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With Your Knickers in a Knot

Lately I’ve been thinking about courteous business writing. That topic always reminds me of a message I got from my friend and longtime colleague Cindy Clay, for whom I used to do a lot of writing.

I had emailed a book review to Cindy, and she really didn’t like it. But rather than write back and tell me what was wrong with the piece, she wrote, "I really have my knickers in a knot over this review, and I’d like to talk with you about it. Please call me when you get a chance."

It was the perfect opening for constructive feedback. Instead of telling me what was wrong with the piece, she told me that she had a problem with it we needed to talk about. When I phoned her, I was not the least defensive. She had set me up for a positive discussion, and I was able to revise the writing easily.

When something doesn’t meet your standards for one reason or another, don’t write a scathing analysis and press SEND. Just send a short, simple message about your knotted knickers. Own the problem and open the door for a productive conversation.

Have you been treated kindly or brutally in writing? Post a comment so we can all improve our business messages.

Check out the August issue of our newsletter, "Better Writing at Work." It focuses on being likeable (and successful) in business writing.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

One comment on “With Your Knickers in a Knot”

  • I ran across your site while trying to think of what on earth could be said and could be comforting to a client whose brother was recently paralyzed in an auto accident. I didn’t know either of them, which made it even more difficult, I suppose. I enjoyed reading your posts and, though I didn’t find specifically what I was looking for, I did get some ideas and calmed down enough to put pen to paper. I definitely agree with your take on positive/persuasive language in the post “Positive Language” — definitely more effective than barking orders!

    Keep up the good work,

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