Clarity Above All Else—Seven Tips to Clear Up Your Business Writing

By | September 9, 2014

Convoluted writing leads to convoluted thoughts.  Since we want strong ideas and directives that are executable, we need clear writing.  The six tips below should help you do this.

1. Use the best words and phrases, not the longest or fanciest

The best word is likely the shorter word.  Rather than trying to sound as if you are intelligent, be intelligent.

Unclear.  In the condition of revolutionary lessening in the initial month in the first quarter of the year depicted on marketing spreadsheets and accounting department outcomes, the anticipated edifice will likely transpire toward deferment for a solitary 12-month cycle.

Clear.  If January’s data shows a decrease in casino revenue, we will postpone the building project for a year.

2. Purge your text of any unneeded words, phrases or sentences

So often, we clutter our message with filler.   Your first drafts typically feature small unnecessary words, or you take too long to get to the point.

Unclear.  The budget spreadsheets presented at the end of the third quarter of this calendar year represent the year-to-date expenditures and the budgetary items that need adjustment or analysis.  For budget meetings in October, every department will first meet with the finance department to discuss any changes they would like to make at this time.  If these suggested changes can be supported or accommodated by existing funds, then each department’s budget will be revised accordingly.

Clear. This year’s third quarter budget spreadsheets represent year-to-date expenditures.  Departments will meet with finance in October to discuss necessary adjustments.  Revisions supported by existing funds will be finalized in November.

3. Avoid passive voice, and take action now

In the middle of our paragraphs, passive voice reads like overcooked noodles.  It sags and muddles who is doing what.  In business writing, it is a common way to avoid accountability, as you can see in the second example below.

Passive.  The budget was developed by the director of Human Resources.

Active.  The Human Resources director developed the budget.

Passive.  You are being issued a warning notice for showing up late twice in one week.

Active.  The manager of the shoe store issued you a warning notice for showing up late twice in one week.

4. Don’t rely on weak verbs

Verbs are the meat of your writing.  That said, weak-kneed business writing typically overuses weakling verbs like “to be.” As helping verbs, “to be” and “to have” appear frequently (as in “will bore” in the next clause); however, if used exclusively, your writing will bore the reader.   

Weak.  The coffee is weak.

Strong.  The coffee tasted weak.

Weak.  You are going to like next year’s project

Strong:  Next year’s project will thrill you.

Weak:  I have files in a drawer.

Strong:  I organized files in a drawer. 

5. Stray from an overuse of acronyms, abbreviations, jargon or lingo

If you desire writing that no one will read (why bother?), stick to your acronyms and occupation-specific jargon.  However, if you would like to communicate clearly, avoid these as much as possible.

Unclear.  The 360-degree appraisal system uploaded to BIS w/CSR will be uploaded to EE’s who BYOD.

Clear.  It is our corporate responsibility to provide access to the 360-degree appraisal system.  Employees who bring their own devices (smart phones, laptops, or pads) will have immediate access.  

 6. Remember that clear writing is not the same thing as rude writing

Too often, executives wrongly consider their spare and direct tones in emails and memos the most clear communication style.  The truth, however, is that their communications come off as rude and demanding, which can block the message employees need to hear.   With clarity as our goal, tone cannot be forsaken.  This doesn’t mean you clutter your writing with multiple polite phrases and niceties.  It means you avoid the imperative and purge your style of an inflated ego.

Rude: Staff your department with IT techs because Wi-Fi needs to be available at all times to the management team.  We cannot have another unacceptable meeting during which we are blocked from important documents posted on the Cloud.

Too many polite phrases or niceties:  I sincerely appreciate the work IT is doing to provide Wi-Fi during our planning meetings.  Honestly, I doubt anyone anywhere could do a better job!  I’m sure that the last meeting during which we were simply unable to connect to the Cloud was caused by some unforeseen staffing issue in your department, and I completely understand, as this happens to everyone.  If, in the future, you could possibly let me know a few hours in advance, that would be wonderful.  Again, thank you for all your hard work!  Go team!

Clear:  During our last planning meeting, we were unfortunately unable to access the Cloud due to the Wi-Fi being down.  I wasn’t sure if you were aware or not, but I appreciate in advance the efforts you will make to ensure a solid Wi-Fi connection for our next meeting, which will be on February 21 at 9a.  Thank you.

7. Spell check cannot save you

Relying wholly on spell and grammar check can lead to trouble.  For example, if I had written “holy” rather than “wholly,” you would probably stop reading my advice about clear writing, or any writing for that matter.  Moreover, spell check would have left me high and dry, as “holy” is a real English word.  As a former English teacher, I want the word out that spell check can be wrong.  It consistently wants to mistakenly replace my “its” with “it’s.”  Also, it doesn’t always understand “your” and “you’re.”

My advice here is to take a few moments every day to study grammar.  Start with the use of commas, which will solve 80% of your mistakes.  Studying grammar is easy nowadays, as there are fun web pages and podcasts dedicated to the subject.  Check out Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl:  Quick and Dirty Tips.  She even has a ten-minute podcast that’s easy to understand and fun to listen to on your commute.

As for spelling, if you aren’t sure how to spell the word (and I mean completely sure), use another word that you do know.  This takes us back to my first tip:  use the best word, not the longest word.  This is because the clearest writing uses the words you already know. cropped-Esprit-de-Corps-LOGO

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