Having taught business and technical writing for 3 decades in almost half the Fortune 500 corporations, I’ve literally been reading your mail. Well, okay, maybe not YOUR mail. But I’ve read and discussed hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of emails, letters, proposals, and reports with both writers and recipients to discover their intentions and results.
In the process, here are the culprits that create a lack of clarity and reflect weak thinking on the page or screen. Avoiding these top 10 biggest business writing blunders might save your career:
1. Once-Upon-a-Time Format: Starting at the beginning of a situation and going to the end works for a bedtime story, a TV sitcom, and a joke. But not for emails, letters, or proposals. In fact, for 99 out of a 100 business documents, you should make your bottom line your opening line.
2. “So What?” Writing: When you receive these documents, your response is typically, “So what do you want me to do, think, believe, approve, consider, buy? These documents present no clear summary or conclusion, but rather just a collection of information.
3. No Context: The writer assumes readers know far more about a situation than they do. Consequently, they jump into the details of a situation without identifying people or purpose.
4. Irrelevant Details: Extraneous details cloud the central issue, bury key points, and confuse readers about the necessary action.
5. Unclear Action: What the writer assumes to be obvious and implied action is often not obvious to others.
6. The Write-As-You-Think Approach: Part of the message here. Part of the message there. An action here. An action there. Just as the brain waves flow in all directions, so do the sentences and paragraphs flow in all directions. The document reflects totally disorganized thinking.
7. Wordiness: If you mean, “Efficiency in using equipment influences productivity,” don’t write this: “The efficiency with which an operation utilizes its available equipment is an influential factor in productivity.” Cut the clutter.
8. Passive Voice: Some writers remove all the people from their writing in a mistaken attempt to sound objective. Passive voice means the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb:
Passive: The document was signed.
Active: The client signed the document.
Passive: The decision is now being considered by the budget committee.
Active: The budget committee is now considering the decision.
In the marketplace, who does what is often key information. Leave the doers intact in your sentences. Passive voice has a purpose. If you don’t know why you’re using it, don’t.
9. Run-On Sentences: The following represents two complete thoughts jammed together as if they are one: “Our plans have been undercapitalized from the very beginning, however, most people we’ve spoken to about the idea support the concept.” Wrong. So is a common run-on sentence like this: “Carlos supports the idea he thinks the funding will be granted shortly.”
10. Danglers: “While interviewing the applicant here in Detroit, the position was filled by headquarters.” In the previous sentence, who was interviewing the applicant in Detroit? As written, the sentence says, “the position” was interviewing the applicant—a totally illogical idea. Far too many documents have such oddities peppered throughout. In many cases, a careful reader can figure out what the writer intended. But often with such grammar goofs, the meaning becomes muddled.
Your words are always clear to you, or you wouldn’t have written them that way. So beware others’ blank stare. Dare to repair.
Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 46 books. Her work has been translated into 23 languages. Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, andAct Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised and Expanded Edition. As CEO of BooherConsultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in writing skills, presentation skills, interpersonal communication, and organizational communication. www.booher.com 1-800-342-6621
- Writing Skills: Treat Enclosing Commas Like Bookends (booher.com)
- Business Writing Skills: Writing in Bullet Points Can Be a Brainless Activity (booher.com)
- Why Is Business Writing So Bad? (hbr.org)
- Active vs. passive voice: Why you should care (writeontheworld.wordpress.com)
- Why Is Business Writing So Awful? (inc.com)
- Thoughts on the Craft of Writing (discourseanddragons.blogspot.com)