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Writing Tips

The Seven Most Common Business Writing Mistakes—
and how to avoid them

by Christine Dubois

Do your business letters go straight to your customers' waste baskets? Are you tearing your hair out composing your latest brochure?

Good writing doesn't have to be hard. With a little practice, you can learn to write easily and effectively. Start by avoiding these common mistakes:

1. Writing to impress. There was a time when complex words, formal phrases, and vague, convoluted sentences were considered professional. Not any more. Nowadays, people want writing that's clear, informal, and personal. Your customers won't take the time to wade through businessese, bureaucratese, or any other writing disease.

If you really want to sound professional, try this: Use plain English. You've been speaking it successfully for years. Write like you talk. Simply, directly, conversationally. Use familiar words, short sentences. It's easier for your readers--and for you.

2. Believing everything your 7th grade English teacher taught you. Many people are still carrying in their heads the dire predictions of long-dead English teachers. But contrary to what Mrs. Johnson may have told you, the world will not end if you split an infinitive. Lots of things you learned never to do are OK now. Like using sentence fragments. And starting sentences with "and" or "but." You can even use personal pronouns. Just let your ear be your guide.

3. Forgetting your audience. We all know people who get so wrapped up in telling their story they ignore the people they're talking to. It can happen on paper, too. Picture your audience when you write--what are their interests, skills, and passions? What is their socio-economic or educational level? What do they need to know? Keeping your audience in mind will help make your writing more personal and to the point.

4. Fuzzy thinking. Can you summarize your message in one sentence? No? Then stop writing and start thinking. Clear writing begins with clear thinking. If you don't know what you're trying to say, your readers won't either. Before you write, state your main point in one sentence. Hang it where you can see it. It will help keep your writing on track. 

5. Saving your main point until the end. A popular method of organization is to introduce the topic, present facts and arguments, and end with your recommendation. There's one problem: Most readers don't ever get to your recommendation. Instead, begin with your main point, conclusion, or recommendation. "Because orders have increased by 50 percent in the past six months, I recommend we hire two additional staff people." Then give the supporting data. Remember the summary sentence in #4? It's a great way to begin your business letter or report.

6. Too much passive voice. In passive voice, things happen without any direct human involvement. "It has been determined that . . . " "There has been an overpayment in your account." If the person doing the action isn't in the sentence (or is hiding behind the preposition "by"), you're writing in the passive voice. No one wants to do business with a company run by phantoms. Get real people back in your writing by using active voice. "My partner and I have determined . . . " "You paid more than you owed us."

7. Using abstract language. "Hunger is a major problem in our city." "The quality of education is declining." "Good writing is important." What's wrong with these sentences? They're too general. They won't stick in anyone's memory. To stay with your reader, your writing must present a concrete image. "Five-year-old Becky goes to bed hungry the last week of every month." "One quarter of the sophomores at Goodtimes High don't have the math skills to balance a checkbook." "A warm, personal writing style can build rapport with your clients--and improve your bottom line."
Flesh out vague statements with specific examples.

Avoid these common writing mistakes, and your message will reach your customers' hearts and minds--instead of their waste baskets.

© 2000 Christine Dubois