, such as “my interest is piqued”) all sound the same but have different meanings.
And finally, it’s incredible how many times students write “then” when they mean “than” and vice-versa. Spellcheck will not auto-correct your selections of the wrong word.
4. Weak vocabulary. Seek to eliminate “like” and other college-speak, and “I think/feel/believe” statements. Watch "ing" statements. Instead of "I am planning to..." say "I plan to..."
Use Plain English. In other words, choose words most of your audience will clearly understand. This doesn’t mean you can’t use strong vocabulary. In English, we have many word choices at our disposal. Pick…select…choose…sift for…hunt for…pluck a great one! A precise one. Each selection has its own nuance.
Avoid jargon, slang, clichés or current buzzwords. “Per your request” or “utilize” when a simple “use” is more clear.
Pick the word that conveys just the right meaning and will stand the test of time.
5. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are not entirely wrong, but use with caution. Depending on how old you are and how good your high school English teachers were, you may have been taught never to end a sentence with a preposition. But the truth is you can. Many a respected writer does.
But don't say, “Where are you at?” when "Where are you?" does the job. However, if it’s awkward to say, “With whom are you going to the store?” because you really don't talk that way, I don’t personally think you should be marked down for this.
6. Contractions in formal writing. Contractions are like chewing gum--not the most sophisticated thing. Similarly, the use of contractions is less formal and should be reserved for informal writing. Contractions (can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc.) are best avoided in formal writing, such as reports and letters.
7. Poor sentence construction. Once again, the goal in writing is to be clear. Conciseness aids clarity and understanding. Don’t slow your readers down with long sentences they have to go back and read a second time. Keeping sentences no longer than two lines of text helps clarity and can eliminate run-on sentences. Short sentences are also strong. So use some!
Ruthlessly edit every unnecessary word from your writing. When there are 8 words in a sentence, 100% of readers comprehend the sentence. When there are 28 words in a sentence, only 50% of readers comprehend the sentence. (That’s from Mary Ellen Guffey’s textbook, Essentials of Business Communication.)
Good construction uses transition words that help your reader follow along (next, additionally, also, etc.)
Good construction avoids fragment sentences (sentences that lack both a subject and a verb) and run-on sentences (sentences lacking needed punctuation, rolling along like a runaway train).
8. Failure to capitalize. The rule on capitalization is formality. I live in Middle Tennessee. It’s Middle and not middle because it’s a formal region. Southern California and The Wild West and The Bronx are all formal regions but northern Kansas might not be.
If you are working on a bachelor’s degree in business administration you wouldn’t necessarily capitalize it. But if you’re listing “Bachelor of Business Administration” or “BBA: Entrepreneurship” on your resume, it would be capitalized.
9. Improper citations or plagiarism. It’s so easy to cut and paste, and it’s so easy to forget where we read something or heard a statistic, that plagiarism has become a common infraction in academia. But it’s wrong. It’s unethical to pass information off as your own if it originated with someone else.
Academic disciplines select and follow citation standards. MLA, APA, and Chicago are the most common three. Most business programs use APA (American Psychology Association). This is a common guide for knowing how to appropriately list both shorter in-text citations and longer end-of-document citations in the References or Works Cited section of a book or research paper.
See Purdue University's Online Writing Lab - OWL - for more.
In most workplaces, you’re not expected to follow strict citation rules like in academic programs, but you still need to cite where you got your information (such as providing the author’s name, the article title, and/or the link to the original webpage).
10. Inconsistent style choices. Some things are not a matter of mechanics, they are a style choice.
Both “healthcare” and “health care” are correct. Both cancelled and canceled are correct.
Be consistent in your style choices. If you switch back and forth in a single document, or in every newsletter or blog post your company produces, it looks like you can’t make up your mind.
Same with “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” or “nonprofit.”
Select one and be consistent in your use. Be consistent with acronyms and the way you list titles also. Use A.M. or AM or a.m. consistently when you list times. Use 06-MAR-15 or March 6, 2015 or Mar 6, 2015 consistently. (It’s best to write out dates rather than list all numbers because in some countries 3-6-15 is June 3rd.)
There are many great stylebooks. Sometimes larger organizations adopt one or write their own style manual. The Associated Press has a stylebook. The AP shortens states, for example, to the first four letters. (Tenn.) The U.S. Postal Service has another style guide and shortens its states to two capitalized letters (TN).
Finally, there are 7 other considerations that can influence the results of your writing besides the actual word choices. In writing workshops I call this "affecting the effect." Affect is a verb that means to influence. Effect is a noun that means a result. So this is about influencing the results of your writing.
1. Choose the most appropriate medium: a.k.a. channel or document. Each business document serves its own purpose and has its own format/formula.
See Email & Document Samples for document descriptions.
2. Be courteous in tone. Maya Angelou said, “People never forget how you make them feel.” Make them feel respected and you’ll get better results.
The immediacy of communications today makes it easy to fire back at people defensively or angrily. But the permanency of our communications should give us all pause. Email, for example, lives on a company mainframe forever. You never have to apologize for a courteous tone in a written message.
3. Be specific. A common weakness in writing is being too generic, or making assumptions that our readers know everything we know. Put yourself in your reader’s place. As you edit your messages, ask yourself if you’ve included all the necessary details. If you anticipate the questions your reader will have and provide the answers, it will save you from having to answer emails asking for clarification.
I love to show a clip from Phenomenon in class to illustrate the importance of being specific. When John Travolta’s character is taken into custody and given an intelligence test, he shows his interrogator that it’s important to be specific.
It’s especially important to be specific if you have deadlines or actions required as follow-up to your message.
Donald Miller says in his StoryBrand workshop that the key to being heard in today’s very crowded and loud marketplace is having a clear, easy to understand message.
4. Stress benefits with a “you” view. Again, think about your readers. What do they care about most? Rather than using “I” or “me” language in your messages, use “you,” “we” or “us” language.
If you want people to read your message and act on it then highlight how it benefits them. Do not assume they will instinctively know. Connect the dots for them.
Instead of it being about you (I need the information today or I can’t finish the report), make it about them (Once you submit the information--due today--you can mark that task off your list).
5. Organize your information using a direct or indirect method. It is typically best to be direct. This means you state your purpose right away. There should be no question in your reader’s mind about why you’re sending them this email, report, proposal, memo, etc. It’s fine to have a polite greeting, but then cut straight to the chase. Here’s why I’m emailing.
The Pyramid Principle (An organizational lesson learned at McKinsey, by Ameet Ranadive)
Direct method is active, not passive. Active is best. Active is more efficient. Active is more clear. To write actively means you list the subject before the verb.
There are only two times it’s better to be indirect: (1) when you are trying to persuade what may be a resistant audience and you want to build your case first, or (2) you have bad news to share and you want to deliver it sensitively.
See Bad News Messages for more on this.
6. Frontload. Frontloading means you list your strongest information at the top. This is a smart strategy with documents like your resume or an agenda for a meeting, but it’s also good for a simple email. Any time you have a list, put the strongest point at the top. In a report where you are making several suggestions for a business decision, list the strongest one first.
Hook your reader at the opening then give him or her a reason to read on. It’s like a great first line in a novel.
7. Make needed actions clear. Action items should be spelled out clearly: deadlines, important dates, exact times and locations. You should also be clear about what you need and expect from the recipient of your message. Action items are often placed at the close of a message so the recipient cannot miss them or read on and forget about them.
Now you know a few suggestions for strengthening your business writing by using strong mechanics and influencing the results. Three final thoughts in closing:
1. Good writing is professional in every way. In format, tone, content, and delivery.
2. The data is solid. Accurate. It tells the right story.
3. Time needed for research, editing and accuracy is taken. And this, of course, leads to better decision-making and outcomes.
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