Friday, April 26, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 5: Making Things Personal

By now, I hope you’ve realized that the skills you’re honing each session are building on each other. With that in mind, in this session we’re focusing on making things personal. In other words, using pronouns like “I”, “we”, and “our” to refer to your business or the viewpoint you’re presenting in your documents. We’ll also look at why you should refer to the reader as “you”, or their proper name, if appropriate.

Many people were taught that business writing is “supposed to be more formal” than other kinds of writing. As a result, they think that using first person – referring to their business as “we” or “us” – is unacceptably informal. As we noted in Session 4, the argument that writing should be more formal than spoken language is no longer relevant. And, because there’s nothing sacred about business writing, there’s no reason it should be more formal than any other writing.

In fact, there are lots of reasons to use first person in business writing. First person is direct and more authentic because it reminds the reader someone is behind the information. In a business-to-business context, using first person signals to customers that there are people behind the goods or services the business offers. First person is also more authoritative, which is especially important when the document sets out your professional opinion, for example. Using first person reinforces the fact that you stand by your statement.

If you’ve noticed that others in your company or organization use the formal third person, find out why. Chances are people have assumed there was some corporate dictate about avoiding first person because everyone seems to avoid it. It’s also likely that no formal decision to refrain from first person was ever made. If your organization is one of the few that has an actual policy requiring third person, set to work trying to revise it. You can start by using first person and if someone tells you to change it, explain the benefits of first person. You may not win the argument in the short term, but keep at it – it’s a fight worth having.

Writers who are reluctant to use first person also often avoid referring to the reader as “you” – in other words, in the second person. Say, for example, you’re writing a letter offering someone employment. If the person you’re writing takes the job, the offer letter is, in effect, a contract. After the initial greeting (the salutation) – don’t do what many do, which is refer to the person as “the employee” rather than the familiar “you”. How impersonal can you get? Do you want to work for someone who thinks of you simply as “the employee”? I don’t….

Referring to the reader as “you” is more direct and it helps involve the reader. It’s especially important when the purpose for your document is to get the reader to take action

Gaining comfort – and confidence – using I, we, and you will help make your writing more conversational and easier for readers to understand. It will also help you avoid the passive voice, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming session.

© 2019 Good with Words

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 4: Using Plain, Simple Words

This session we look at using ordinary, simple words in business writing. Somewhere early in their career, many business folks get in the habit of using formal words when they write. When I ask why, the most common response is that they learned writing is supposed to be more formal than speaking. Interestingly, they don’t seem to think about where that idea may have originated. It probably goes back to times when folks wrote on parchment or papyrus – or when they literally carved words into stone. But in the twenty-first century, the expectation that people use more formal language in writing is no longer true.

I also think business people use non-ordinary words out of insecurity and a misplaced belief they sound professional or authoritative. Others use formal language because their colleagues do and they think they must do so to fit in. Laziness is also involved. If you’ve picked up work-related vocabulary, it’s easier to go with the flow. Also, translating concepts and ideas into ordinary words can be time consuming. Why bother when no one else in your office does? Mindless acceptance of MS Word’s Spelling & Grammar recommendations can also cause introduction of overly formal word choices. For example, my version always suggests using “therefore” instead of “so”. That’s ridiculous.

Wonder if I’m talking to you? I am if you’ve ever written a client or colleague something like: “the meeting will commence at 10”. Commence? Would you tell your spouse that you daughter’s play date commences at 10? No – you’d say it starts at 10. Or, have you ever written something like this: “When queried, Arlene said I need to furnish the information on or before noon.” Queried? Furnish? On or before? Why not: “I asked Arlene and she said I must give her the information by noon.”

Or maybe you’ve written something like this in a business letter: “Pursuant to our discussion, please furnish us with the aggregate amount per annum that your team spent on securing assistance with payroll.” Why not: “As we discussed, please give us the total amount per year that your team spent for help with payroll.

Here are some words and phrases you can practice making plainer: elect, ameliorate, in the event, subsequent, prior, aggregate, implement, necessitate, sufficient, exhaustive, pursuant to, consensus. If you have trouble coming up with a plain alternative for a word, look up synonyms of the word. (I turn to for this kind of help all the time. Just look up the word and click on the “synonyms and antonyms” link.) 

Using ordinary words isn’t about dumbing down information. It’s about making information understandable to as wide an audience as possible. If that’s not a good enough reason to work at using plain language, there’s something in it for you too. You’ll find that translating concepts into ordinary words tests your understanding of what you’ve written.

In a future session we’ll focus on avoiding jargon – that’s an even trickier issue to deal with. But, you’ll be in better shape for that workout if you practice – and master – using plain words in your business writing.

© 2019 Good with Words