Writing Effective and Readable Business Reports and Other Documents

Writing Effective and Readable Business Reports and Other Documents

As long as written communication continues to play an essential role in the world of business, it will be important for all of those who write memos, emails, inter-office communiqués, reports, and other business documents to know how to write in such as way that their readers are able to understand the messages contained in their documents. It is important to have a working knowledge of the rules of Standard English. Let’s face it: a document is only as effective as it is clear and readable.

The key to writing effective and readable business documents is organization. Before writing anything that is going to be sent to colleagues, supervisors, customers, clients, or any others, you should take the time to think about what you want to say. What is the message that you are attempting to convey? Many people find writing an outline or a sketch to be helpful. Others prefer to gather thoughts and just jot down notes. Some people, especially those who think on their feet, simply sit at their keyboards, and write. After all, whatever you write can always be changed, expanded, or deleted.

It is important to keep sentences to the point. That does not mean that they have to be short, but each sentence should be aimed at explaining one main idea. If, for example, you were to write an evaluation of a new employee, you would want to explain his or her strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures so that whoever is reading the report would be able to understand the important points the first time around. You would not want to put too much information into each sentence. You might be tempted to write, “During this thirty day period, Donald has done well in terms of motivation and he has accomplished a lot, such as regularly contacting clients in a timely manner and updating them on new developments, and he has introduced some initiatives in his department, but not all of them have proved to be useful.” It would be better to divide all of that information into separate sentences, as: “During this thirty day period, Donald has done well in terms of motivation and he has accomplished a lot.” “He regularly contacts clients in a timely manner, updating them on new developments.” “He has also introduced some initiatives in his department, but not all of them have proved to be useful.”

Of course, as you are writing, you should re-read what you have written, either after each sentence or at the end of each paragraph. In this way, you will be able to back-track, and then add or delete information according to the flow of the document. In the same way that you should attempt to keep your sentences short and pertinent to the topic, your paragraphs should also be brief and to the point. A paragraph need only be two sentences long, but most are longer. The longest a paragraph should be is about 250 words. That is not a hard and fast regulation, but it a good rule of thumb. A well-written paragraph should contain a main idea and a number of sentences which clarify that point.

Once the document has been completed, you should re-read it in its entirety—twice. The first reading should be to determine whether you wrote what you meant to say and whether it is clear and concise. Your second reading should be in order to ensure that the sentences flow into each other and the paragraphs do likewise. At this point, even before you perform a spell check, you should attempt to spot and eliminate errors in of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage. Of course, if you believe that you are weak in terms of the mechanics of writing, you might want to have your document proofread and edited by a professional. Many reliable proofreading and services can be found online.

Remember, unless your business document is clear and well-written, it will not adequately convey your message. Business documents should always succinctly communicate ideas from the writer to the reader.

Don’t Forget How to Write

Don’t Forget How to Write

The wide-spread use of email and text messaging has gotten many people into the habit of relying on abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons. These shortcuts have become essential elements in electronic communication. However, when composing letters, proposals, contracts, memos, or other business documents, online or on paper, it is crucial to adhere to the fundamentals of Standard English writing. That means paying attention to proper spelling, punctuation, and all of the rules of English usage.

That being said, this is a good time to review some valuable writing tips:

  1. Write concisely, but completely: Write full sentences. Do not repeat, but include all of the essentials in each paragraph. Try to keep paragraphs to 200 words or fewer.
  2. Spell correctly: Pay attention to your writing so that you spell words correctly. If you are not sure of the spelling of a word, use the spell check function of your word processing program or consult a dictionary.
  3. Use correct punctuation and usage: Punctuation can be problematic. Here are a few good tips: a) Use capital letters only for the beginnings of sentences, titles, and the beginnings of quotes. b) End all sentences with periods. c) Use semicolons (;) only rarely. They are generally used in place of periods, between two complete sentences that are very close to each other in terms of their topics. When you use a semi colon, do not begin the second sentence with a capital letter; it is a related phrase. The previous sentence is an example of the proper use of a semi colon. d) Write full sentences. A full sentence has a subject and a predicate. e) Do not overuse apostrophes. Apostrophes are not used to pluralize words. The plural of doctor is doctors. No apostrophe should be there. Apostrophes are used only for possession and for contractions. Here are examples: That is the doctor’s car…and…I can’t help you.
  4. Stay on your topic: Of course, each sentence in a document will express a different idea from all others, but, within each paragraph address only one main topic.
  5. Use the correct format for citing references and for creating bibliographies: Other entries in this blog cover that subject.
  6. Be consistent in your writing: Use the same spelling for words throughout your paper. Check your written work to ensure that you do not spell, for example, the name of a cited author as Connor in one place and Connors in another.
  7. Copy quotations carefully: Unless you are copying and pasting text, there is always the possibility that you will transcribe a direct quote incorrectly. This is an error that must be avoided.
  8. Make sure that words in your sentences agree: Words in your sentences must agree in terms of gender, number, and tense. This is also true of sentences within a paragraph or a longer section of text. For instance, if you are citing a female, then you must use pronouns that refer to females, such as she and her. If you are referring to several cities, do not use the pronoun it. When discussing events that occurred in the past or people who are no longer alive, do not use verbs in the present tense, such as builds or speaks.
  9. Do not assume that the reader knows what you are talking about: Do not refer to ideas or books or events or people unless you have mentioned them in previous sentences. A writer may forget that the reader does not know the information in a piece of writing as well as he or she does. New ideas need to be introduced and, sometimes, explained.
  10. Be careful in terms of your spelling of names of people, organizations, etc.: Writing the names of people and organizations correctly is important. For example, it is The New York Times, not New York Times.

Remember, your writing must clearly communicate your message. In formal writing, as opposed to electronic messaging, the traditional rules still apply.

Proofreading and Editing Your Written Work: Using the Rules of POWER

Proofreading and Editing Your Written Work: Using the Rules of POWER

Proofreading and editing your written work need not wait until you are finished writing. In fact, one method of creating clear, correctly phrased, concise, and to-the-point reports, memos, proposals, contracts, letters, and all other types of written work is to follow the rules of POWER:

  1. Plan
  2. Outline
  3. Write defensively
  4. Edit
  5. Revise

Plan your written work. Before you pick up that pen or pencil or touch your keyboard, decide what you want to write, why you are writing it, and what you hope your document will accomplish.

Outline your ideas. You may use a formal Roman numeral type of outline or simply jot down notes, but, either way, you should put your ideas down on paper before you start to write.

Writing defensively means, as you are writing, you should think about your word choices and the organization of your document. Writing as well as you can at the beginning can help you to avoid the need for large-scale revisions later on. Many professional writers take the opposite perspective: they say that the first draft of a document should flow freely and quickly, without regard to writing rules. They believe that the writer should not be concerned with the mechanics of writing until after the first draft has been completed. I propose combining the two approaches: you should write freely, but, every so often, let’s say, after a paragraph or two, you should re-read what you have written, and tighten up your writing.

Edit your paper thoroughly as soon as you are done writing. Look for errors in terms of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary usage, grammar, etc., as well as transitions between sentences and paragraphs.

Revise your paper to make it as concise and clear as possible. Remember, if you want your work to be read and understood, it has to be readable. Do not say more than you need to in order to make your point. On the other hand, explain yourself. Just because you know what you mean, that does not guarantee that whoever reads your paper will understand your meaning. Step back, and try to put yourself in the shoes of whoever will be reading your paper. Will he or she or they understand what you mean?

By following the rules of POWER, you will be able to create documents that clearly make their points and which communicate your ideas to the reader.

Effectively Using Lists

Effectively Using Lists

Good use of lists can make instructions or other sets of details much more readable and easier to grasp. Let’s look at an example.

Without a List:
To ensure your garments are properly cleaned, conduct the following steps, in order. First, take the soiled garments from the basket and place them into the washer. Add the correct amount of detergent to the washer. Close the lid and then set the timer. Remove clothes when wash cycle is complete.

With a List:
To ensure your garments are properly cleaned, conduct the following steps, in order.

  1. Place garments into washer.
  2. Add detergent.
  3. Set timer.
  4. Close lid.
  5. Remove clothes when wash cycle is complete.

Are both sets of directions clear? Yes. But the second set is much easier to read and can be comprehended more quickly and easily. That’s important in this type of business writing.

Here’s another example, this time with a bulleted (instead of a numbered) list.

Without a List:
The shortfall we have recently experienced is likely to be short-lived. To save money, there are areas of spending that can be cut. Training new employees later will be costly. Downsizing may be perceived as weakness by our competitors.

With a List:
There are several reasons why it would be a bad idea for our company to lay off employees at this time. These include:

  • The shortfall we have recently experienced is likely to be short-lived.
  • To save money, there are areas of spending that can be cut.
  • Training new employees later will be costly.
  • Downsizing may be perceived as weakness by our competitors.

Again, both ways work, but a list like this just makes it easier to quickly grasp key points. This is because every point is separated into a different line, and the reader can choose to focus on any one line very quickly, as opposed to having to read through the whole paragraph.

So, make good use of bulleted and numbered lists. They are a good tool to make your writing easier to be comprehended quickly.

Wake Me up…

Wake Me up…

Last quarter, as you all are aware from the minutes of the previous Board meeting, held on 30 June, 2007 at 5:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, in this very office, we, that is to say, this esteemed Board, felt obligated to delineate, and indeed to emphasize the value of the progress and growth of our fine company, as could only have been made possibly through the continued efforts of the fine men and women of each of our sundry but equally valued departments, all of which shall herewith be named, in turn, and each member duly honored…


Huh? Oh…sorry, must have nodded off. And who wouldn’t, given such a desperately dull account as that listed above? Speeches are meant to inform, not substitute as a sleeping aid. Here’s how to write speeches that are informative and interesting.

Rule number one: Make it relevant to the audience:

In all business writing, there is no rule more important than this. To use the example above, no one cares what time zone the previous meeting happened to be in. And is it really necessary to point out that we are an esteemed Board?

Since the intent of the above speech is to honor company employees, why not try something like this:

Our company’s continued progress is due mainly to one key factor: you. Each department plays an important part in making us an industry leader. With this in mind, it is my pleasure to sincerely thank each of you for the fine work that you do…

What makes this so much better? Mainly the fact that it’s you-focused. There is one other thing, though. The old standby of speech killers is stilted language (why people ever thought they had to speak in such language is somewhat beyond me—but I digress). Specifically, using words like sundry, herewith, delineate, etc. is not only necessary, but can often be off-putting (avoid words like “off-putting,” too).

So, make it relevant, keep it you-focused, and use language that is easily understood—your audience will appreciate it.

Be Careful What You Say in Emails

Be Careful What You Say in Emails

Email is permanent. Oh sure, it may not seem that way, because most of us delete unwanted emails every day. But what if you didn’t delete them? They would be around for as long as someone wanted to keep them—perhaps years into the future.

Why is this important? Because it stresses the importance of not writing emails that are stupid, irresponsible, mean, libelous, or anything else that you might really regret later on. It’s kind of like the old adage about taking a few hours, or maybe a day, to simmer down before sending off a letter you wrote in anger. In all likelihood, when we look at our writing after the emotions have calmed, we think, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t send that!”

The trouble is that with email we may not be quite so careful. Email is fast. And the email that takes 30 seconds to write and send may take years to undo.

Here are some definite don’ts:

  • Don’t write an email when you’re angry. Instead, you can write a Word document and save it for tomorrow, when hopefully you can look at it with a clear head.
  • Don’t gossip in emails (or anywhere else, just to be on the safe side). Just imagine if the person being gossiped about gets hold of your email.
  • Don’t write something stupid. Such as? Well, anything that, if you looked at it several months from now would really make you embarrassed.
  • Don’t send inappropriate material. Not only is it highly inconsiderate—it can also get you into big trouble if the wrong person sees it.

So, remember to be very careful when sending email. Frankly, most people, even business professionals, are not. Interestingly, many of these people would never be so careless with pen and ink, but for some reason, a computer makes it somehow seem different.

When to Use Apostrophes…and When Not to Use Them

When to Use Apostrophes…and When Not to Use Them

Since a document is only as useful as it is readable, a writer should make sure that it is free of all English usage and punctuation errors before submitting it for publication or dissemination. One important aspect of punctuation involves the use of apostrophes.

Apostrophes are properly used in only two circumstances, for contractions and to indicate possession.

Let’s examine contractions first. Contractions are words which are composed of two individual words, such as isn’t, they’re, and they’ll. An apostrophe is used in place of a letter or letters that have been dropped from one of the words that compose the contraction. In the case of isn’t, which is composed of is and not, the apostrophe holds the place of the o, which was deleted from not. In they’re, the apostrophe takes the place of the a from are. In the case of they’ll, the apostrophe is used in place of two letters, w and i from the word will.

As previously stated, apostrophes are also used to show possession. That means to indicate that a subject or other noun in a sentence “owns” or “possesses” something or someone. That construction is generally formed by adding an apostrophe and an s to the end of the noun. Here are some examples of that:

The insurance agent’s clients are pleased with his approach. The agent possesses (in a grammatical sense) the clients.

We invited Mr. Campbell’s family to the awards dinner. Mr. Campbell possesses his family.

When can we expect this month’s report? The report is a possession of this month.

When indicating possession in reference to regular plural nouns, the apostrophe is placed between the last letter of the singular form of the word and the s, as in the following:

We spent hours calculating the workers’ compensation package. In this sentence, the noun that is the subject of possession is workers, the plural of worker. They possess the compensation package.

The company plans on honoring the vice presidents’ achievements. The achievements are those of the vice presidents (more than one vice president).

Mrs. Jackson is attempting to resolve the clients’ problems. The problems are those of the clients (more than one client).

There are two special situations involving possessives: names ending in s and when using irregular plural nouns. In terms of names ending in s, the apostrophe is added to the end of the name, after the s. The examples below involve names that end in s:

That is Charles’ new office. Obviously, the name is Charles.

Mr. Fieldings’ briefcase is missing. The name is Fieldings, not Fielding. If it were Fielding, then the possessive form would be Mr. Fielding’s briefcase

We plan on celebrating Gladys’ birthday tomorrow. The apostrophe belongs after the s because her name is Gladys, not Glady.

When showing possession with words which are irregular plurals (that is, spellings that are different from the singular form), an apostrophe and then an s are placed after the word. The following are examples of possessive apostrophe use in words with irregular plural spellings:

The women’s group will meet with us next week. Women is the irregular plural of woman.

That is the men’s locker room. Men is the irregular plural of man.

We have a children’s day every summer. Children is the irregular plural of child.

Under no circumstances should apostrophes be used to indicate plurals. The following cases are all incorrect:

All of the new employee’s are working out well. It should be employees.

Have we determined which clients’ will be eligible for the discount? It should be clients.

Next month, we should discuss the strategy’s for our new marketing campaign. It should be strategies.

To sum up, apostrophes are correctly used only in contractions and to show possession, and not to pluralize nouns.

Avoiding Jargon and Corporate-Speak

Avoiding Jargon and Corporate-Speak

Have you ever come across a website where the About Us page says something like this?

Our value lies in providing you with a full turnkey solution that encompasses support, analysis, and continuous improvement. We proudly employ TQM and strive to optimize our quality assurance levels to satisfy our valued customers, as evidenced by our increased dominant market share and…

In a word, Yuck. Why not just speak English? I mean, really—who actually talks like this?

There is a tendency, it seems, to indulge one’s penchant for jargon—one might say, a predisposition towards an individual’s cant of choice. Mind you, this assertion is not ipse dixit; the evidence is mountainous, given the pedantic disciplines of medicine, engineering, and computer science alone…

Pardon me; I just slipped into jargon mode myself. Now, if you happen to be an English major or professor, maybe that stilted mess made sense. But an average reader will probably move on at the first indication that the writing is overly (or unnecessarily) not written with him or her in mind.

Here’s the point. If you want a good grade, you should write to please the professor. If you want to sell widgets, you should write your website or other sales copy to entice people to buy widgets. You have to do this at their level, not yours. They may not have a doctorate in widgetology, and your industry-specific terms, far from impressing them, will drive them to your competitors.

So, when writing copy for your product or service, remember:

Talk to your customers at their level:
This would not be at the level of yourself and your peers, who happen to be experts (unless, of course, your customers are also experts).

Avoid jargon:
If someone sees several unfamiliar terms, they’re going to likely go somewhere that will tell them the same thing in plain English. Sometimes jargon is unavoidable, but avoid it when you can.

Protecting Privacy When Using Email

Protecting Privacy When Using Email

We’ve all gotten emails from people who put every recipient’s address in the “To:” field. Now, in a perfect world, that might not be such a big deal (although all those addresses can take up a lot of space at the top of the email). Unfortunately, it only takes one unthinking person to cause a lot of problems for everyone on that list.

What’s the danger? Well, some people (and you may even know some, yourself) think something along these lines:

You know, I really like getting jokes in my email every day—they’re so funny! I’ll bet all these other people would sure appreciate it if I forwarded these jokes to them each day.

The above scenario would be bad enough. Unfortunately, some people go beyond this:

Hmmm….Fred from this group reminds me a lot of Barney from this other group. I think I’ll go ahead and sign up Fred to all the email lists that I know Barney’s a part of. He’ll thank me for it! But since I’m such a humble guy, I won’t even tell him I did this for him—I’ll just rest content, knowing that I did a good deed.

Suddenly, Fred is getting hundreds of spam emails from heaven knows where. He wonders how this could have happened—he never signed up for any of this, and he email address is nothing that a spammer would just happen to guess.

As bad as this is, it could be worse:

Wow—look at those foxy ladies! I think the old fuddy duddies in the office could use a little livening up. I’m gonna sign them up for these sexy pics that I’m getting every day. Ooh, I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces at the office tomorrow!

Yikes. Now everyone in the office is suddenly getting some of the most vile, sordid emails—and they wonder how this could have happened.

There’s an easy solution, though. Create an email list. Put everyone’s email address on it. Use the list—not the individual addresses—in the “To:” field. Alternatively, you could paste everyone’s address in the “BCC:” field. The point, though, is that privacy is important; do your part to protect it.

Easily Confused Words

Easily Confused Words

When it comes to writing business documents, your meaning must be crystal clear. The correct use of words is, obviously, essential. A common type of writing error involves the use of easily confused words.

The most typical of this kind of error involves the use of words that sound similar, such as 1) there, their, and they’re 2) its and it’s 3) your and you’re.

  1. In the first group, there and their are homographs, meaning “same sound,” but their meanings and uses are very different from each other. The last one in this group, they’re, is a contraction which, even though it does not sound exactly the same as the other two words, is often incorrectly used in place of them.First, let’s deal with they’re. They’re is a contraction of they are, as in “I think they’re the right ones for the new program.” That’s the easy one to remember.Now, to the homographs. There can be an adverb, a pronoun, or a noun. But, don’t worry about that. There is always used to refer to a place or to a state of being. These are some examples of the correct use of there:We will open our new operations center there.
    There have been many recent changes in our customer base.
    There was a time when we visited each customer on a weekly basis.And, of course, it’s not really a sentence, but: Been there, done that.

    A way to remember how to use there is to call to mind the fact that the word here is embedded in the word there. If you can use here in a sentence, then you can use there in that sentence, if the word is being used to refer to a physical space.

    Now for their. Their is a possessive pronoun. It is always used before a noun or a noun phrase to indicate that something belongs to two or more people or to an entity.

    Here are some examples:

    We are ready to adopt their procedure.
    Did you see their office?
    That’s their problem.

  2. Two other words that are very often confused with each other are its and it’s. The first one, its, is a pronoun, as in “The operations staff makes its own decisions.” The second word, it’s, is a contraction of it is. It is used as follows: “We have decided that it’s time for the announcement.”
  3. Now we will deal with your and you’re. The first one, your, is a pronoun. It is used in the following way: “Getting the project started is your responsibility.” The other word, you’re, is a contraction of you are. It is used as follows: “We believe that you’re the right one for this job.”

The following is an additional list of easily confused words (mostly in pairs) that sound and/or look similar to each other, and which people often use incorrectly or interchangeably. Since they have vastly different meanings from each other, their inappropriate uses can dramatically change the intent of what you are writing. If the word is spelled correctly, most word processing spell check programs will not indicate that you have used the wrong one. If you are not sure about when to use each of the following words, you should rely on a dictionary for definitions and usages or, in Microsoft Word, go to Tools, and then Language, and then Thesaurus. That will reveal words with similar meanings. In addition, there are a number of excellent websites devoted to the topic of easily confused words.

  • accept…except
  • access…excess
  • adverse…averse
  • advice…advise
  • affect…effect
  • all ready…already
  • all together…altogether
  • allusion…illusion
  • breath…breadth
  • canvas…canvass
  • capital…capitol
  • cite…sight…site
  • compose…comprise
  • connote…denote
  • course…coarse
  • complement…compliment
  • council…counsel
  • desert…dessert
  • diner…dinner
  • discreet…discrete
  • elicit…illicit
  • eminent…imminent
  • faith…fate
  • foreword…forward
  • farther…further
  • few…less
  • flaunt…flout
  • holy…wholly
  • lead…led
  • lightening…lightning
  • loose…lose
  • moral…morale
  • passed…past
  • personal…personnel
  • principal…principle
  • prostate…prostrate
  • quiet…quit…quite
  • stationary…stationery
  • than…then
  • throne…thrown
  • weak…week
  • weather…whether
  • whose…who’s

Ok. That should clear up the problem. In reference to writers who have had problems with this issue in the past, hopefully, they’re now competent in their use of the words, and there will not be any more mistakes. It’s not difficult to learn how to use each word in its correct place. In reference to easily confused words, once you’re sure about their meanings, your writing will be much clearer.