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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Basics Of Communicating In Writing

The need to write clearly and thoughtfully arises in virtually every situation you face as a manager. Good writing, in fact, is one of the most highly prized competencies. An e-mail, memo, letter, or formal report each has its own special requirements, but fundamental principles apply to all business writing: planning before writing, using correct grammar, knowing your audience, understanding the purpose of your writing, striking the right tone, and revising and editing.

Research and Planning

Before you start writing, gather all the information required to craft an effective message. Consult whatever business intelligence you will need— such as sales forecasts, customer history, industry trends, and other applicable information—so you can back up your statements directly in your correspondence or report. For weighty matters, you may need to do more extensive research to buttress the points you intend to make.

“Think before you write. Nothing worthwhile yields to human effort without a plan.”

—L. E. Frailey,
author of Handbook of Business Letters

Whether research is needed depends greatly on your subject and the people to whom you are writing. Doing research at a library or performing a detailed search using the Internet is usually sufficient to back up your points with hard facts. In communications within a department or organization, such research may be unnecessary. But supporting your correspondence or sales materials to prospective customers with relevant business information helps win their confidence and can help generate new business.

Before you write, map out the information you plan to share and why you are doing so. Start by jotting down notes on paper and then highlighting the key issues you want to emphasize.

Dos and don'ts


Distilling the most important information from a mass of material is easier if you work efficiently and deliberately.

Here are some pointers:
  • Don’t frustrate yourself with excessive research.
  • Do jot down only the most pertinent information.
  • Don’t write sloppily and assume you will be able to read your handwriting later.
  • Don’t write complete sentences while taking notes (unless needed for clarification). Instead, jot down phrases.
  • Do use abbreviations, as long as you can understand them. Example:“$3K” instead of “3,000 dollars.”
  • Do write special comments in the margins for later reference.
The note-taking process is helpful in two ways. First, the act of writing itself tends to stimulate ideas or concepts you had not previously considered—scholars call this “emergent information.” Second, seeing ideas in front of you makes it easier to sort out the most essential details and organize them in a logical order. Keep similar items and ideas together. This will help you recognize repetition or determine in what form the information can best be communicated.

Grammar, Language, and Style

Regardless of the form in which you are writing—say, a casual e-mail, a formal letter, or a report—you should always aim to write with clarity and simplicity. For example, rather than writing that your company is “interested in aligning the potentialities of your company with our long-standing reputation as a global innovator,” write that your company “has a strong reputation as an innovator. We should discuss how we can benefit each other by joining forces.”

In writing, less is often more—keep it short and to the point. Always use correct grammar and accurate language.

Rules of grammar and writing were developed so that we could all understand one another. In contexts where accurate and respectful communication is important, these rules can assume greater weight than they do in day-to-day affairs. Some people are sticklers for minutiae when reading business correspondence. Here are some of the most common mistakes writers make:

Wrong use of contractions. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is.” “Its” (no apostrophe) indicates the possessive case of the impersonal pronoun. For example:

The hotline number is now operating. Its purpose is to provide better communication with our customers. It’s imperative that all messages left on the hotline be answered within one business day.

The contraction “they’re” and the plural possessive “their” are also often used incorrectly. The
following example illustrates the misuses of “it’s” and “they’re”:

The company is sending out it’s orders today. Customers should receive they’re orders next week.

Written correctly:

The company is sending out its orders today. Customers should receive their orders next week.

Overuse of commas and comma splicing. Commas can be used as pauses between major ideas in sentences. If possible, keep them to a minimum. Also, do not string or splice together complete sentences with only a comma when a logical connecting word or phrase is needed. “I think, I am” is a comma splice. The missing word makes all the difference: “I think, therefore I am.”

Failure to hyphenate properly. A “small business problem” is quite different from a “small-business problem.” Written without hyphens, the phrase would not be clear. Is the problem a small one or is it one typically found in small businesses? In general, two nouns used together to modify another noun are hyphenated (for example, time-management skills).

Less versus fewer. Use “less” for entities that are difficult or impossible to count—snow, rain, time, money. Use “fewer” for terms that can be counted—meetings, managers, machines. Keep in mind these particular correct usages: “We spent less money this month” and “the newer
machines take fewer coins.”

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter— ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

—Mark Twain,
American author

Which versus that. These two words introduce a clause that describes a noun. Using “that” indicates the clause is “essential”; it is vital to the sentence’s meaning, providing specific information. For example, “The memo that addresses purchase orders needs to be sent today.” But introducing the clause with “which,” offset by commas, indicates the clause is “nonessential.”

For example, “The memo, which addresses purchase orders, needs to be sent today.” In this sentence, the nonessential clause “which addresses purchase orders” could be deleted without losing the point of the sentence: “The memo needs to be sent today.”

Redundancies are redundant. All history is past history. All completions are finalized.

Some phrases make no sense when you think about them, or they mean something that was never intended. How often have you read that a “first annual” golf tournament was being held? If the event is intended to be annual, say so. Until it has actually become a yearly occurrence, however, use “first-ever,” “inaugural,”or “debut” instead. Also beware of “close proximity.” By definition, two businesses in “proximity” to each other are nearby; “close proximity” suggests that they are even closer.