I was interviewed by Human Communications, for my suggested tips for better business writing – and about the origins and golden nuggets in my book, Business Writing Tips. Here is the interview in full:
First of all, why do you think some people worry when it comes to business writing?
I think some people may have worries about breaking ‘rules’ that they think they learned at school. For example, the question I’m most commonly asked is, “Can I start a sentence with ‘and’?” (In my view you definitely can.) Lots of people have hang-ups about things like that, and – I know from what they tell me – a lot of time is wasted in offices debating and arguing about those sort of unimportant things.
Secondly, I think a lot of businesses write to impress, which isn’t necessarily a good objective or starting point. People love to highlight when their business was formed, for example. But most customers/readers aren’t really interested in that; they just want to know if the business can solve their problem .
Finally, people forget that in the business world readers don’t have to read anything. There’s a lot of competition on the web, for one thing: we’re in ‘the attention age’. People don’t realise that, if you want someone to read your text, you have got to keep the reader interested. But achieving that in writing is hard. Plus, there’s a lot of bad writing around, and I’m afraid we all absorb bad practices.
I wrote elsewhere about the challenges of writing emails. Leading on from that, here are my tips for getting your email RIGHT- avoiding mistakes, keeping the right side of colleagues, and getting your email acted upon.
It all comes down to these five P’s.
Before you start writing, think what you want to achieve from the email. Think about the outcome, rather than just what you want to communicate, as the former may well require a more subtle or fuller approach than the latter.
One other thing before you start writing … Think whether phoning might in this instance be a better option, eg if the subject is complicated, sensitive, or requires some two-way discussion – all of which would take far longer and be less effective if conducted through a series of emails.
So, now you can start writing. In my opinion, a three-part structure to emails is the most efficient format for enabling people to quickly digest what it is you are emailing about – and to help them act upon whatever it is that you want them to do. After all, if your email looks unappealing, and reads badly, they will ignore it for later on.
First, tell them the Context of your email (eg I am following up our phone call of yesterday). Then give all the detailed Information that you need to convey, which may well be 1-3 paragraphs or bullet points. And finally, at the end, which they are likely to scroll down to when they open your email, spell out what Action you want them to do, and by when (eg Can you get back to me this week?)
You can also use the first section, where the reader’s attention is at its greatest, to draw attention to things such as these: Sorry this email is long … This email is really important … Please note the 4 things I need from you.
Tempting though it may be, don’t send your email immediately after you have finished writing it – especially if it is long, has tricky content, or is important or likely to be contentious, etc. In these cases it will almost certainly benefit from a re-read. Nobody gets these kinds of wriitng right first time. So, leave it a while, send it to yourself, share it with a colleague, etc. … do anything to give yourself some critical feedback on its structure, content, and writing style/tone.
Polish & Proofread
And finally, as with any piece of writing, don’t forget the importance of proofreading, which is more detailed editing than above. If it is long email, print it out. Why? It is far easier to check printed content that what we see on screen – and we give it far more attention. Check for typos etc. before sending … before you are embarrassed or annoyed with yourself, and before you accidentally send an email that you later regret.
There you have it – the five P’s of emailing.
I have already written one blog (read it here) about techniques for Writing for the Web, and in particular about writing text for your home page. That blog had 3 main points, among them have a Strap line (on your home page) and make your Stories count. (The other point was don’t dilute your key/main message.)
The ‘S theme’ of Writing for the Web Secrets continues here, with a few more important Ss for you to adopt/embrace on your website:
Readers on the web are in a rush. It is rare that they read more than 20-30% of your text. So, make it really easy for them to Scan, i.e. to pass through and get the gist of your webpage in a flash.
You can do this by using short paragraphs, and a very simple layout (ie. don’t let designers have too much influence). My tip is to write as though you were writing a news story, with several of the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why – and how) of what you writing about answered for the reader in your opening paragraph, so that they know immediately what your blog is about, and whether you have whatever it is they are looking for.
2.) Slow readers down
Linked to the above, try and do things with your text that slow your readers down. One technique that achieves this quite well is using questions. It is strange, but somehow questions engage the reader. They force the reader to pause and think: ‘Hum, what is my answer to that?’
Something else that helps is using bullet points – indeed, they work so well that it is as though they were invented for web writing, after the web came into existence. Another tip is to have headings and subheadings that are eye-catching. Not cryptic ones as newspapers sometimes used to – as people wouldn’t understand these, when speeding over your text – but headlines that catch their eye as they scan over the page, getting them to pause.
And if readers pause, they are more likely to read on…
3.) Short and snappy headings
Avoid long ones, that can’t be scanned. Ideally, use short and snappy ones, with a strong verb, that will shine out for the reader. The subheadings on my Copywriting page, for example, are things such as: Why use a freelancer – … and why use me? – My repertoire and experience – Improve your website content/SEO – Need help with a blog?
4.) ‘So what?’ test
Does your content pass question, which is this commonly used among journalists? What does it mean? Well, it is easy to get excited when you first think of something to write about. But pause. Better still, wait until the next day. Or think what a friend would say, or how you would respond when said ‘So what?’ ie why is this interesting to readers? Make sure your content can answer this.
And finally, yes, that one is a reminder from my other blog. Many companies have ‘strap lines’, mission statements, etc. but go into their offices and the chances are you will not see them. However, they can fit nicely on the top-left of your home page, where they are prominent and widely seen, as well as neatly summarising what you stand for.
Yes, in my view straplines are underused on the web, but can have big impact on a website home page.
There are three players in a piece of writing – the writer, the topic and the reader (as in the triangle above). Two of these dominate in any piece of writing, and which two should influence the types of words used. Why? Because usage of certain words can enable you the writer to influence your reader – what they know about and think of the topic, their views of you the writer, and the relationship between the two of you.
From writer to topic
Let’s start with what you wrote when you were young, i.e. essays, exam questions and longer reports/dissertations. Here, we, the writer, wrote about topics – as represented along the bottom of the triangle above.
In this kind of writing the writer should choose words for their ability to show what he/she knows about a topic. The words used can affect (a) what the reader thinks of the topic (e.g. Malnutrition is a major issue in most of Africa) and (b) what the reader thinks of the writer (e.g. I find economics agonizingly dull).
This is called the referential mode of writing.
From writer to reader
The second type of writing is from writer to reader, as for example in a job application’s covering letter, or a proposal document. This is called the interpersonal mode, on the left of the triangle.
In this writing the writer should use words (a) that can draw readers in (e.g. using pronouns – we, our, us etc.); (b) to create a favourable impression with the reader (e.g. it seems to me); and (c) with an eye on what the reader may or does not know, how they may differ from the writer, and how formal the writer wants to be (I think, I am told).
From topic to reader
And finally there is writing from topic to reader, as in advertisements or election material (the directive mode, on the right of the triangle).
Here the writer should select words (a) that help the reader understand the topic (e.g. ‘signposts’ such as on the other hand, even so, however) and (b) that inject feelings about the topic and that will influence the reader (The ideal getaway destination).
Conclusions for your writing
1.) Think what side of the triangle is your writing and home in on its players and requirements.
2.) Choose your words and phrases carefully….
On the one hand they can have a positive impact, helping you achieve the goals of your writing – be it explaining something, installing a view of something, building a relationship with the reader, or creating positive impressions of you.
But they can also be negative. They may be of an inappropriate tone, or lead the reader to form a negative (or insufficiently positive) impression of you the writer, and of what you are writing about.
I did a couple of courses on writing recently, which may sound rather strange and unnecessary for me, as a writer – but they were from a linguistics perspective (given by Dr Michael Kranert).
Here are a few things I found interesting:
Men and women … they use language differently
Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus. Maybe, or maybe not … but the book points out they use language differently:
- Clearly, language and communities matter more to women, who are more verbally skilled than men. Men’s goal in using language tends be to instrumental (getting things done) whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational (about making connections to other people).
- Men’s way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women’s is cooperative, reflecting their preference from equality and harmony.
- These differences routinely lead to miscommunication between the sexes, with each misinterpreting the others’ intentions.
We acquire and adjust our language
People acquire and adjust their communication skills (and vocabulary) in order to match in with the people around them, what are called ‘communities of practice’. Although the research applied to nurses and office trainees, it matches my view that I acquired a particular writing style when working in local government – and then had to shrug it off when I became a journalist.
Children in particular are aware of variations in language, and speak differently in order to ‘fit in’ (how they talk in the playground, versus how they talk to adults).
In the same way that headlines are used to engage with an audience, we use the weather as way to break the ice with people that we meet – not really to talk about the weather at all!
The history of legal writing – ‘Don’t blame the lawyers’
According to the author David Crystal (Investigating English Style), the language of law: ‘is perhaps the least communicative, in that it is designed not so much to enlighten language-users at large as to allow one expert to register information for scrutiny by another’.
One feature that makes legal language more complicated is its pairing or words (e.g. breaking and entering… null and avoid, etc.), which results in longer sentences and potential confusion. This practice dates from the days when English stood alongside French or Latin here in the UK, and therefore the word for both languages had to be used in legal texts.
And finally, ‘right justified’ text was introduced in legal texts to prevent people from inserting words … and changing the meaning.
GREAT writing tips below, from an article ‘Take the First Step’ by the novelist and professor of creative writing, Colum McCann (The Guardian, 13 May 2017) – relevant for writing non-fiction as well as fiction.
Your first line
‘It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your readers’ ear that everything is about to change.’
The terror of the white page
‘Don’t worry so much about the word count as the word cut.’
‘Writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the new empty well, over and over again. Moving a word around a page … Questioning it … Shifting it around again and again … than Not conceding victory to the negative… Dusting yourself off. Sustaining what you have inherited from the previous days of work.’
‘Structure is essentially a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan ….’
‘Sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence.’
‘Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves.’
‘The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse.’
Your last line
‘Try if possible to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward.’
‘Your last line is the first line for everybody else.’
‘Allow your reader to walk out from the last line and into her own imagination.’
‘Don’t tie it (your story) up to neatly. Don’t try too much … Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where you have been. They know what they have learnt. They know already that life is dark you don’t have to flooded with last minute light.’
All good advice!!
The paragraphs below explain each of the main types of punctuation. But the punctuation is missing. By doing this exercise you will therefore learn not only where and what type of punctuation to use, but also get practice in using it. My suggested answers are given at the foot of the blog.
Commas are used in lists of things to clarify meaning after introductory words and phrases like however (at the start or mid-sentence) when providing additional information and in more complex sentences (especially if the subject changes) after conjunctions like and. In summary they are used where a pause or breath seems natural.
Q: What is the Oxford / Serial comma?
Semi colons are used between lists of items that individually are longer/more complex in addition they can also be used between two related clauses. In the latter, each side of the semi-colon is independent and could be a stand-alone sentence a comma between them would be too short a break and a full stop too long. In such uses they can be translated as ‘and’ or ‘but’.
Q: What are the pros and cons of using semi-colons?
Colons can be translated as either of the following ‘namely’ or ‘that is to say’. Most commonly they are used to introduce lists and direct speech. They are also used to introduce something or announce an important idea. Here, either side of the colon is dependent on the other. They are also used in in publishing between a book’s title and its subtitle.
Q: Why do academics use lots of colons?
Commas, Dashes and Brackets
Parenthetical phrases which can be taken out of the sentence like this can be marked either side by commas, brackets or even dashes.
A comma is used when the information is most integral to the sentence’s meaning. A bracket is for information most ‘removed’ from the sentence e.g. when providing the year someone was born and died, reference details, or to indicate something is enclosed or attached, etc. Dashes which mid-sentence have the effect of emphasising what is within them can also be used at the end of a sentence like an aside or afterthought.
Q: Do you know about ‘en’ and ’em’ dashes?
Be careful of hyphens, the rules about which are complicated and tricky. (1) They are compulsory after a prefix (pre-, semi- etc.), where nouns and adjectives or participles combine like a red haired computer mad money saving IT specialist to avoid confusion after re- words (recover/recover), and in numbers etc. (twenty three, 35 year old, and 4 minute mile, etc.). (2) Sometimes usage is optional, e.g. where words are on their way to becoming one word on going pre war and back office. (3) Places they are mistakenly used include between an adverb that ends in –ly and an adjective (A badly-written report). (4) One word they are commonly forgotten in is the adjective ‘award winning’.
Emails are great… but because of where and how we use them, it is easy to make mistakes. Read on for may advice.
Don’t let emails be a P-E-S-T
P ressure of workplaces makes us over hasty when sending emails – or not check and work, and therefore make mistakes.
E motions are hard to convey in text, and can easily be misread by readers who don’t know us etc. So, don’t email when annoyed, nor late at night/end of the week. Second, be careful of writing overly strong views (e.g. ‘best’, ‘worst’) and stating firm negatives (‘We don’t do that…’ and ‘We can’t help you’), which can sound rude and abrupt to the recipient. Third, be careful of using subtle emotions (like irony or humour) which people will not realise.
S eduction and speed of emails means we check up on them far far too often (Admit it!). And we often reply to them within minutes, which means without thought, pre-planning, checking or proofreading. Don’t be seduced into that way of working.
T echnology of emails means any errors we make are right there in print, and can’t be retracted. Which means that any typos and mistakes, plus personal/private remarks, might be shared with people that you didn’t mean to include. Oh no!
Use the subject line effectively
Be specific, and succinct.
Keep them updated as the conversation changes
You can put all your message in an email subject line, which saves people the bother of opening them, ending it with EOM = End of Message, eg ‘Please send a new toner to the HR Department, 2nd floor EOM’
Structure emails clearly
Many people have to deal with 50+ emails a day. Bear this in mind. To help them easily and rapidly digest your emails – so your emails are acted on and you don’t annoy them etc. – follow these principles:
- Use the inverted pyramid, which puts the information in decreasing order of importance.
- Keep to one subject per email, which avoids emails becoming long, as well as making it easier to follow a discussion and to find a relevant email later, via the subject line.
- Use a 3-part structure may be useful: (1) First, give the context to your email, e.g. ‘I am following up our meeting ….’ (2) Then provide the detail – ‘There are three ways I think we can help you… ‘ (3) And finally, what you want the person to do as a result (and your sign-off) ‘Can you get back to me by Friday?’
Be very careful of using negatives/strong wordings
Negatives can easily be misread in emails, where you can’t convey the tone etc. we can when we are Likewise, asking someone to do something can easily be misread as firm / rude.
Is an email always necessary?
- Think before you … Copy a message to someone else, use irony/emotions, use abbreviations/ use unusual typefaces and colours, etc…
- Avoid using email when … Issue is complex, has permutations, emotions or uncertainties involved, or it is delicate
- Make yourself popular by … Where applicable, you can end your email with one of these: No rush on this one … For your information only. NO action necessary … No reply needed.
How to manage a huge inbox of emails
- Technological ways – use folders and programmes to prioritise messages, auto-responders; flagging of priority levels; holding replies; limit use of cc/bcc to restrict replies.
- Behavioural ways – limiting how often you check; review prioritised messages daily; using sort by sender/date so you are not diverted to other messages; integrate responses into received email (changing colour/typeface); use holding replies .. and don’t be afraid to phone.
In summary – The 5 Ps
Purpose Think what you want to achieve and say before starting
Parts Three-part structure: Context / Information / Action wanted
Pause Don’t send immediately after writing, especially if long, tricky content, important, contentious, etc.
Polish Importance of re-reading and editing
Proofread Check for typos etc. before sending
Getting the right tone of voice/writing style is an essential part of writing …
Here is an exercise to help you with your writing. How would you describe these writing styles – there are some prompts below? (They are all the very start of real reports, although I tinkered with the first one.) Secondly, what factors influence your decision, and influence a writing’s tone of voice?
Keep reading. There is a surprise right at the end .. .
❶ To celebrate Reserch4Life’s 10th anniversary in 2017, we launched a competition. We asked users to share with us how HINARI, AGORA or ORAE have improved their work, their life and their community. Sixty entries were received – from across all five continents. Now we’d like to share with you the array of inspiring testimonies, each of which reveals some of the positive impacts brought about by Resarch4Life. Thank you for your support.
❷ As the world slowly emerges from the devastating Financial Crisis, it is time to reflect on the lessons of this turbulent period and think afresh about how to prevent future crises. The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations focuses on the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock that undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future. In Now for the Long Term we urge decision-makers to overcome their pressing daily preoccupations to tackle problems that will determine the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s generations.
❸ We’ll start with the simple stuff: microscopy is pretty much what is sounds like – using microscopes to study small objects. And imaging is the process by which the data gathered during microscopy is turned into an image. It seems pretty basic, but these terms encompass a vast range of advanced techniques. Together, microscopy and imaging are a crack team that have revolutionised science and shaped the modern world.
❹ There is nothing dark, still less satanic, about the Revolution Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina. The tall yellow-brick chimney stack, within red bricks spelling ‘Revolution’ down its length, was built a few years after the mill was established in 1900. It was a booming time for local enterprise. America’s cotton industry was moving south from New England to take advantage of lower wages. The number of mills in the South more than doubled between 1890 and 1900, to 542. By 1938 Revolution Mill was the world’s largest factory exclusively making flannel, producing 50m yards of cloth a year.
WAYS TO DESCRIBE WRITING STYLE
Flowing–Laboured; Elaborate–Plain; Concise–Wordy
Vocabulary / Tone
Formal–Conversational; Chatty–Bureaucratic; Eloquent–Inarticulate
Enthusiastic–Dull; Opinionated–Indifferent; Emphatic–Vague
- Content / Vocabulary – what is included and excluded
- Grammar – active/passive verbs, contractions, use of pronouns, abbreviations, sentence length
- ‘Bush strokes’ – quotes, rhythm, senses, etc.
- Informality – use of asides, jargon and comedy
- Mood – Here is the surprise … Yes, even your mood (as you write) can affect your writing’s tone of voice. Watch out!
Let me which style you prefer, or which most closely matches your style.
“Interesting and thought provoking- I will never look at websites in the same way again.”
“Really helpful, interesting and enjoyable training day. I have learned new things and refreshed my knowledge/understanding of others.”
“Useful theory mixed with practical tips and short group exercises.”
“It was good to be trained by someone who has actually made a living from writing – all too often, you end up being trained by someone whose business is delivering training, not necessarily having the skills in which they’re training you.”