A third of all emails are badly written,
business writing needs to be better
‘I told him to be
fruitful and multiply, but not in those words’
wisdom and intelligence in business writing
Bad writing is bad
for business. Up to 30% of letters and memos in industry
and government either seek clarification or respond to a
request for clarification, according to Maryann
Piotrowski, author of Better Business Writing.
How many of us cannot start our day until we have spent
at least an hour clearing the emails that fill our inbox
and after that sift through posted mail? And most of the
messages we receive are badly written.
Writing should be powerful, each word chosen with care.
Speeches by Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Barack
Obama and Sir Winston Churchill have the capacity to
move people to tears, while jokes by Spike Milligan,
Pieter Dirk Uys and Woody Allen with their play on words
can make us laugh.
Good use of language is the supreme example of an
intelligent mind. Reflect on the power of Martin
Luther King, Jr’s assertion that: “The ultimate measure
of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort
and convenience, but where he stands at times of
challenge and controversy.”
Or the wit of Woody Allen: “I told him to be fruitful
and multiply, but not in those words.”
But for most, when we sit to write a report, a business
letter, an important email or an advertisement,
intelligence and wit flee and bureaucratic, heavy
language clogs the page and bores the reader.
BizTech CEO Liza van Wyk, whose company runs a very
popular course: Business Writing: The Unwritten Rules,
says, “Pomposity often gets in the way of clarity.
People use big words and long sentences to try and make
a point – halfway through the sentence the reader is
already lost. We advise that sentences on average should
be no longer than 15 to 20 words.
“Paragraphs in business and academia are often long and
daunting when the trend in journalism and books is to
short paragraphs, sometimes only one sentence long.
Shorter paragraphs create more white space, and lure in
the reader, instead of frightening him or her off with
dense grey text.”
And there are other things that may interfere with
effective communication – you might have a font or
patterned or coloured paper, which makes it hard for the
recipient to read your message and harder still for him
or her to respond so that you can read what they are
trying to say.
Cultural backgrounds and language can lead to
misunderstandings and confusion. A poorly set out
letter can also ensure that the most important message
gets lost. In journalism, as an example, writers are
told to ensure that their first sentence tells, who,
what, where, why and how in no more than 25 words – try
it, it’s a good exercise in saying more in fewer words.
The Plain English Campaign in the United Kingdom makes
the point that “because English is so rich and
versatile, you can usually say what you mean in short,
vigorous, everyday words which most of your readers will
find familiar.” When popular American novelist Ernest
Hemingway was criticized by another novelist, James
Faulkner for his limited word choice he commented: “Poor
Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from
big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words.
I know them all right. But there are older and simpler
and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Hemingway has over the years sold considerably more
books than Faulkner too.
Many of the rules around business writing are about
A few other tips include:·
Bullet points focus
the eye on key issues
language is better instead of saying he or she, say,
Avoid clichés use
original language to generate fresh responses
Don’t mark an email
message as urgent if it is not
Don’t write in
upper case unless highlighting something as upper case
letters can be seen as shouting at the recipient
Ideally respond to
emails the same day or in no more than 24 hours of
Don’t send big
attachments by email unless a recipient has specifically
Always send a cover
page with a fax and alert a recipient by phone before
sending a confidential fax – they may want to wait at
the machine for it.
whatever you write is laid out in an attractive, neat
and clean way.
“The key thing to
remember,” Van Wyk says, “is that in a globalised world,
many of those we communicate with do not have English as
their first language. It is important that those who use the
international language of business – English – use it
thoughtfully, simply and with impact.”
* BizTech is a major
South African training organisation based in
Johannesburg. It targets executives and managers in the
public and private sector for training in management,
people skills, information technology and project
management. Each year more than 2 000 people take part
in more than 60 courses in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape
Town. Many more receive specialist in-house training.
LIZA VAN WYK, CEO BIZTECH 011
453 5291 cell: 082 466 8975 or
Issued by MediaOnLine