PERSON OF THE WEEK: Bad writing is like bad cooking – you know it immediately upon impact. And while bad cooking can ruin a chef's reputation, bad writing can make a business professional seem like a rank amateur.
To understand the importance of high-quality writing in today's business environment and to learn how one can improve writing skills with maximum speed and minimal pain, MortgageOrb spoke with Stephanie Roberson Barnard and Deborah St James, authors of ‘Listen. Write. Present: The Elements for Communicating Science and Technology‘ (published by Yale University Press).
Q: Considering that so much communication today requires the written word – emails, text messaging, online forums, etc. – has the quality of written communication increased or decreased with the rise of keyboard-driven technologies?
Barnard: The rise of keyboard-driven technologies has made our writing suffer, because we often don't take time to plan and edit our work. Whenever possible, take time to think about what you want to write, choose your words carefully, and proof everything you write. Remember everything you write today – whether on Facebook, in emails, tweets or texts – is saved in cyberspace. So don't write anything you wouldn't want printed on the front page of The New York Times.
Q: Without having to go back to school to take a writing class, how can a business professional get a quick education in creating clear and concise writing?
St James: Buy a good style guide, such as ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk and E. B. White. Visit websites that cater to writing, such as Grammar Girl's site. Create your own crib sheet with common mistakes and the correct usage, such as ‘effect’ or ‘affect’; ‘it's’ or ‘its’; ‘their,’ ‘there,’ or ‘they're’; or ‘i.e.’ or ‘e.g.’
Q:Â Is it possible to put user-friendly language into legal and financial documents, which have a history (and poor reputation) for being opaque to the uninitiated?
Barnard: Yes, it is always possible to write clearly and concisely without over-simplifying your content. Here are few quick tips to follow:
Replace phrases of weak adjectives, adverbs and prepositions with strong action verbs. For example, instead of writing ‘After getting the directions, we quickly got down to the business at hand and got the project under way,’ write, ‘With directions in hand, we plunged into the project.’
Shorten phrases. For example, replace ‘in spite of the fact that’ with ‘although.’
Use active rather than passive voice by putting the ‘doer’ at the beginning of the sentence. For example, instead of writing, ‘A decision will be made by the board,’ write, ‘The board will decide.’
Q:Â What advice do you have for inserting humor into business-related writing?
St James: Know your audience. It's okay to inject humor, as long as it's appropriate for the audience and content. People who handle humor best are the ones who can laugh at themselves rather than at others. For example, ‘Dear Susan, Thanks for resending that attachment. My third grade teacher didn't buy the 'dog ate that document,' either. I do apologize for the inconvenience.’
Q:Â Many people tend to ramble on and on and on and on…How can a writer effectively self-edit his or her work?
Barnard: In our new book, we included a Skill Builder to teach our readers how to edit their own work. Being able to edit your own work is a necessity. The key to effective editing is to start writing early so you have time for your document (and you) to rest before it's due. The following steps stem from the tips offered in this chapter.
Ask yourself the following questions. Is the documentâ�¦
Check spelling and grammar. Use spell check (or read the document backwards) and grammar check. Don't rely on these alone, however. Proof your spelling, and check your grammar.
Check organization. Read the entire document without stopping to make edits. Does it flow?
Print a hard copy, and read it out loud. Your ears are great editors. The errors jump off the page when you hold it in your hand and hear what you've written.
Underline any sentences that you have to reread, and rewrite them more simply. Choose one idea per sentence.
Rewrite passive voice sentences. Circle any ‘to be’ verbs – am, are, be, been, being, is, was, were – and replace them with action verbs. Make sure the doer is at the beginning of the sentence next to the action verb.
Circle all nouns in a sentence that end in -ance, -ing, -ment, -sion, or -tion. Replace them with corresponding verbs.
Consider changing lists of items separated by commas into bulleted points. This gives your reader a visual break and draws attention to the important points.
Reprint the document and set it aside. Proof it again later (the next day, if possible).
Ask a colleague to proofread. Choose someone who is a good proofreader and is unafraid to make edits, and be open to receiving suggestions.