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Being Real in Business Writing

Before I specialized in business writing, I wanted to be a fiction writer, and I spent many years trying. One of the books I read to help me develop as a writer was Brenda Ueland's classic If You Want to Write.

No doubt other writers have learned lessons from Ms. Ueland. But my lesson–the one I think of daily–was to tell the truth. To me as a business and blog writer, telling the truth means choosing the most precise word to describe something, whether it is a situation, an emotion, or an object. Rather than choosing the first words that come to mind, it is important to describe each thing accurately, to tell the truth about it, to be real.

Ms. Ueland called this "microscopic truthfulness."  

Several days ago I wrote a blog post about a man who sent me an email with more errors than sentences. He was writing to ask me whether he could write a guest entry for this site. When I first posted the entry, I titled it "Frowning at My Inbox"–or something like that. My thought was that it would be normal to frown at a message riddled with errors, and I was making a contrast with the smiley face that closed the man's message.

But after I uploaded the entry, I realized it felt false, at least to me. It rang false because I actually hadn't frowned when I read his email. I had smiled a kind of a twisted smile of disbelief and breathed out in something like disdain. 

I quickly renamed the entry "Smiling at My Inbox" and changed the ending to "Yes, I was smiling–and sighing." Sighing didn't quite describe the breath I took, but I let it go.

As you can see, I didn't really let it go. I am still thinking about the right words to describe my reaction to the man's error-filled message. 

I share this example with you because I believe being real in business writing–being precise and truthful in one's descriptions–makes a difference. Brenda Ueland wrote, "The more you wish to describe a Universal [like my choosing the common idea of frowning, although I hadn't frowned] the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular."

Do you, like me, think Ueland's "microscopic truthfulness" has a place in business writing? In blogs? In Tweets? On web pages? I would love to hear your view.

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.

16 comments on “Being Real in Business Writing”

  • Hi Ms. Gaertner-Johnston,
    I enjoyed this piece. I, too, aspired to be a fiction writer before entering the business writing realm. Great thoughts here on honesty in writing. This idea relates to all “well-crafted” creative expression, I believe. Thanks for your blog.

    Craig Byrne,President, PBC, LLC.

  • I agree with you. I have seen so much business writing that’s full of wordy phrases and important-sounding jargon, but that doesn’t really *say* a lot. When writers strive to use clearer, more concise phrases, it forces them to really *think* about what they’re saying–and, sometimes, to realize, that their message isn’t as informative, or as accurate, as it needs to be.

    I love Ueland’s book–it’s one of my favorites of all books I’ve read about writing fiction. (I’m a technical writer who still aspires to be a fiction writer!) 🙂

  • Dear Lynn,

    I am from a scientific background, but at work I am presented with several challenges when communicating to the client. Sometimes I would have set a wrong tone completely, though the language seems acceptable. For ex: One of my recent mails, begun with the sentence.

    Dear —,

    Thanks for the much needed update….


    I was actually intending to say that the communication we received on the next work assignment was a big relief. Since we hadn’t heard from the client in two weeks now. But my senior manager pointed it out, that this isn’t the right tone.

    I would much appreciate if you could send me some insights on this regard.

    Kind Regards,

  • I agree – I much prefer honest, authentic communication in business and in life in general, firstly from a moral standpoint, but I also think it is a more effective means of communication.

    Also – words are like a weapon, directed at the minds and hearts of other people, and it seems to me that most people never learn to use this powerful weapon properly, rarely saying what they actually mean.

    So, I commend you for your effort to be as precise and truthful as possible!

  • Hi Lynn,

    I’m glad you brought this up. I was going to send you an email later today to let you know that I generally access this blog through Google Reader. Because it aggregates posts, I saw both the “Frowning” and the “Smiling” post titles, although the Frowning post no longer linked to your blog since it had been changed or deleted since publishing. That’s just one more thing to keep in mind when we’re all searching for the right words to use in this digital age.


  • Lalitha, the situation you mention happens frequently. What we intend is not what the reader (or our manager) infers from our words.

    “Much needed” can suggest that the client was slow in getting you the information. After all, you needed the update “much.”

    You were trying to create a positive tone. You can do so without any ambiguity if, rather than “much needed,” you use a word such as “valuable,” “helpful,” or “timely.”

    Before you send a message to a client–or any important message–let it sit for an hour or more if you can. Then read it again to determine whether your language communicates the message you intend.

    Now, no more worries about the past. On to your next message!


  • RJ, I knew the aggregator would mention the “Frowning” post, and I wished there were some way to withdraw it from the list. There was no way for me to change the name of the post once I had published the “Frowning” version.

    I will be more careful about my titles before I click “Publish”!


  • Yoav, thanks for your remarks. I was curious about your use of the word “weapon.” Because of its association with war and conflict, I am wondering whether “weapon” is the word you intend. Do we want to aim weapons at people’s minds and hearts? I don’t think so.

    I like your use of the word “authentic.” It’s a good one.


  • Thanks for such a wonderful post.

    I will say honesty is the principal theme in business communication, because 1. we live in a real world, 2. we want our clients to trust us for our products and services, etc.

    But Lynn, I think it will be most appropriate to contact the prospective client to find out why such a message, because in a way it could help him/her write and communicate better.

    Please consider this email from one of our clients:

    Dear —,
    Please I want a confirmation from RRR company that the supplied RRR For AAA, that AAA use it at the RF sites it can provide to the site three phase Stable power source without any damages Could be happened if I’m going to supply single phase Commercial
    Please reply my mail with official mail under RRR domain
    Or Coping your boss official mail under RRR domain in your reply.

    I contacted the client by telephone for further clarification, and it earned RRR 20000USD.

    Best regards,

  • Lynn,

    Your observation of the use of the word “weapon” is interesting. I was actually not thinking about war at all (imagine that- despite living in Israel!)

    I was thinking that words are weapons in that they can be very dangerous (psychologically), if not handled properly, but if you know how to use them they can do wonders for people.

    I used the term “weapon” since I feel that the correct use of words is not taken seriously enough.Maybe if we realize that words are dangerous we would use them more carefully.



  • Hi, David. Thank you for your dramatic example. Your investment in time certainly paid off for your client.

    In my original situation, it was not a client: it was someone who wanted to write on this blog. Because he was such a sloppy writer, I did not think the investment made sense.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your example. I believe readers will learn from it.


  • I think that your title of this post says itself.It is interesting to read ‘microscopic truthfulness’.According to me with being real in business you can improve your trust with others and others also can trust you easily.This is an important factor as trust is necessary in business.

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