After 30 years of teaching courses in business and technical communication, I've reduced my central message to a mantra:
Be clear, concise, considerate, and correct.That's it. Whether you're writing a two-line email or a ten-page report, anticipate the needs of your readers and remember the four Cs.
Today we'll consider some of the ways we can apply these qualities when editing our work.
- Adopt the "you attitude."
This means looking at a topic from the point of view of our readers, emphasizing what they want or need to know.
Draft: I have requested that your order be sent out today.
Revision: You will receive your order by Wednesday.
- Focus on the real subject.
Don't bury a key word by dropping it into a phrase following a weak subject.
Draft: The implementation of the new marketing campaign will begin on June 1.
Revision: The new marketing campaign will begin on June 1.
- Write actively, not passively.
Wherever possible, put your subject up front and make it do something. The active voice generally works better than the passive because it's more direct, more concise, and easier to understand.
Draft: Your proposal was reviewed at our meeting on April 1, and it was immediately submitted to the developers.
Revision: We reviewed your proposal on April 1 and immediately submitted it to the developers.
- Cut unnecessary words and phrases.
Wordy expressions may distract readers, so cut the clutter.
Draft: I am writing this note because I want to thank you very much for organizing the open house that was held last Thursday.
Revision: Thank you very much for organizing last Thursday's open house.
- But don't leave out key words.
To be clear as well as concise, we sometimes need to add a word or two.
Draft: The storage shed is the first step.
Revision: Unlocking the storage shed is the first step.
- And don't forget your manners.
Here's where being considerate comes in. If you say "please" and "thank you" when talking with colleagues, include those words in your emails as well.
Draft: Send me the jargon report before you head home.
Revision: Please send me the jargon report before you head home.
- Avoid outdated expressions.
Unless you enjoy sounding stuffy in print, stay away from words and phrases that are never used in conversation--"attached herewith," "this is to advise you," "as per your request."
Draft: Attached herein for your reference is a duplicated version of the aforementioned deed.
Revision: I have enclosed a copy of the deed.
- Put a cap on buzzwords.
Trendy expressions tend to wear out their welcome fast. For proof, see 200 Words and Expressions That Tick You Off.
Draft: At the end of the day the bottom line is that we should facilitate opportunities for employees to provide input on best practices.
Revision: Let's encourage people to make suggestions.
- Unstack your modifiers.
Stacking means piling up modifiers before a noun--the verbal equivalent of a traffic jam. Long noun strings may save a word or two, but they may also puzzle our readers.
Draft: Space telescope wide-field planetary camera instrument definition team ground based charged-couple-device camera (from New Scientist, cited by Matthew Lindsay Stevens in Subtleties of Scientific Style, 2007)
- And, of course, proofread.
Finally, there's correctness: see Ten Tips for Almost Perfect Proofreading.
Draft: When you're in a hurry, it's very easy to leave words.
Revision: When you're in a hurry, it's very easy to leave out words.
On Wednesday we'll continue our look at the communication skills needed in today's workplace: Tidy Up Your Point of View. Please stop back.
More Advice for Business and Technical Writers: