Writing That Works, 3rd Edition
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Writing That Works, 3rd Edition

Kenneth Roman, Joel Raphaelson

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eBook - ePub

Writing That Works, 3rd Edition

Kenneth Roman, Joel Raphaelson

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About This Book

The classic guide that helps you communicate your thoughts clearly, concisely, and effectively. Essential for every professional, from entry level to the executive suite, Writing that Works includes advice on all aspects of written communication—including business memos, letters, reports, speeches and resumes, and e-mail—and offers insights into political correctness and tips for using non-biased language that won't compromise your message.

Concise and easy-to-use, Writing that Works features an accessible, at-a-glance style, full of bulleted "tips" and specific examples of good vs. bad writing.

With dozens of samples and useful tips for composition, Writing That Works will show you how to improve anything you write:

  • E-mails, memos and letters that get read—and get action
  • Proposals, recommendations, and presentations that sell ideas
  • Plans and reports that get things done
  • Fund-raising and sales letters that produce results
  • Resumes and letters that lead to interviews
  • Speeches that make a point

And much more.

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1   Writing That Works

“Too many of the communications I get are meaningless,” observes a leading CEO. “They don’t help me understand what action the writer wants me to take. They waste my time.”
We could fill a dozen pages with complaints of this sort. “Unclear, poorly written, or confusing” is the verdict of vice presidents of two hundred major U.S. companies on a full third of the business writing they confront. New York’s Commissioner of Education, frustrated that so many of the letters and memos passing through his office were “confusing” or “did not answer questions quickly enough,” ordered his 250 top officials to take a course in writing. And so it goes. It adds up to a chorus of laments that so few people can put a thought into words that make it clear, state it precisely, and take no more of the reader’s time than is called for.
Yet clarity, desirable as it is, is not the goal. The goal is effective communication — writing that works.
What does the reader need to know to comprehend your report and endorse its conclusions? To approve your plan, and pay for it? To respond swiftly to your e-mail? To send money for your charity, your candidate, your product or service? To invite you to a job interview? To make the right business decision?
You’re not likely to get the results you seek if your writing is murky, long-winded, bogged down by jargon, and topsyturvy in its order of thought. Just as unproductive is what two Stanford professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, call “smart talk.” Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1999, the professors identify smart talk as a major obstacle to taking action in business. A characteristic of smart talk is that it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). People seldom act on what they cannot understand. Good results are even less likely if you flood the reader with information that isn’t organized to lead to an action or isn’t relevant to a grasp of the subject.
Even the federal government is starting to recognize the benefits of simple, clear writing. The Securities and Exchange Commission inaugurated the plain-language movement by ordering mutual fund companies to rewrite their prospectuses. The Veterans Benefits Administration trained employees in its insurance division how to write more clearly, and the response rate to its letters increased — saving the agency $500,000 a year.
Companies are seeing how confusing communication ties up their service centers, and how clear communications makes them more efficient and competitive.
One executive suggests a discipline — putting down first what you want the reader to do, next the three most important things the reader needs to understand to take that action, then starting to write. When you’re done, he suggests asking yourself whether if you were the reader, would you take action on the basis of what is written.

People who write well do well

To get action from busy people, your writing must cut through to the heart of the matter. It must require a minimum of time and effort on the reader’s part. The importance of this increases with the importance of your reader. At any level, readers are likely to be swamped either with paperwork or a twenty-four-hour-a-day stream of e-mail, or both. Junior executives may feel obliged to plow through everything that comes their way. The president doesn’t — and damned well won’t.
A senior executive says this about a client:
His desk is usually absolutely clean, but I know that somewhere in that man’s life there’s a tremendous pile of paper. If I want him to read the memo himself, I’d better get right to the point and I’d better be clear, or he’ll just pass it along to somebody else, with a testy little note asking for a translation.
The better you write, the less time your boss must spend rewriting your stuff. If you are ambitious, it won’t hurt to make life easier for people above you. Bad writing slows things down; good writing speeds them up.
The only way some people know you is through your writing. It can be your most frequent point of contact, or your only one, with people important to your career — major customers, senior clients, your own top management. To those women and men, your writing is you. It reveals how your mind works. Is it forceful or fatuous, deft or clumsy, crisp or soggy? Readers who don’t know you judge you from the evidence in your writing.
Their judgment of you specifically includes the evidence you give them in the e-mail you dash off. It comes as a surprise to many people that readers of e-mail do not abandon their standards just because they are looking at a screen rather than a piece of paper.
“Because it’s just e-mail,” says Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, “people think they don’t have to be grammatical or spell things right or take the trouble to write well. It’s very annoying.”
Slapdash comes across as slapdash, wordy as wordy, and poor spelling and grammar as signs of ignorance or sloppiness.
It is best to stick to standard English usage and to observe the conventions of spelling and punctuation. We advise this not out of academic fussiness but from observing how things are. If you write “it’s” with an apostrophe to signify the possessive of “it” (wrong), instead of the contraction of “it is” (right), not all readers will detect your lapse. But those who do may be the ones who count. There still seems to be some correlation between literacy and seniority.
Important matters are usually examined in writing — either in a paper to be studied privately, or in a formal presentation. It isn’t enough that you know all about your subject. You must make yourself clear to somebody who has only a fraction of your expertise. Above all, you must express your point of view persuasively. We have seen hundreds of papers that assert a point of view with energetic enthusiasm, but astonishingly few that make a persuasive case. Often enough the case itself is a good one. But the writer self-destructs in any or all of the ways we go into later on.
“It is an immutable law of business,” said the former head of ITT, Harold Geneen, “that words are words, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.” By itself, good writing is no guarantee of success. But words are more than words, and poor performance can often be traced to poor communication. Your ability to write persuasively can help you get things done and arrive at your goal — today, this month, or during the decades of your career.

Making time to write well

Writing better does not mean writing more. There is paper enough in our lives now — despite the computer and e-mail — and precious little time to read it. This book suggests some of the ways that improving your writing can save time for other people. But what about your time? While you respect the time of others, you must also protect your own.
It takes time to write well. People are wrong when they say there are only twenty-four hours in a day, observes management guru Peter Drucker — there are actually only two, perhaps three, that you can use productively, and the difference between busy executives and effective ones is how they use that time. Effective means picking your spots, concentrating your energies on a major document or project or speech that will make a difference.
The biggest time waster is shuffling things from one pile to another while you drown in a sea of indecision. Effective executives try to handle paper only once — hard to do, but it works. They delete or respond to e-mail on the spot. They decide quickly whether to answer, file, or toss out. They respond to easy matters instantly — by return e-mail or through comments written directly on letters and memos and returned at once. Or send short handwritten notes (or e-notes) of direction, praise, or criticism.
Major papers, on the other hand, require study. Read them actively, get to the principal arguments, and decide what must be done. Consider a “maturing file” for knotty problems. Many disappear if given time. Others call for more thought.
There is no rule that says you must answer or file everything that is sent to you. Fortune columnist Stewart Alsop became so swamped with the flood of e-mail that he first stopped responding to every message, then stopped reading them all. His reasoning:
The fact that someone sends me a message does not automatically impose an obligation on my part to respond. If that were true, then it would logically follow that I should allow strangers to rule my life. I don’t like that idea. So I’ve started to delete messages without reading them first.
This kind of discipline sets aside the time for the truly important as opposed to the merely urgent. It helps you clear the decks — at the office or at home — for the jobs that really matter. High among them will be major pieces that you write.
The rest of this book provides specific advice on skills and techniques that will help you put whatever time you spend on writing to good use. Implicit on every page is the idea — the truth — that the ultimate time-saver is effective communication.

2 Don’t Mumble - and Other Principles of Effective Writing

When God wanted to stop the people from building the Tower of Babel, he did not smite them down with a thunderbolt. He said: “… let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
He could think of no surer way to keep the tower unbuilt than to garble communications. While the Lord confounded language on purpose, humans do it inadvertently — albeit with similar results. The suggestions in this chapter will help you avoid that fate for your own towers, whatever they may be.

Above all, don’t mumble

Once you’ve decided what you want to say, come right out and say it. Mumblers command less attention than people who speak up. Keep in mind E. B. White’s sobering injunction: “When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”
Instead of this say this
It is generally desirable to communicate your thoughts in a forthright manner. Don’t mumble.
Toning your point down and tiptoeing around it may, in many circumstances, tempt the reader to tune out and allow his mind to wander.
Here are some more suggestions:

1. Make the organization of your writing clear

Most people “write badly because they cannot think clearly,” observed H. L. Mencken. The reason they cannot think clearly, he went on, is that “they lack the brains.” We dare to assume that you, as a reader of this book, are brainy enough to think clearly. You know how to organize your thoughts into a coherent order. Now you must make that organization clear to the reader.
When you write anything longer than a few paragraphs, start by telling the reader where you are going.
The committee proposes that the company invest $1 million in a library.
First you must know where you are going yourself. Make an outline of your major points, placing supporting details in their proper position. Then, in your paper, use your outline to signal the major points for your reader. Underline and number each important section heading. This serves the same purpose as chapter titles in a book.
End with a summary. And keep in mind that a summary is not a conclusion. Your summary should introduce no new ideas; it should summarize, as briefly as possible, the most important points you have made.
If your paper comes to a conclusion — the point of your case — your summary should summarize that too, to fix the essentials of your message in your reader’s mind.
Summary: Make an outline; use your outline to help your reader; number and underline section headings; summarize.
Note: Some lengthy documents start with a summary, often called “Executive Summary.” The same principles apply.

2. Use short paragraphs, short sentences — and short words

Three major articles start at...

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