Business Writing Truths and Myths
Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
For the 25 years I have taught classes in business writing, I have heard and rejected a few myths. And I have learned and applied some important truths. Don’t let yourself be fooled by false rules that others may follow. Recognize and apply what makes sense.
Is each of the five statements below a truth, a myth, or a mix of both depending on the situation? You decide.
1. Jargon is bad. Truth or myth?
The other day on Twitter a writing expert criticized the use of “spend” and “ask” as nouns. He described their use as abhorrent jargon. Yet “advertising spend” is a common term among people in marketing and advertising, and “What’s the ask?” comes up regularly in my clients’ business meetings and messages.
Don’t tie yourself in a knot trying to avoid jargon. Jargon is not bad. It can be the perfect form of communication among experts. Just be careful that you define or replace jargon when your audience may not understand it.
2. You should write the way you talk. Truth or myth?
When I talk in a professional setting, I try not to open my mouth unless I have thought first–if even for just a moment–about what I am going to say. I don’t say anything rude, irrelevant, or confusing. I do my best to be helpful, diplomatic, and clear.
So yes, I write the way I talk–but that’s because of the way I talk. You should not write the way you talk if your talk is rambling, silly, mean spirited, or filled with errors–unless you are a character in a novel. If you talk clearly, concisely, courteously, and correctly, write the way you talk.
3. Brevity is a virtue. Truth or myth?
In business writing classes, nearly everyone comes with the goal of writing concisely. It’s a terrific goal. Being concise–that is, expressing much in few words, being clear and succinct–is a great virtue in business communication.
But brevity? Sometimes it conveys too little. A brief proposal may not sway your manager or client. A brief apology may seem false. Brief replies can come across as careless or abrupt. Brief web pages may leave visitors hungry for more but unwilling to work for it. Brevity can be a virtue, but make sure you have written enough to communicate what your reader needs. Make sure you have answered your reader’s questions.
4. A rich vocabulary will help you write better. Truth or myth?
When I send a text, I am amazed that my cell phone can finish many of my sentences. Is my writing that predictable? Yet when I type something unusual–for example, the restaurant name Plaka Estiatorio–my phone will change it, in this case to Plaza Estimator Iowa.
The same is true with your business vocabulary. If you use the language your readers expect, they can move through your message quickly, almost finishing your sentences. But when you use language they don’t see regularly–for example, circumvent rather than bypass–they may think you intend something you do not.
There is nothing wrong with a rich vocabulary, but it won’t necessarily help you write better. The simplest, precise word is what your readers need. If you use an unusual word because it is the best word for the situation, define it and use it regularly. Then it will become familiar to everyone. Even my cell phone recognizes Plaka Estiatorio now.
5. Short sentences show a lack of writing skill. Truth or myth?
When we were younger and in school, our short subject-verb sentences did show a lack of skills. We were taught to vary our sentence structures and lengths to create a blend of simple, compound, and compound-complex sentences to make our writing interesting. We may have even lost points for “flow” if we continued to write simple sentences.
But in the workplace, short, simple sentences help readers move fast through our messages. They help readers get from Point A to Point B quickly. In contrast, 40- and 50-word sentences force readers to wait until the period, or full stop, to get the point.
Here’s a 45-word-sentence version of the paragraph above: “Although in the workplace, short, simple sentences help readers move fast through our messages, helping them get from Point A to Point B quickly, 40- and 50-word sentences, by contrast, force readers to wait until the period, or full stop, to get the point.” That sentence makes readers work too hard!
Trust yourself. If you hear a writing “rule” that doesn’t make sense to you, your industry, or your readers, ignore it. Apply the principles and standards that work for you and your readers.