Many people think of the start of the new year as a clean slate, a new beginning. For those who are looking for a fresh start for their business communications, here are some habits to break.
Note: If other business writing habits are driving you crazy, please share them below.
1. If you are a manager or supervisor who closely edits employee writing, stop making small, insignificant changes in their work. For example, do not change essential to important or can to are able. Those kinds of changes discourage and irritate writers. If you must make changes, explain each edit to the writer so he or she understands why your change makes the piece stronger. Get my Help Employees Write Better if your goal is to develop writers on the job.
2. If you hear yourself thinking "My English teacher would never put up with this!" stop looking backward. Recognize that your English teacher's goal was to teach you the fundamentals of English composition–not to be a savvy business writer in the 21st century. Stop clinging to crusty old directives such as "You can never end a sentence with a preposition." Get a new style guide, and read this article: "FAQs on the Rules of Writing."
3. If you write paragraphs of more than 10 typed lines, stop at 5. People skip over thick slabs of text in search of skimmable content. No matter how well written your long paragraphs may be, if no one reads them, your hard work is wasted. Follow this rule: one idea per paragraph. When a paragraph gets long, break it into two or more ideas.
4. If you write sentences of 40 words or more, stop stringing your readers along. Limit yourself to 35 words per sentence, and make sure your average sentence length is 20 words or less. (The average words per sentence of this blog post is 15.8.) Unlike novels and nonfiction books, in business documents readers do not tolerate long sentences. They pick out a few key words in them, and then they assume what you mean.
5. If you regularly write the same pieces–for example, proposals or replies to client questions–stop using old boilerplate (standard text that is pasted into messages or that always appears in them). Although fast for writers, old boilerplate often ignores readers' needs, and it makes the company look lazy and out of touch. Early in 2010, review your boilerplate content to update, shorten, and enrich it.
6. If you are a free spirit who doesn't proofread, stop making yourself look bad. I am sorry to sound harsh, but those misspelled words, uncapitalized proper nouns, and sentences that aren't may be doing you real professional harm. In my 2009 business writing classes, hundreds of people spoke about their loathing for obvious errors, errors that proofreading would have eliminated. Start using your grammar and spelling checker and proofreading aloud.
7. If you typically send "Reply to All" email, stop before clicking the "Reply to All" box. Ask yourself, Does everyone on the To and CC line need my response? If people do not have to have it, don't include them. Reducing unnecessary email is just as important as the print equivalent of saving a tree–it saves people's sanity. To update your email skills, take Email Intelligence, an online class, or get "110 Tips for Sending Email That Gets Read–and Gets Results," a booklet in PDF or printed format.
8. If you use !!!! and wild smiley faces to create excitement, stop relying on symbols to communicate. Unfortunately, they don't come across as professional. For better methods, read "Add Zing to Your Writing," a sample article from "Clarity, Conciseness, Zing, and More: 262 Ways to Take Business Writing Beyond the Basics."
9. If you restrict your writing to paragraph form, stop limiting yourself. Add bullet points when you have a list, and headings when you have several topics. Use a bold font to highlight key ideas at the beginning of your paragraphs, as I have done in this blog post. Add formatting to add readability to your messages.
The current issue of my free e-newsletter features "10 Ways to Get Your Writing in Shape." If you haven't read it yet, subscribe to Better Writing at Work here.