Monthly Archives: April 2007

Keeping It Interesting

Keeping It Interesting

Whether it’s a sales letter, proposal, or other business correspondence, it’s important to keep things interesting to the reader. A couple of ways to do that are to make good use of white space, bite-size paragraphs, and an enticing first paragraph.

Good subject line:
If your writing has no subject line, you’re likely in trouble from the start. Since no one has time to do anything these days, spending 10 minutes to read through your whole paper is going to be out of the question for all but the Maytag repairman.

That said, how should your subject line be? First and foremost it should offer a very concise, one-line summary of what the paper is all about. A secondary consideration—but a very important one—is that it should, if possible, be likely to appeal to or interest the reader. Always use a “What’s in it for the reader?” approach.

White space:
One sure way to keep your writing from being read is to have a huge block of text with no breaks. To the reader, it looks like an impenetrable brick fortress that it’s best to just leave alone. After all, it’s no fun to read halfway through something like that, only to lose your place and then have to find it again. So, keep the paragraphs short, say, between two and five sentences.

Captivating first paragraph:
If you can’t grab the reader’s attention within about 5 seconds from the time your paper is first examined, it’s likely going to end up in the dustbin. What you need in this part is a tasty little summary of what’s in the paper, or of what your company can do for the company to whom the correspondence is addressed. The point is that you want to make the reader interested enough to read the rest of the document.

These are just some of the ways to help make sure your business writing gets read and acted upon. For more tips, keep checking back.

Before You Send Out That Memo…

Before You Send Out That Memo…

Before you send out that memo, email, report, summary, letter, or any other business document, you will want to make sure that it represents your best effort. Of course, you will have checked your sources and verified your information. You know that your statistical data is correct and up to date. You have double-checked your figures and dates and every other conceivable detail.

But…wait. Is it really ready for submission? Is it possible that your document contains clunky sentences? What about those spelling demons? Those are the words that you never remember how to spell or that you confuse with other words. Then there’s punctuation! Apostrophes, commas, quotation marks, etc., etc.

What about missing words and repetitive words and inappropriate changes of tense, number, or subject?

How about tone and voice? Have you written this document so that the few or dozens or hundreds who might read it are able to understand what you are attempting to convey?

Is it ready for prime time?

What should you do? The first step in terms of proofreading a document is to read the paper to yourself, out loud, if that helps. Don’t read what you think you wrote or what you meant to write. Go through the paper line by line, word by word, as if you are a neutral reader, and not the one who put so much in terms of blood, sweat, and tears into it.

Use the spell check function on your word processing program. It will not catch every error, but it will detect most spelling and usage mistakes.

Here’s a good tip: You might want to print a copy of your work, and read it in black and white on paper. You may find that, even after carefully proofreading your work by reading it on your computer screen, you come across additional errors when you read a hard copy of it. Seeing the writing on paper may allow you to notice errors that you did not detect when you read the document on your computer monitor.

When all is said and done, if you are not sure that your document is completely correct and ready to be distributed or emailed or published, you can always refer it to a document editing and proofreading service, such as

Getting Your Point Across

Getting Your Point Across

Making your point can be relatively easy in spoken conversation. In writing, however, it can be more of a challenge. While we mean one thing when we write, what the reader interprets may be something totally different. Sometimes the consequences of this can be significant.

How not to do it:
One thing you don’t want to do is to shout at the reader. Yet, many professionals still use ALL CAPS whenever they compose an email. This may be thought to indicate a greater importance for their message, but to most readers, it comes across like shouting.

Let’s look at an example. An instructor in the math department of a community college needs to borrow a projector from the English department. The email that the math instructor sent looked something like this:


How to do it:
Believe me—emails and memos like this happen a lot. Aside from the obvious formatting changes (such as a subject line, salutation, closing, and a bit of punctuation), the words themselves need a little tweaking. Here’s a possible revised version:


This is Fred from the Math Dept. Could I please borrow your projector for tonight’s class?


Is there a lack of emphasis? No. Rather, there is clarity, concision, politeness, and readability—just what you want in most business messages.

What to remember:
Avoid using ALL CAPS. After all, who wants to be shouted at? Instead, try to imagine that you are the receiver of the message, and think how you would like to be addressed. And here’s a big tip: Read your message aloud and see how it sounds. Does it sound harsh? If so, then the reader will probably find it to be so, too.

In short, then, it is certainly possible to get your point across without the shouting of ALL CAPS or the harshness of not considering the recipient’s point of view.

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Individualisms

Using abbreviations, acronyms, and individualisms can save time, but they must be utilized properly and, generally speaking, sparingly. The inappropriate use of these shortcuts may, in some circumstances, lead to problems. Abbreviations are, technically speaking, shortened versions of words that are universally known and recognized. They must be followed by periods. They are not the same as acronyms, which are new words that are created by using the first letter of each word in a longer name. They are not followed by periods. Individualisms are the same as acronyms, except that they are pronounced by reading each letter in turn, as will be explained below.

Let us examine abbreviations first. Two of the most commonly used are Mr., which is the shortened version of Mister, and Mrs., which is the abbreviation for, believe it or not, Mistress. (By the way, Miss is not an abbreviation, so it should not be followed by a period, and Ms may be followed by a period, but is generally not.) Those abbreviations should be used only before a name, as in Mr. Roberts or Mrs. Robinson, as opposed to a reference to an unnamed mister or mistress. The abbreviation for corporation is, of course, corp. It should be used after the name of a particular corporation, as in General Motors Corp. If you were referring to a corporation, and not naming it, then the abbreviation should not be used. By the way, when ending a sentence with an abbreviation, it is not necessary to add a second period. The following example is written correctly:

For the past seven years, I have worked for the Ford Motor Corp.

Now, for acronyms. Some common examples are NATO, which stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and AIDS, which is used in place of Acquired Immune Deficiency Disorder. Acronyms are not be followed by periods. They are pronounced as new words, so that NATO is pronounced nay-toe.

Individualisms are just like acronyms, but, as in the case of CIA, they are spelled out. So, CIA is pronounced C-I-A. Individualisms are not followed by periods.

There are two problems with the use of abbreviations, acronyms, and periods. The first involves the pluralized and the possessive forms. For example, the following sentence contains a common error:

The United States will be sending 21,000 more GI’s to Iraq.

In that sentence, the apostrophe after GI is being used to pluralize the acronym GI, but look at the following:

The GI’s injury was not life threatening.

In that case, the apostrophe is being used to show possession. The varied uses of apostrophes in those sentences may be confusing to some readers. The situation becomes even more complicated when you attempt to use the plural possessive form of an acronym or abbreviation, as in the following:

All of the GIs’ injuries were minor.

It is best to use apostrophes for possession only, and not to pluralize abbreviations, acronyms, or individualisms. Just as you would not pluralize doctor by writing doctor’s, neither should you pluralize its abbreviation by writing Dr.’s. To pluralize an abbreviation, acronym, or individualism, simply add an s, as in the following:

We invited the Drs. Jones, Smith, and Reynolds to the luncheon.

The other problem with the use of abbreviations, acronyms, and individualisms is that they tend to lend a casual appearance to a document. If your report, memo, or email is intended to be impressive and formal, then those shortcuts should be used sparingly, and only when they are more appropriate than the long form of the word.

Look at the following example:

The three Drs. decided to visit the hosp. They were impressed with the widespread use of tech., and they referred to it as the most efficient med. corp. in the USA.

That usage would be acceptable in note form or in a casual email, but not in a formal business document.

To sum up, abbreviations, acronyms, and individualisms should be used sparingly and when appropriate, and, when it comes to pluralizing them, do not use apostrophes.