Posts Tagged ‘writing’
I am a practical person. Oh, no doubt I love discussing the theory and craft of professional development; dreaming great dreams is how we move forward. But we live in the here and the now, and I’m happy to accept that theory doesn’t do very well at bringing home the bacon—at least not for most of us.
So after years of teaching grammar and writing, I’ve come up with three timeless, practical grammar rules for the business environment—yes, grammar rules with no exceptions:
Rule number one: When in doubt, rewrite it!
Oh, you know the grammar rule for whatever it is you are writing, but does your reader? And if your reader doesn’t know the rule, how well is he or she likely to understand what you’re trying to communicate? Ultimately, writing is about communicating as perfectly as possible what it is that you want to say. Consider this example:
“When the Harley Roadster hit the 100 year-old oak tree, it was badly damaged.”
You may have it clear in your mind that the poor old oak was badly damaged—a grammar rule would back you on this—but logic would lead the reader to surmise otherwise. When editing your document, always try to see the various ways someone can interpret what you’ve written. If readers can misinterpret your writing, try again. Rewrite it.
Here’s a better way to write the sentence above: “When the Harley Roadster hit the 100 year-old oak tree, the bike was badly damaged.” By simply replacing the pronoun “it” with “the bike,” there’s now no doubt in the reader’s mind about what you meant to say.
Rule number two: The “boss rule”
Stop beating your head against the wall; in the end, what the boss says is what you should do. If you can’t handle that, it’s time to get a job somewhere else. And yes, this applies to writing style and grammar. If you have a good relationship with your boss, go ahead and push back on her insistence that you eliminate the comma before the conjunction and in a list or series. The shocking truth is that there are very few hard and fast grammar rules. Grammar is as much about preference and style—current style—as it is about rules.
In every class I teach I hear the complaint, “You recommend we write it this way, but my boss insists that we write it a different way.” Okay, write it that way! Unless there’s a grammar rule—a real, no-kidding, documented grammar rule—to the contrary, do what the boss suggests.
And that brings me to rule number three: Language changes. Get over it!
Did I really start a sentence with the word And? Yes. And from time to time, I’ll start a sentence with But. Or I might—dare I say it—end a sentence with a preposition. Gadzooks! I might even use a contraction in my business correspondence. Guess what? It’s okay to do so; the former president of the United States said I could use “common, everyday words” in my business writing. Go ahead and google President Clinton’s 1998 Plain Language Memorandum.
In a recent writing class comprised of federal employees, when I brought up that the Plain Language Memorandum suggests it’s acceptable to use contractions (common, every-day words), I nearly had a revolt on my hands. “It’s unprofessional!” several declared. Another participant complained, “I was told that I shouldn’t use contractions in business writing.” I smiled and calmly asked the class, “Would you consider your responses unprofessional or inappropriate?” “Of course not,” was the response. I followed, “But all of your statements just contained contractions.” Silence.
I don’t write using the language of my ancestors. I can’t tell you the last time I used the expression “four score and seven years ago” in a note to my boss. Nor did our forefathers write in the language of Shakespeare, just as Shakespeare did not write in the language of Beowulf. Let me be clear. I’m not advocating that we riddle our documents with the expressions “dude” and “um.” But our language evolves and our writing evolves along with the spoken language—thankfully. Yet for some reason we are uncomfortable with changing our writing.
Maybe this says more about human nature than grammar, but it’s okay to move forward in our writing.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about our changing business writing “rules.”
At some point in our professional careers, we have all experienced some sort of email etiquette training–whether it be a company policy document, a just-in-time web-based tool, or an in-person training session, we’ve all been through it. And there is a lot of useful information that is shared through those various avenues because, when it comes down to it, writing an email is a distinct form of writing. There are rules to follow: be concise and to the point; do not attach unnecessary files; and (please) do not overuse the high priority feature, just to name a few.
However, there is one rule that I would like to bring more attention to: make it personal. I realize that most of us are inundated with emails throughout the day (and if you happen to decide to take a week off for a vacation, knowing that there is a stack awaiting you when you return can be enough to ruin your last day off), so this rule may be one that is followed only when it’s convenient. Nonetheless, it should be followed. Some tips to consider: when writing to only one person, consider opening your email by asking a follow-up question to a conversation you may have had last week that is non-work related. Or, if you’re writing to a group of people, and it’s a very stressful time because you’re all trying to meet an important deadline, make a reference to that deadline and acknowledge the level of stress. And my favorite, consider simply changing your closing salutation; it may seem minute, but if you’re asking someone to do something for you, wouldn’t it be more personable if you closed with “Thanks” rather than “With warm regards”? It’s little things, like personalizing your emails whenever possible, that may help you build networks in your work environment. And who knows–maybe a co-worker will consider going the extra mile for you as a result of you taking the time to personalize an email to her (and it only takes a few seconds of your time).
I’d like to know your thoughts. Do you think personalizing emails is worthwhile? If so, how do you personalize your emails?
Trouble Writing? Say It Out Loud!
Ever have trouble when you’re trying to compose an email to someone, and the words just won’t come? You write, you hit the backspace key about a million times, you write some more, you change your train of thought, you write some more, and then you highlight and delete the paragraph because you don’t like how it sounded?
In teaching writing skills for over 20 years, one of the key suggestions I make to my participants is to “say it out loud.” What does that mean? It means, literally, “Say it out loud” – and then write down exactly what you said.
For many people, using standard English syntax is something we do automatically in our speaking, but we have trouble when it comes to writing it down. As human beings, we learn to speak LONG before we learn to write. In fact, many people around the world are excellent communicators, but they cannot read or write. In modern society, however, basic reading and writing skills are not only necessary but mandatory to succeed in a professional environment.
I know it may sound crazy, and your cube mates may look at you funny, but the next time you’re composing an email and get stuck, just convey the message out loud (or perhaps under your breath), and then write that down.
Chances are, your message will come across much more clearly. I’d also suggest your time is better spent speaking out the message rather than staring at a blinking cursor.
Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!
Many writers I have worked with are confused over the central message in whatever they
are writing. When I ask them: In a sentence, what are you trying to say? They often
respond with several things, qualifications, explanations and other moving parts.
One of the most valuable practices we teach in writing is the concept of the coat hook.
You can think of the coat hook as the one, specific point that everything hangs off of.
Everything connects to the coat hook.
In the same way, the coat hook in a document is the one, single point that the document is
all about. If you can’t say clearly what that is, there is potential confusion in your mind,
and then guess what happens in print, and in the reader’s mind?
One way to understand the coat hook is to ask yourself which sentence – if everything
else were stripped away – would the last man standing.
It’s easier to start out with a clear coat hook, though. State out loud what you would say if
your boss said, “In a sentence, what are you trying to say?”
Writers find that once they get clear on the coat hook, everything else can then fall into
If you didn’t identify two grammatical errors in the above sentence, we need to talk.
Or perhaps just blog.
The public school system in the United States dropped the ball on grammar sometime
several decades ago. It went from being a rigorous requirement to optional – even in
English classes. The onslaught of video and oral culture, the rise of email (where
capitalization and punctuation seem optional), instant messaging and now Tweeting have
all eroded the standard to which people write.
Does it matter?
Yes, in the following scenarios: You’re writing a letter of application for a job you really
want, are putting in for a promotion, or trying to get an assignment that is just right for
In these cases, you have to accept the fact that whether you express yourself correctly or
not will be noticed by those who know the difference, and they often see it as a proxy for
intelligence and capability.
We can agree or disagree with that, or think it’s right or wrong, but it is. If you care about
your prospects, it matters that you get it right when you write.
If you are not sure about your use of the language, it usually means you are making
mistakes. Don’t make them when something important is on the line for you.