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Background: To Keep It or Delete It?

"Get rid of background" is advice I often give writers. Too frequently, background gets in the way of the meat of a message, and readers wade through thick details in search of the main point. 

And so it was last week, when I published my monthly ezine, Better Writing at Work. In it I wrote, "If your readers would not ask 'What is the background?' don't write a background section."

A subscriber quickly responded:

"I typically include a background statement when submitting a proposal to a prospective client. While I may continue to do so as a means of demonstrating that (and perhaps how) I understand their circumstances, I can see the value of minimizing or perhaps eliminating that section of my proposals."

But wait! Don't minimize or eliminate background that is all about the reader! Instead, just change its name. Label it "Your Current Situation," "Your Goals," "Your Opportunities," or another "your" heading. If it is all about "you" (your reader), it will grab and keep your reader's attention.

So maybe I was wrong about discouraging "Background" so broadly. Let me qualify my advice: Include background if it is all about the reader, but be sure to give it a descriptive heading that includes the word your.

For more about engaging your audience, read my current e-newsletter, titled "How to Keep Your Readers' Attention." Subscribe for free here, and get practical writing tips once a month.

Syntax Training

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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.