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.

Five Business Writing Tips

Five Business Writing Tips

Business writing must be lucid and unambiguous. Readers of a proposal, report, memorandum, or any other type of business-related document must be able to glean the essential information rapidly and without impediments. The writing need not be literary or clever, but it must exemplify clear, concise, correct composition skills.

Although developing good writing skills requires time and practice, and even though there are dozens of types of errors that even a good writer may fall victim to, the following five writing tips should prove to be helpful in terms of turning out a good piece of writing every time:

1. Think about what you want to convey before you put fingers to your keyboard or your pencil to paper. This may be obvious, but many writers, those in and out of business, sometimes write before they think. Of course, one of the many benefits of Microsoft Word and other document processing applications is that the writer can easily rework documents over and over again, but, still, it is a good idea to allow the ideas that you want to transmit to percolate for a while before you actually start writing. Some people find writing an outline to be helpful, whether it is a formally designed one or simply a list of ideas. Others prefer to write from notes. Some people are able to put together cogent, well-written documents without the aid of any planning. However, you should always stop, and think before you write.

2. Use paragraphs. In other words, at some point during the writing process, you should make sure your document, unless it contains fewer than 300 words, is divided into paragraphs, each of which addresses a particular idea or focus or topic. A page-length document that is composed of one paragraph may look intimidating to the reader. It may also cause confusion on the reader’s part, if several issues are discussed. Each individual idea should be the topic sentence of its own paragraph. For example, if the main issue of your piece of writing is the new employee health insurance plan, then the first paragraph should be the introduction, in which you explain, in general terms, the fact that there is going to be a new plan. Your second paragraph should explain why the change is occurring, and subsequent paragraphs should discuss specifics, such as dates for the changeover, differences between the old plan and the new one, the process of changing plans, etc.

3. Use capital letters only where they belong. Some writers think that every important word or every work-related position in a sentence should be capitalized, as in the following example:

There will be Two Tiers in the Pharmacy Benefits Plan in the New Medical Plan. All Auditors in the Billing Department and all Section Heads will be enrolled in the Gold Tier Plan, while all other employees will be members of the Silver Tier Plan.

In terms of the use of capital letters, only proper nouns need to be capitalized. In the above example, only Gold Tier Plan and Silver Tier Plan should be capitalized because they are unique names which designate the specific plans.

4. Use proper punctuation. Do not overuse commas. They are used mainly for the following purposes: to separate clauses, when listing objects, and when writing dialogue. Quotation marks are not needed and are, in fact, incorrect when they are used to frame important words, as in the following:

All employees must fill out the “Employee Health Insurance Changeover Form” during the “Designated Employee Assignment Period.”

Quotation marks are used for dialogue and for the titles of short creative works, not to emphasize important ideas.

5. Do not assume the reader knows what you are trying to say. Carefully read what you have written as if you had not written it. Are you ideas clear and forthcoming? Have you provided enough explanatory information for your points to be understood? Have you given examples, where necessary? If not, then you must amend your document. There is no point writing something, if those who read it do not understand what you are trying to say.

When you have completed your writing, carefully, very carefully proofread what you have written. Read your document word-for-word. That is the only way in which to catch spelling, punctuation, usage errors, missing words, repetitive thoughts, and dozens of other blunders that can cloud the meaning of what you are trying to say. Of course, you should use the spell check function on your word processing program. It will catch most, but not all of your errors.

This list of Five Writing Tips is only, of course, a cursory attempt to help you to write carefully. Referring to a writer’s handbook or a high school English usage book may be helpful. If, when all is said and done and written, and you are not sure that you have gotten your points across clearly or if you think you may not have caught all of your English usage errors, you may submit your document to for expert editing.

Writing the Titles of Sources

Writing the Titles of Sources

Generally speaking, business writing does not necessitate the same strict adherence to the rules for citing sources that must be followed when composing academic papers and research studies. Business documents are usually forwarded to other people in business, who are interested solely in the content, and not to university professors and academic committees, who pay a great deal of attention to format and the rules of source citation. Nevertheless, for the sake of the clarity of your business documents, it is important to know how to properly write the names of newspaper articles, full-length books, and other sources.

Full-length books should be written in italics, as in the following: Achieve Maximum Success at Work by Marcus Buckingham. Although italicizing is the preferred method, it is also acceptable to underline the name of a full-length book, as in the following: The Strategy Paradox by Michael E. Raynor. In either case, the name of the author should always be included. In fact, the name of the writer, if available, should be included when citing any and all sources. The names of periodicals and newspapers should also be italicized or underlined, as in The Wall Street Journal.

The titles of lengthy reports and other long business documents, whether or not they have been published, should also be italicized or underlined, as in Five Year Strategy for Effective Growth for ABC Corporation.

Shorter business documents may be enclosed in quotation marks, as in “Short Summary of March 2007 Training Session” or they may be written without any special notation or punctuation.

Newspaper and periodical articles should always be enclosed in quotation marks, as in “Big Money Still Learning to Lobby” by Jenny Anderson (The New York Times, March 13, 2007, page C1).

Even though it does not happen often in business writing, in the event that the title of a short story, play, musical piece, movie, television or radio program, or piece of art is to be included, it should be enclosed in quotation marks, as in the following example: “The New Colossus.”

As noted earlier, even though the rules for citation that are so strictly observed in academic writing are followed much more loosely in business writing, it is still important to follow the suggestions for the writing of sources as indicated in this article.

Don’t Be a Sesquipedalian

Don’t Be a Sesquipedalian

Given to or characterized by the use of long words.

I have to admit that sesquipedalian is one of my favorite words. From the Latin, it means, literally, someone who uses words that are a foot-and-a-half long. Cool word? Yes. But actually being a sesquipedalian is not something that’s recommended in standard business writing. Here are some examples to illustrate this point.

Business correspondence:
Here’s how a sesquipedalian might respond to a customer inquiry:

Dear Mrs. So-and-so:

Our esteemed office has become cognizant of the investigative matter detailed in your recent querulous epistle. We find your assertions to be ipse dixit, and, as such, are compelled to dismiss them pejoratively.

We remain,
The Hoity-Toity Firm of Greater Metropolis

Lovely. Will the customer who wrote to this company ever return to them? Unlikely. But consider how a non-sesquipedalian writer might have responded to the same customer inquiry:

Dear Mrs. So-and-so:

Thank you for your recent inquiry; we appreciate your business.

Regarding the matter you raised, we would like to help. To do so, however, we require the following information:

  • Document A
  • Document B

As soon as we receive this information, we will be happy to process your claim.

Thanks again for choosing our company.

The Regular Folks Firm of Anytown, USA

Interoffice memo:
Better, huh? Now, let’s look at another example.

Arthur A. Sesquipedalian requests the presence of yourselves, each and every, at the corporate office meeting at precisely 2:30 in this very afternoon, upon the 16th day of the month of March in the year 2007, in which divers interrogative postulations will be addressed and a plethora of sundry company-related matters of significant import will be expeditiously assessed.

Oh boy—can’t wait to attend that meeting. But what if the memo read like this:

Please come to the office meeting today (March 16) at 2:30 p.m. We’re going to discuss the various issues that many of you have recently raised; with everyone’s input, we should be able to put together some solutions. Look forward to seeing you there.

Norm Normal

Well, I’m not crazy about meetings, but I’d probably show up at this one.

So, in conclusion, don’t be a sesquipedalian—it would not behoove one to so be.

Delivering Bad News through Email

Here is how not to convey an email message containing bad news to a coworker:


Hey, Fred—just found out you’re going to get the sack today. Tough luck. But hey, that means more time for those Red Sox games. Go Sox! Ha ha. Later, Bob

Unless you really don’t like Fred, you should take a different approach. And yes, emails like this do actually get sent by people who (presumably) don’t know any better.

Here’s another way not to convey bad news through email:



Hey, did you see the game last night? What a blowout! Was that disappointing, or what?

Well, I didn’t write just to talk about sports. The fact is, I want to talk about what a great job you do here. I know you’ve been with this company a long time. Over the years, I’ve watched your work and learned from you. The projects we’ve collaborated on have really helped me learn the ropes.

That’s why it bothered me so much when I heard you’re getting canned today. Man, that’s really a bummer.

Well, call me later and we’ll hang out after I get off work.


Here, the problem is that the message is entirely misleading—even the subject line doesn’t really say anything. Then, instead of being upfront about the bad news, the issue at hand is clouded by the writer. Finally, with no warning at all, the bad news hits the reader like a ton of bricks. (Do you think Fred will want to hang out with the genius writer of that last email?)

But just how should one handle composing a bad news email? How about something like this:

SUBJECT: Bad news


I’m afraid I have bad news. Due to budget cuts, you’re one of the 40 workers whose position has been phased out. I’m very sorry.

Management assures us it has nothing to do with the quality of anyone’s work. Some of the people they let go have been here for over 10 years.

Fred, I know that with your qualifications and experience you’ll have no trouble getting on somewhere else. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.


What makes the third email preferable? It shows concern for the person who is about to lose his job. It does so by using a truthful—but not thoughtless—subject line. Then, it gets right to the point. The middle paragraph offers a little comfort and a more complete perspective. Finally, the closing provides sincere encouragement.

So, when it comes to delivering bad news through email, remember:

  • Use an honest subject line
  • Get to the point right away
  • Offer some perspective
  • Provide encouragement
Creating a Readable Website

Creating a Readable Website

Beyond the graphics and the music and the jazzy links to other sites and all of the considerations in terms of the mechanics and usability of a website, when you are in the process of creating one, you must consider the vitally important aspect of its readability.

What is readability? Well, simply put, it means that the text should be well written, error free, and easily understandable. This is the easiest aspect of the creation of a website to implement. There are a number of ways of making sure that the writing on your website is clearly and carefully done. The easiest is to follow the Five Step Method.

Step One: Plan what you want to say. Some people find it helpful to compose an outline. Others simply jot notes from which to refer when it is time for writing. Other people like to allow the ideas to float from brain to fingers to keyboard to document.

Step Two: Compose your written piece. Don’t be too concerned about sentence structure or spelling or other English usage rules. Get your ideas out. Be creative. Be clear.

Step Three: Read what you have written. That’s obvious, right? It is intuitive that you should read what you have written, but the way in which you read it might not be so obvious. You must read what you have written as if you are an outsider, a visitor to your website who does not know what you want to say. Sure, you know what a word or phrase or sentence means. But, will a visitor to your site understand? Now is the time to clarify your thoughts and substitute better language. You might also want to enhance your writing with punchier, stronger phrases that grab the reader’s attention.

Step Four: Proofread. Read every sentence with great deliberation. Do not read what you expect to be there. Read what is there word for word. You may have used an incorrect word or spelling or you may have left out a word or repeated a word. It happens. After you have read carefully, use your spell check function. Then read it again.

Step Five: Print, and then read your text again. Sometimes it is easier to spot an error on a printed page than it is by looking at your computer monitor. Another good idea is to ask someone else to read what you have written. Another pair of eyes might spot errors that you have missed. In addition, another person might be able to suggest another, more interesting way of stating what you have written.

Another alternative is to submit your text to a professional editing service, such as

When to Use What

When to Use What

Grammar can be confusing. All the more so when you throw in the jargon that only English professors and editors of high stature understand (What do you mean, it’s an irregular verb? Looks pretty normal to me.).

Let’s consider some fundamentals that many business writers have trouble with.

Question marks:
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you write a question, end it with a question mark. If you don’t write a question, don’t end it with a question mark.

Sound overly simple? Consider the following common errors:

  1. Can you let me know.
  2. I think this job is demanding but I’m not sure?
  3. How much are you asking for your equipment??????????????????????

Okay, the last one’s not actually an error—it’s just silly. One question mark is sufficient for every business situation.

Exclamation points:
Normally, these should be avoided in business writing. However, sometimes it is acceptable to use one:

Remember your safety equipment!

However, always avoid using exclamation marks like this:

Here’s the third quarter annual report!! Our numbers are up again!!! Yay!!!!

Commas can be tricky. You need to use them occasionally, but not always where you might expect. Here’s a very common error:

Let me know about that report, I need the results by tomorrow.

The problem? This is a comma splice error. The portion of the sentence after the comma could stand on its own as a separate sentence. Therefore, the sentence must be written in one of the following two ways:

  • Let me know about that report; I need the results by tomorrow.
  • Let me know about that report. I need the results by tomorrow.

On the other hand, not using commas enough creates its own problems:

  • The report is due but I don’t know if our department is ready willing and able to make it.
  • Correction: The report is due, but I don’t know if our department is ready, willing, and able to make it.

Of course this barely scratches the surface of everything involved with using correct punctuation, but it’s a start. If you understand the principles listed above, you’ll be ahead of many business writers today.