You know the importance of planning a document by identifying your audience, establishing your objective and scope, and deciding what there is to say about your topic. You also know how to develop and organize your ideas and how to write your draft. The next step, revising, probably matters the most. You should never send a document without ensuring that it both meets its objective and maintains your professional image.
Inexperienced writers often think that they are done when they have written the draft. That is why so much business writing is difficult to read and falls short of its objective. The real work in successful writing is to make sure that everything works as you intend; you can do that only by careful and systematic revision.
You should allot at least 30% of your writing time to the revision process (50% for planning, 20% for drafting) to allow ample time to analyze the effectiveness of your writing. Let’s say you have to write a memo, and you allot twenty minutes to write it. If you follow the 30% rule, you will give six of those twenty minutes to revising. Those six minutes will mean more to the final document than a one-minute computer spellcheck (remember the shortcomings of computer spellcheckers and grammar checkers). If you do a good job in the planning and drafting stages, you can use those six minutes to put your memo into a form that optimizes your chances of accomplishing your objective and does you credit as a writer.
If you prepare adequately and organize your ideas, your first draft ought to go fairly quickly. Remember that even with a tight deadline, you should reread and revise your document once or twice.
Similarly, when writing a report for which you have budgeted, say, twenty hours over a four-week period, you might not use six hours strictly for revising. You would, no doubt, spend the six hours in the recursive process of writing, which includes re-planning and revising your objectives and drafting new material as required. You should certainly take more than a perfunctory hour or two. The result will almost always be a far more effective piece of writing.
It might surprise you that so much of the process should be given to revising. Even though these guidelines are flexible, they should help to convince you how crucial it is to take the time to review and revise carefully and systematically. If you follow the steps for revising suggested in the following topics, you can be almost certain that you will write more effectively than you do now.
You cannot do a good job of revising if you do it all at once. You need at least three passes through your draft, concentrating on only a few matters each time.
In your first pass, evaluate what you have written. Begin by evaluating your objective, audience, purpose, and scope.
Does the draft fulfil your objective? You want this document to accomplish something. Each of the parts may be good alone; but the document, as a whole, must accomplish your objective.
Suppose that your objective is to persuade management that one piece of equipment is superior to others for a particular use in your organization. In your eagerness to record the facts, you may provide more technical information than your readers require to make a decision. A detailed description (for example, including unnecessary information in tables because it seems impressive) may detract from your purpose of persuasion.
Revising allows you to read your document through the eyes of your reader. When writing a proposal, you might forget to include background sales figures that your manager will need before approving your budget projections for the next fiscal quarter. Check to see if you have made assumptions that took shape only in your head and not explicitly on paper. If you describe a process that is familiar to you, you may leave out a step — a small step in entering financial data that you do habitually without really thinking about it — which would be missed by a reader who is unfamiliar with the process.
In the momentum of writing your draft, you may have decided to put off checking a figure or a date or a fact and then neglected to do it. Do it now! You may perceive that what was clear to you at the time is no longer clear and, thus, will not be clear to your reader. This is the time to add the phrase or sentence of explanation. In this step, you may decide to add an example or two to clarify a certain point. You may decide to substitute a chart or a graph or a table for a complicated paragraph. In that way, your readers can more easily understand your point.
You may have had a new idea as you were writing the draft, as many of us do, and included it. Now is the time to check its effect on the whole document. Perhaps what you added requires a slightly different ordering. In business writing, it’s generally best to begin with the most important ideas. When you add something, the addition may change the relative importance of other points. As you revise, you might change your mind about ending with the weakest argument. It might be more effective to admit (or concede) your weakest points first, address them, and then build up to your stronger points. If your objective is to persuade, moving the most important argument to the final position could leave your readers with the strongest argument fresh their minds. This organization gives the impression of a reasoned, confident argument, rather than one that overemphasizes its strong points, while seeming to evade its weaker ones.
Order is only one technique for providing emphasis. Repetition is another. You can provide additional detail to emphasize a point. You can repeat a point made earlier to keep your reader oriented. In reports, there is usually a significant amount of repetition across sections because few readers read the entire document. In this way, you may read only three sections of a large report, but still get a clear sense of the other sections due to the repetition.
Depending on the context, length can also add degrees of emphasis. For example, you might write a short, terse memo to a subordinate indicating that you are unsatisfied with her performance. In this instance, the shorter length of the memo underscores the negative content.
The revision stage might be the time to separate an important point into its own paragraph, or to end a paragraph with a short sentence to increase its impact. You might decide to use a graphic device (such as a table, graph, or photograph) to emphasize your major points. Put parallel phrases in vertical lists with numbers, for instance, or use solid lines to box what you want to emphasize.
The order which first occurred to you in planning may not turn out to be the best order. The best order is the one that clarifies the importance of your points.
After you have completed your first pass, made the appropriate adjustments, and satisfied yourself that the document adequately serves your objective, reader, and scope, go through it a second time, checking your paragraphs and sentences. Your ideas may all be there, and in the best order, and still your meaning is not clear because of weak paragraphs or sentences.
The value of a paragraph lies in its contribution to the entire document, to whether or not the document achieves its objective. In the second pass of the revising process, ensure that each paragraph holds together. Check that the paragraph deals only with the matters announced by the topic sentence. (This step provides you with an opportunity to check again for material that does not belong.) One at a time, check that each paragraph develops its topic adequately and in a way that makes its points clear. Check again for emphasis, especially at the end. Does it trail off, or does it conclude its point effectively? If not, will adding a sentence or a clause that specifically refers back to the topic clarify the point and round off the paragraph?
To evaluate the overall effectiveness of your topic sentences, read each one and ask yourself if it accomplishes the following:
If it does all three, you have a good paragraph under way. In business writing, it makes sense to consider whether your information should be in paragraph form, or whether a bulleted list would be more effective. If you have a long list of statistics or questions, it may be easier to read them if they’re listed vertically.
Next, check the development of the paragraph:
As you check and adjust each paragraph, check the adequacy of the sentences, especially for transitions between sentences. Is each sentence clearly related to the one that precedes it? If not, provide a word or phrase of transition, or repeat a key word or idea from the preceding sentence. Note that you don’t always have to use but or however to indicate a contrast — try yet or nevertheless. This is the time to change so at the beginning of a result clause:
Draft: The bank will automatically enter the transaction, so you will not need to provide a separate record.
Revised: Because the bank will automatically enter the transaction, you will not need to provide a separate record.
Conciseness is the opposite of wordiness. Remember that effective business writing is to the point. Cut out the deadwood (or excess). Exhibit A offers some strategies for conciseness.
Strategies for conciseness
|along the lines of||like|
|are of the opinion||think|
|despite the fact that||although|
|due to the fact that||because|
|during the time that||while|
|during the course of||during|
|for the reason that||because (or for)|
|for the purpose of||for, to|
|in compliance with your request||as you asked|
|in connection with||concerning|
|in the event that||if|
|in the majority of instances||often, usually|
|in view of the fact that||since, because|
|on the occasion of||when|
|this office has initiated||we have begun|
|until such time that||until|
|we are prepared to||we will try to|
|with regard to||regarding|
|with reference to||about|
Consider how much more readable the following sentence becomes when pretentious expressions are removed:
Draft: Due to the fact that so many applications have been received late, this office has initiated procedures to have the deadline extended.
Revised: Because we received so many late applications, we extended the deadline.
Make your sentences more concise by using, among other things, the various subordination strategies.
Draft: Victoria’s report was carefully researched. It was five pages long, and it impressed the executive committee.
Revised: Victoria’s carefully researched five-page report impressed the executive committee.
Depending upon the intended emphasis, the meaning could be clarified as follows:
Revised: Because it was so carefully researched, Victoria’s five-page report impressed the executive committee.
People who have to convey technical information often fall into wordiness by presenting positive information as if it were negative.
Draft: If the rates do not continue rising, we will not have to renegotiate our financing.
Revised: We will have to renegotiate our financing only if the rates continue rising.
Stronger and clearer sentences result from using parallel structures for ideas that are equivalent.
Draft: Unemployment deprives the individual of purchasing power, and the nation’s output is reduced.
Revised: Unemployment deprives the individual of purchasing power and reduces the nation’s output.
The second clause was transformed into a verb phrase that is parallel with the first verb phrase.
While using parallel structures helps to make your writing more readable, too much can make for dullness and can distract or even bore your reader. It is easier to read sentences that vary in length and structure. If you find, during the second revision, that many of your sentences are roughly the same length and roughly the same structure, try making some shorter and others longer. Try changing the structure of some. Read the sentences in the following draft paragraph:
Draft: The Technological Institute will enrol students from all over the province who will attend various programs that will range from three days to three weeks. The students will attend seminars covering many subjects that will depend upon their backgrounds, which extend from volunteer firefighter to security guard to ambulance driver. The seminars will be taught by professionals who will be seconded from the relevant fields of law enforcement, fire protection, and health care.
By themselves, each of these sentences is clear and adequate. There are no grammatical errors. What makes the paragraph dreary — perhaps even difficult to read — is that the sentences are consistently alike in their length and structure. They begin with the subject of the sentence and end with a subordinate clause. Consider this revised version:
Revised: The Technological Institute will offer programs varying in length from three days to three weeks. Coming as they do from all over the province and from different backgrounds as volunteer firefighters, ambulance drivers, and security guards, the students will attend seminars on different subjects. Professionals seconded from careers in law enforcement, fire protection, and health care will teach the seminars.
This revised paragraph is easier to read because the sentences are more varied. In the first version, comparative word counts, sentence by sentence, are 25:25:23. In the second version, they are 15:29:16. To break the relentless similarity in structure, the longer second sentence begins, not with the subject, but with a gerund (–ing) phrase. For most business writing, it’s easier to read a series of sentences that are not too long. The average should be about 20 words or less. In the preceding example, the average was reduced from 24 words per sentence to 20. This is an area where “grammar checkers” offer useful feedback (if you use them with caution). Exhibit B demonstrates three ways to shorten your sentences.
Three ways to shorten sentences
As you review your sentences, ensure that none is awkward or ambiguous. Several constructions can make a sentence awkward, as shown in Exhibit C.
Constructions that make sentences awkward
Consistency and accuracy are hallmarks of a good accountant, and these traits should extend to your writing. Taking care with the seemingly small details, such as grammar, spelling and punctuation, conveys to your reader that you probably take equal care with all aspects of your work. In addition, this care demonstrates consideration for your readers. They won’t stumble or pause when reading your work.
Consider the issue of consistency in terminology. In a letter to an unsophisticated tax client, you might need to explain in some detail what “capital gains deduction” means, especially as it relates to their situation. What would this reader think when, a few paragraphs later, you use the term “capital gains exemption”? You know the two terms are interchangeable, but will your reader?
In the third revision, you want to evaluate the effectiveness of your grammar, punctuation, spelling, and diction. To convey a message clearly and to promote a professional image, you want to address these writing issues. If you pepper your memo with sentence fragments, your message might be unintelligible to your reader. Vague or unclear modifiers will confuse your reader. Faulty punctuation that doesn’t follow conventions will undermine the coherence of your document and run the risk of misplacing emphasis. Inaccurate spelling leads to confusion and a weak professional image. Finally, your diction (or word choice) is perhaps one of the most important elements in your writing.
The language you choose has an impact on many aspects of your document, from helping to set the right tone to conveying a message in a concrete, clear way. Purposeful, effective documents are written with precise, unambiguous, and lively language.
Gage Canadian Dictionary defines “diction” as “the manner of expressing ideas in words; style of speaking or writing. Good diction implies grammatical correctness, a wide vocabulary and skill in the choice and arrangement of words.” Employers who complain about poor business writing most often point to three problems:
In business writing, the best words are rarely the fanciest and most impressive, but rather those that best fulfil the objective. Like the other elements of writing that we have covered, your choice of words depends first upon your objective and your readers.
Some writers concentrate so much on the objective that they forget their readers; others are so eager to impress their readers that they lose sight of their objective. The appropriate word will take both into account and get the job done right. This is why you should always set aside revision time to reassess the language you use in your document.
Word choice is not simply a matter of right or wrong, but of appropriateness.
Few people need to be told not to use the same language in an oral presentation to a client as that which they use when chatting with close friends over coffee. The problem arises because most people are more comfortable talking to friends than they are writing to strangers, especially when a good impression counts. They think they have to use impressive language, even if they don’t feel comfortable with it. The best business writing is a good deal more informal than many suppose. You have more than just a choice between casual conversation and formal speech — in the same way that you have more than just a choice between blue jeans and a tuxedo or a formal gown. Use the “you” approach, and make a concerted effort to anticipate and address the needs of your audience. The choice of positive, constructive action words will go a long way to showing the audience that you are a person they will want to do business with.
Fifty years ago there was a good deal more formality in business writing than there is today, just as there was a good deal more formality in dress. Few business people went out into the street without a hat. It was not unusual to read a letter that began as follows: “Yours of June 9, received and contents noted….” Today, writing like this helps neither writer nor reader. Even if you do not own a tuxedo or evening wear, you can distinguish between what to wear for casual activities or for business. You can make similar distinctions in your writing, depending on your objective and your audience.
In making these choices, it’s helpful to review the three levels of language: the familiar, the informal, and the formal.
The familiar is conversational, even casual, using short and mostly simple sentences, and even an occasional, intentional sentence fragment; it uses everyday colloquial words and phrases, including slang and contractions.
The informal varies, depending upon your relationship with your reader and your objective. It employs complete sentences of varying lengths and more careful organization; it uses the general vocabulary of educated people and avoids unnecessary technical language. For the most part, this article is written in a combination of conversational and informal tones.
The formal is serious and generally impersonal, using longer and always complete sentences in fully developed paragraphs. The vocabulary is often technical, sometimes abstract, and avoids contractions and colloquialisms.
The nature of your objective and the audience determine which level to use. You may miss your objective by using breezy, casual language on occasions that require formal language, or by using technical or stuffy language where informal usage will suffice.
It’s usually better to use a familiar word than an unfamiliar word — a rule that means it’s better to use the short word than its longer equivalent. The long word or the fancy phrase might seem impressive, but if you want to communicate, use the word that you know will not force your reader to pause and reread.
Using the familiar word means that you should avoid both extremes: neither the pretentious technical word, nor the slang that you are accustomed to using in casual conversation. Consider the words in Exhibit D.
Words to avoid
|lots of||many||a multiplicity|
You are responsible for making your writing readable. Long or unfamiliar words make your documents less readable.
One of the chief faults of unreadable business writing is the frequent misuse of jargon, the specialized technical vocabulary used by a particular occupational group. Unless you are positive that your readers belong to the group that habitually uses these technical terms, you would do well to avoid jargon. The people in the accounting department and the computing centre, for example, would both probably know that I/O refers to “input output,” but someone in sales or personnel might not.
Of course, such terms are necessary as part of a technical explanation, where they are already known to the specialist or adequately defined for the non-specialist. In other contexts, though, they constitute jargon, especially when they are used as metaphors in contexts that are not genuinely technical. For instance, you may annoy a reader who knows what you mean when you write about “the interface between accounting and production,” when you mean something like “co-ordination” or even just “communication.” In a similar way, some accounting terms may be distracting jargon to non-accountants, especially when you use them as metaphors. For such readers, you will do better to use “document” rather than “instrument.” Remember, again, that business documents often have multiple, unexpected readers.
Exhibit E shows a list of terms that many readers will perceive as jargon.
|bottom line||on stream|
|impact (verb)||time frame|
|window of time or opportunity|
A brief word in defence of jargon: if your audience will immediately and clearly understand the jargon, use it — it will be appreciated as time-saving “shorthand.” The “capital gains deduction” example in the previous topic requires no definition or simplification for tax accountants. Indeed, it means something very specific to those readers, in which case, if you try to simplify the term, you risk losing accuracy, conciseness, and clarity.
From year to year or from decade to decade, words taken from certain interests and activities seem to confer prestige on those who use them. Recently, terms from computers, smart phones, social networks, and sports seem to be among those with the most prestige. Those who use them often want to be seen as in touch with what’s going on; others who want to be considered equally up-to-date then begin to use them. Many of these words start out as jargon, but begin to be used more and more by non-specialists in non-technical contexts. At any time certain words or phrases, as well as certain fashions in clothes, can become fads (words or clothes that are trendy to use or wear). You don’t want to indulge in such fads, however, after everyone else has left them behind and they have become “passing fads.” Outdated slang terms undermine the freshness and immediacy of writing.
Some computer terms are jargon but have gained meaning because computers enjoy high prestige. Sports metaphors have become fads possibly because of the wide publicity and high salaries of athletes and the association of sports with leisure time. Thus, some writers begin to use such terms for subjects far removed from sports, as in the too often heard phrases, “level playing field” or “ballpark figure.” When such expressions are overused, they soon become vague and even meaningless. You would do well to avoid them in formal writing.
Abstract words refer to things our senses cannot perceive. Concrete words refer to things that we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. The most effective writing prefers the concrete to the abstract, because most readers find a passage with many abstractions difficult to follow. Compare the lists in Exhibit F.
Concrete and abstract words
If you have a choice between the abstract term and the concrete term, choose the concrete; it will make your writing more readable and more specific.
A related distinction is between the general and the specific. General terms refer to classes of things like cats or vehicles; specific terms refer to members of those classes, such as Blue-point Siamese or Toyota Matrix. Exhibit G shows how a range of terms moves from most general to most specific.
From general to specific
|Most specific:||HP EliteBook Laptop|
|(Serial No. 94-9840299)|
The initial term, “wealth,” is entirely abstract. The phrase beneath it, “capital asset,” is on the thin line between concrete and abstract. Moving downwards, the phrases become progressively more specific, until we reach the last item in the sequence, which refers to a specific, individual object — one of a kind. As a rule, provide the most specific term that your context (your purpose at this point in the document) requires. Don’t write, “I will contact her,” when you mean, “I will telephone her.” Don’t write, “We need tighter security,” when you mean, “We need better locks.”
Expressions (usually metaphors) that have been used for so long and so often that they have lost their freshness are called clichés. They started out as colourful metaphors, but through being overused have lost most of their meaning. Consider the following phrase: “Tow the mark (or line).” Writers who spell the expression like this reveal that the metaphor has been entirely lost to them. They seem to imagine that the phrase has something to do with pulling on a rope. The original metaphor, though, has quite a different meaning — the discipline of runners with their toes on a specific mark or line. Hence the correct spelling: “Toe the line.” In such a way the expression has come to be merely a cliché.
The advantage of using an occasional metaphor in business writing is that it makes what you write more interesting. If your metaphors are clichés, however, the effect is just the reverse. Your writing becomes bogged down by dead terms. This implies to a reader that you are too lazy to find a better phrase or to come up with a more effective word. A further warning: it doesn’t help to add apologetic phrases such as “as they say,” or “to use an old saying,” or to put the phrase itself in quotation marks. Don’t write, “The department went “whole hog” this year to increase production.” It serves only to draw attention to the cliché and reveals that you don’t consider what you have written as truly important or that you couldn’t be bothered to think of something better.
To hear how dull and predictable clichés make a piece of writing, read the letter in Example 1 aloud. Every blank is part of a cliché. When you come to a blank, say the word you expect to hear.
Clichés are predictable
April 10, 2012
It looks like we’ve jumped from the frying pan into the __________. Quarterly results are in, and we’re neck and __________ with Computerama.
I won’t beat around the __________ with you. Computerama is destroying our
competitive edge like a bull in a __________. Their new Al-2000 is selling like __________ to our own customers. Computerama’s market share has been growing by leaps and __________.
We’re chomping at the __________ and poised to move in for the __________. It’s
going to be an uphill __________, but I think we can beat the __________ off
Computerama. Our competitors are playing with __________ if they think they can pull
the __________ over us next quarter.
Here are the clichés in the letter:
from the frying pan into the fire
neck and neck
beat around the bush
like a bull in a china shop
selling like hotcakes
by leaps and bounds
chomping at the bit
move in for the kill
an uphill battle
beat the pants off
playing with fire
pull the wool
Be wary of phrases that pop automatically into your head when you are straining for the best thing to say. The following list includes other common clichés that you should avoid in your writing:
|walks of life||sorry sight||avoid like the plague|
|face the music||fatal flaw||better late than never|
|hustle and bustle||pave the way||easier said than done|
|bitter end||slow but sure||few and far between|
An additional hazard in using clichés is that, because they have lost most of their original meaning through overuse, you can accidentally put them together to produce what is called a “mixed metaphor.” That is the problem of the writer who produces the following without meaning to be funny: “This is a country where the hand of man has never set foot.”
When readers laugh at such mixed metaphors, they are also laughing at you. It’s difficult to take seriously the rest of the message in which such carelessness occurs. You might provide your readers with a moment’s amusement — but your ideas won’t sell, and your professional image will be undermined.
Some business and technical writers have a tendency to use too many noun phrases. Nothing is wrong with writing about “department accountability.” Nor is there anything wrong with writing about “an organization report.” In both phrases, a noun is used to modify another noun, a common practice in English. Difficulty in reading arises, however, when several nouns are used this way, as in Example 2.
Too many nouns as modifiers
a department accountability organization
OR, an accountability organization report
Such phrases begin to sound even more complex after adding yet another noun as a modifier:
Draft: a department accountability organization report
The way to unravel such a monstrosity is to expand it into a more comprehensive phrase that more clearly indicates the relationship among these ideas:
Revised: a report on the organization of accountability in departments
In a similar way, you could unravel another confusing phrase by expanding it with prepositional phrases:
Draft: the interest rate increase impacts
Revised: the impacts of increases in interest rates
A problem related to that of complex noun phrases occurs when you produce a phrase with too many prepositions followed by abstract nouns. Abstract nouns are usually made from verbs and include words such as acceptance (from accept), concealment (from conceal), and substitution (from substitute). Abstract nouns that have been made from verbs are shown in Example 3.
Abstract nouns made from verbs
|Abstract nouns||Verb derivatives|
Inexperienced writers too often use such nouns connected only by some form of the verb “to be” and, in doing so, produce sentences like this:
Draft: The completion of the job is the responsibility of the accounting department.
Revised: The accounting department is responsible for completing the job.
The revision has improved the sentence that appeared in the draft by replacing completion and responsibility with the shorter forms, completing and responsible. The improvement comes from the vitality and accountability the verbs contribute to the sentence. Because complicated phrases such as these appear so often in business writing, you might at first find that the improved sentences sound too bare, too plain, and too simple. Readers, though, will be grateful for having the meaning made plain.
When you are fairly certain that you have improved the large and middle matters in your first, second, and third revisions, go through your document once again, this time with a sharp eye for improving word choices, grammar, and punctuation. Following is a list of matters to keep in mind as you consider the words you used in your draft:
As you evaluate your punctuation, look especially for the following:
Now you are ready to prepare your final draft, the only one your reader will see. When you have printed it, review it one last time, checking for consistency of form, to ensure that nothing has been left out or changed in the final editing. Ask a co-worker or friend to read the original aloud, including punctuation, while you follow, checking the current draft.
Typographical errors will look like misspellings to your reader. These and other errors will leave your audience with an unfavourable impression of you and your organization.
If you do not have help for proofreading, help yourself by using the following process: