Striving for Better Written Communications
Tips for the Wary Business Writer
In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4), a day celebrated by probably only a handful of self-proclaimed word geeks, let us ruminate for a moment on the intricacies of putting forth written communications that get our messages across fluently and…
Scratch that. Business writing never needs such flowery language. But if your business offers up any form of written communications — to customers or even just to your employees — it pays to brush up on style and grammar. Presenting a consistent message in all your written material adds a level of professionalism and presents you as a voice of authority, or at least as someone who cares enough about your message to avoid typos and use good punctuation and grammar.
And it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Start with style
While “grammar” is the entire system and structure — essentially the foundation — of a language (those rules you learned long ago), “style” covers the tone of a written message. For example, a letter outlining the reasons you’ve chosen one candidate over another might be written in a different tone than one, say, announcing an exciting new bonus program for which every employee is eligible. In addition to tone, style includes diction (word choice) and formality (or lack of). More simply, style oversees the tone and language of your written communications when you keep your audience in mind, which is something you should always do.
If you have a marketing or advertising department, you already have someone finessing written communications according to a particular style — perhaps a company style guide or one of the well-established guides available for purchase. Some of the most popular are The Chicago Manual of Style (a comprehensive guide), The Associated Press Style Book (journalists favor this one), and The Modern Language Association guides (from your college paper days). There are many more, including guides that are specific to law, medicine, technical writing, the sciences, and other specialties. These manuals can help answer your burning questions about punctuation, when to capitalize certain terms, or how to tell a hyphen from an en dash or em dash (and how to use all three properly), and you don’t need a marketing or advertising department to get your hands on one and make use of it for consistent messaging in all your written communications. Style books are a good investment, and some are even available online, which makes searching quick and easy.
Make it yours, but make it consistent
Better yet, take what you need from whatever style book you choose and tweak the rules to fit your organization. Yes, you can do this — there really is no grammar police! Bend the rules, but use common sense. Most importantly, be consistent. If you capitalize a term that is common in your business or industry in one paragraph, don’t lowercase it in the next; if you hyphenate something here (e-mail, for instance), don’t drop the hyphen there; don’t switch from a casual voice to a formal voice in the same piece of writing, etc.
Four eyes (or more) are better than two
If it’s important, such as a letter from the CEO to customers, a directive to all employees, a marketing brochure, press release, or a handbook, don’t hit send until it has been edited. If you’re at a small company with no marketing or editorial department on board, shop it out to your resident English, marketing, journalism, or communications major and ask them to review for consistency, style, tone, grammar, and typos. If you’re the writer and editor in your company, and even if you’re skilled at both, you’ve likely looked over your piece so many times that you may miss even simple mistakes. Build in enough time to close your document and step away from it for a while (preferably overnight, but even an hour helps) and then read it again with fresh eyes. This means planning ahead, which isn’t always possible, but customers will certainly appreciate not tripping over a sentence that trails off without actually ending or trudging through a novel when a few simple sentences would have worked.
At the very least, take the time to spell check any written communications to customers, potential customers, business associates, and employees.
Mistakes happen in even the most carefully crafted writing, but don’t let knowing this stop you from aiming for professionalism and consistency in all your written communications, whether big or small.
The author offers up her list of go-to resources for business and everyday writing and editing, in no particular order:
- Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage (when you’re flummoxed by when to use wary, weary, or leery, or wondering if you should refrain or restrain).
- Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab). Geared toward students, but offers sound advice for specific types of writing and a solid Professional, Technical Writing section that business writers may find useful.
- The Chicago Manual of Style Online. The online, subscription version of the manual (handy for searching), plus a reader’s forum and questions and answers.
- The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. A handy little guidebook written in 1918 and first printed in 1920, but still loaded with good advice.
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss. Perhaps most appreciated by those who are planning parties and making cupcakes to celebrate National Grammar Day, but a fun read.