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Can You Defend What You Write?

In a Better Business Writing class last week, I noticed places in attendees’ writing where they implied something they did not intend. Here’s a sentence from one letter denying a request:

“At this time I cannot accommodate the schedule you have requested.”

Reading that sentence closely, anyone might reasonably ask, “Do you mean you will be able to accommodate my schedule some other time?” Yet when I asked the writer whether she might accommodate the requested schedule in the future, she said no, adding, “I was wondering about that. Maybe I should leave it out.”

Yes, when in doubt, leave it out.

In another example, a writer was apologizing to a customer for the office having been closed when it should have been open. She included a statement like this one: “Please stop by to see how we have improved.”¬† When I asked whether the improvement was really something the customer could see, she said no. She had been wondering about the sentence but had left it in.

Wondering whether a phrase or sentence works? Not sure you can defend it? Then fix it or eliminate it.

The intended readers of those two examples–a denial and an apology–are likely to examine the messages very closely and ask questions. And the writers, who undoubtedly were trying to communicate something positive, might find themselves having to deny and apologize again.

To graduate with honors at the end of my undergraduate schooling, I was required to write a thesis and then “defend” my paper in a question-and-answer session attended by professors and other visitors. In my paper, I stated something like this: “Critics have pointed out that. . . .”

One of the professors asked, “Which critics?”

I knew of only one critic. I had written critics because I was sure there must have been others. But when I named the one critic and stopped, the professor snapped, “If you know of only one critic, write ONE critic.”

That embarrassing moment was the beginning of a lifelong lesson that has saved me from countless other embarrassments. It taught me to write precisely.

Writing precisely means writing only what you can defend. It means that if you have interviewed one applicant for a position, you use the term applicant–not applicants. It means that if you supervise one person, you call yourself a supervisor–not a team leader. It means that if you can never agree to someone’s request, you do not write “at this time.” You simply express regret that you cannot comply.

We are often too close to what we write to see the holes in it. For that reason, it’s wise to let writing sit for at least a few hours before doing a final proofreading. It’s also smart to read aloud and listen for any odd juxtapositions. And if you have a coworker who can proofread for you, that’s even better.

Do you know a great way to avoid feeling defensive about your writing? I do: just write what you can defend.


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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.