First of all, we need to understand how business writing is different from the writing we all did in school. Clearly, the audience is different. We are preparing documents for a whole range of people, not just our teacher. There's a lot more riding on our success. Money is changing hands, and our image is on the line. In addition, we have a more defined purpose: we may be writing simply to inform, to document information for our own protection, to instruct, or to persuade others. There's more than a grade at stake.
Even more important, the emphasis is different. In school, what got us a good grade?
Length! The more we wrote, the better the grade. We would receive assignments like "go home and write a 500 word essay." We wrote ours and it came out to 400 words. So, what did we all do? Fluff it up with another hundred words of nonsense to make the teacher happy.
In the business world, the opposite is true. People don't want to read 500 words when we can say it in 400--or better yet in 300. We have to unlearn a lot of the bad habits we developed in school and learn to be more concise.
Another difference between now and school has to do with language. In school the bigger the words we used, the more impressed the teacher would be. In the real world, which word would get your attention better, "conflagration" or "fire"? Right. Most people won't have a clue what "conflagration" means. Try running through your building yelling "conflagration." See if anyone moves! The shorter word is clearer and stronger.
What all of this comes down to is that we want to write in a way that gets results. Our philosophy should be "write to express, not to impress." Clarity and simplicity are a winning formula every time.
Furthermore, we should write more or less the way we talk. Now, before you disagree, let me clarify. When I say write the way you talk, I do not mean the way you talk to your friends at happy hour, but how would you say it if you were face to face or on the phone with this particular individual? Let's get rid of tired, worn out phrases like "enclosed please find" ( I bet they'll find it!) and "pursuant to your request." Would any of us go home and say to the person we live with, "Well, dear, pursuant to your request, I took out the trash this morning"? Of course not. How about "as you requested"? It's still business-like and professional but without being stuffy.
Let's put some life into our writing so maybe others will actually want to read it. That's at least half the battle in today's world of limited time and constant deadlines.
John Placona is the owner of The Grammar Man. Reach him at 757-426-0917.