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Book Review: Better Business Writing

At last! A book I can recommend to executives and to the human resource managers whose responsibility it is to develop executives: HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, by Bryan A. Garner.

Garner is one of my favorite experts on usage, writing style, and legal writing. So I was delighted to receive a review copy of his new volume from the Harvard Business Review Press. This slim, 210-page paperback did not disappoint me.

What I appreciate most about Garner are the confidence, clarity, and style with which he condemns bad writing. Bloated sentences, pretentious or bureaucratic language, and wrong-headed usage rules wither under his criticism. Yet this isn’t a heavy tome like Garner’s Modern American Usage, which you (and I) are unlikely to read from cover to cover. You can pull this guide out of your briefcase, purse, or backpack—then read it easily, even while standing on a commuter train or express bus.

The first half of Garner’s HBR Guide to Better Business Writing contains short chapters (the longest is nine pages) with titles such as “Know why you’re writing,” “Be relentlessly clear,” “Waste no words,” “Be plain-spoken: Avoid bizspeak,” and “Be a stickler for continuity.” Most of these chapters give powerful, practical examples of effective and ineffective writing. For instance, the chapter titled “Don’t anesthetize your readers” gives these before-and-after illustrations of how to use a conversational tone:

“Not this: ‘For those customers who do not participate in West Bank’s online banking program, and do not wish to consider doing so, West Bank will continue sending them statements by U.S. mail.’

“But this: ‘If you prefer not to use our online banking program, we’ll continue mailing your statements to you.'”

The middle chapters deal with emails, business letters, memos and reports, and performance appraisals. In the chapter on business letters, Garner offers this excellent example to illustrate how to focus on you, the reader, rather than on I, the writer:

“Not: ‘I just thought I’d drop you a note to say that I really enjoyed my time as your guest last week.’

“But instead: ‘What a wonderful host you were last week.'”

Garner says business letters can increase profitability and create good will when written well, an idea I heartily agree with. And he convincingly attacks the canned phrase “enclosed please find” and others like it (Thank you, Mr. Garner!), describing them as “high-sounding but low-performing.” He provides useful quotations from writing experts as far back as 1880, criticizing such phrases.

The final third of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing covers the nuts and bolts of writing in chapters such as “A Dozen Punctuation Rules You Absolutely Need to Know,” “Common Usage Gaffes,” and “Some Dos and Don’ts of Business Writing Etiquette.” The chapter titled “A Primer of Good Usage” features a marvelous list of frequently confused word pairs such as admission/admittance, amend/emend, climatic/climactic, flaunt/flout, forgo/forego, gibe/jibe, and wrangle/wangle. As you can see, the list goes far beyond the common fare of your/you’re, it’s/its, and then/than, although those pairs are included too.

The sophisticated level of the approach, suggestions, and examples makes this guide a good choice for executives who want to tune up their writing. (If you are wondering about any possible subject-verb disagreement in that sentence, my rendering is correct: “level . . . makes.” By the way, Garner spends several helpful pages on subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement.) I can already think of an executive to whom I want to recommend the chapter “Learn to summarize—accurately,” with its helpful sample of an executive summary.

The only weak aspect of the book is the chapter “Use graphics to illustrate and clarify.” Its 2½ pages come across as an afterthought and do little to help writers recognize the types of materials to render in graphic format. To his credit, Garner recommends that writers consult the work of Edward Tufte.

I also have to gently tease Garner—he who recommends having “a decided preference for the simplest words possible to express an idea accurately”—for using the word fulsomely. I doubt that most professionals could define the word, or even correctly guess its meaning from the context: “Be direct when making a request. Don’t fulsomely butter up the recipient first.” Do you know the meaning of fulsomely?

But those are tiny quibbles.

If you think you should never start a sentence with but or and, buy this new guide. Buy two if you have an editor who won’t let you use contractions and first- and second-person pronouns, or a boss who thinks it’s unprofessional to deal with complex subjects clearly and simply. You will want one copy of Garner’s HBR Guide to Better Business Writing to keep and one to share.

Blurbs on the book cover entice you to “Engage readers. Tighten and brighten. Make your case.” Indeed, Garner’s HBR Guide to Better Business Writing can help you do all three.

Comments on Garner? Thoughts on fulsomely? Please share them.

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.

12 comments on “Book Review: Better Business Writing”

  • Hello Lynn,

    Thanks for sharing this information. I am now waiting for my copy to be delivered. The word “fulsomely” was new to me too.

  • This book sounds like just the thing for me. I wish I had an editor who used its ideas on my work relentlessly. I learn best from repeated correction.

    I wish my whole company would internalize these teachings!

    Thanks for the recommendation

  • Hi, Jennifer. I am with you. Wouldn’t we all appreciate the comments of a good editor. As far as spreading the knowledge at your company, why not share the book with your human resources or training manager? Share my review too.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • I’m with Jennifer on wishing I could get all of my colleagues to buy into this! Thanks for a great review, Lynn- I will be purchasing the book on my ereader this week.

    Regarding “fulsomely,” I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to guess the correct definition from the context. I’m a bit surprised he would use that word, too.

    From what I gathered in this review, I just have one concern or caveat. Personally, I feel strongly about keeping my own “voice” consistent throughout my writing. For this reason, it is difficult for me to accept some suggestions that are outside of my personal writing style, such as Garner’s sentence, “What a wonderful host you were last week.” But I understand that the goal is to follow the principles themselves, not the suggestions word-for-word.

  • Hi, Lisa Marie. I agree with you about the value of using a consistent voice in your writing. If you were to follow Garner’s suggestion about focusing on “you” rather than “I,” how would you apply it? Perhaps it would be as simple as using a normal word order, as in “You were a wonderful host last week.”

    What do you think?


  • Thank you, Lynn- that was a great example of how simple it can be to apply these principles while still maintaining one’s own voice. I would definitely feel comfortable writing, “You were a wonderful host last week.”

  • If you want an exercise book to improve your writing, this is it. I need it to help design a biz writing course and it was useful to design activities. It’s not useful in understanding the ‘why’ of business writing. It focuses on the doing of biz writing. I need doing so I’m happy with the book. If I needed more content to understand the ‘why’, then I’d be disappointed in this.

    By the way, Thanks Lynn for the review. 🙂

  • Interesting comment. I did not have the same reaction. The introduction, “Why You Need to Write Well,” and the first chapter, “Know Why You’re Writing,” seemed to cover the why.

    Perhaps you mean you were looking for a unique theme or approach to writing to help you design the class.

    In any case, thanks for sharing your view.


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