Tips for Effective Business Writing

This past Thursday, I went to a day-long Fred Pryor seminar called Business Writing for Results, hoping to gain skills that will further my freelance work, as well as techniques and information I can use in teaching the professional writing unit I conduct with my dual enrollment college composition students each spring. Below are my takeaways, as well as lessons from my own experience, which the seminar helped confirm.

Readability

When crafting a business e-mail or letter (or any piece of writing, really) the most important thing to keep in mind is your audience–the people or person who will read what you’re writing. First and foremost, you need to make sure they will actually read it. Your message is going to be hard to get across if your reader doesn’t read it to begin with. While you obviously can’t force someone to read your e-mail, memo, collections notice, etc., there are a number of things you can do to increases the chances someone will read it.

Avoid large, dense blocks of text that can alienate your reader. Long, bulky paragraphs can look intimidating–they appear as if they will simply take too long to read. Many readers will be tempted simply to skim over them, or skip them altogether–likely resulting in their missing important information you wanted them to know.

Give your reader frequent visual breaks by utilizing white space and short paragraphs, as well as short sentences and frequent periods. An e-mail of three short paragraphs with white space in between each one looks much more readable than one consisting of a single, large block of text.

Use bullet points and lists, which can make information skimmable and quick to read. See Sample One and Sample Two below. At a glance, Sample Two is likely easier to read. The bullet pointed list stands out from the rest of the text, making the tasks you need to achieve stand out amongst the rest of the text, which is less critical.

Sample One: We are so pleased you have chosen Princess Cruises! Upon boarding the ship, please check in with the attendants, participate in safety training, check your baggage, procure your meal ticket, and find your room. Bon voyage!

Sample Two: We are so pleased you have chosen Princess Cruises! Upon boarding the ship, please:

  • check in with the attendants
  • participate in safety training
  • check your baggage
  • procure your meal ticket
  • find your room.

Bon voyage!

Include hyperlinks. If you want your reader to know more about a topic but fear your correspondence running too long for her attention span, provide links for the subjects you hope your reader will further investigate, instead of writing your own sentences about it. If your reader wants the information, she will follow the link for it–and still read your short and sweet correspondence.

Italicize or bold key points to help your reader distinguish what the most important information is, and to improve the ease of finding it.

Use a ragged right margin, as opposed to block. This increases the amount of white space, making your document more reader-friendly.

Be Specific and Proactive

If you are composing a piece of business writing, you are likely trying to get something done. You want your tenant to pay her overdue rent, you want your new hire to hurry up and finish his new employee training, you want a refund for the damaged product you received. In order for these communications to be effective, they must be both specific and proactive; otherwise, your reader may be left with little to no idea of how to respond or proceed.

Include dates whenever relevant. For example, if you are upset because a product did not arrive in its promised 3-day delivery window, you would be wise to include the date you ordered the product and the date it arrived. If your tenant’s rent is overdue, include its original due date, how much time has elapsed since then, and the extended deadline, as well as any monetary amount he might need to know.

Provide names–of yourself, so the recipient knows who to get in touch with, but also of any involved parties. For example, if a store clerk insulted you, including the name of the clerk in your correspondence will allow the business to take more actionable steps in addressing the employee’s rudeness; they will know who to retrain or coach.

Include contact information. If you want a response, and presumably you do, it’s important to make sure you include how your recipient can get in touch with you. Make sure to include an e-mail address, phone number, or mailing address where they can reach you.

Explain what you’ll do and when. If you own a company that ships parts to clients, your shipping confirmation should be specific: “We will ship your model no. 4563-1978 Chevrolet headlights to 432 Any Street, Anywhere, VA 12345, on 15 May 2017. Expect its arrival 5-10 business days after shipping date.” If you wrote a letter of complaint, explain exactly what compensation would satisfy you.

Salutations

When composing a business correspondence, you may or may not know who you’re addressing. For example, if you’re writing a cover letter, you may not have the contact information of the addressee–and you may not be able to find it. In the event that you can’t find out who you are addressing, or whether the person is male or female (think about ambiguous names like “Pat,” “Ashleigh,” or “Cameron”) or married or single, consider these tips:

  • If gender or marital status is ambiguous, use the person’s first and last name, with no title. For example, if you are writing to Cameron Jones, don’t use “Dear Mr. Cameron Jones”–what if Mr. Cameron Jones is really Ms. or Mrs. Cameron Jones? Instead, just address the correspondence “Dear Cameron Jones.”
  • Try to avoid “To Whom It May Concern,” replacing it with the person’s job title (or likely job title). For example, if you are writing about a personnel issue, but do not know who the personnel director is, you can address your letter, “To the Personnel Director.” Even if the company does not employ someone by that title, they will get it to the appropriate person.

Active and Passive Voice

I am forever harping on my students to use the active instead of the passive voice, but in business writing, both voices have their advantages. Pick which voice to use based on the goal of your correspondence. Here are some things to consider:

Active Voice Passive Voice
In the active voice, the subject (in the case below, “We”) performs an action.

Example: We will send your invoice before May 15.

In the passive voice, the subject (in the case below, “invoice”) does not perform an action, but is being acted upon.

Example: An invoice will be sent before May 15.

More Examples of Active Voice More Examples of Passive Voice
The shipping department will send your product on Tuesday. Your product will be shipped on Tuesday.
You must pay your bill within the 15-day grace period. Your bill must be paid within the 15-day grace period.
Students should turn their assignment in tomorrow. The assignment should be turned in tomorrow.
Advantages of Active Voice for Business Writing Advantages of Passive Voice for Business Writing
More engaging Can read warmer and fuzzier; softer and gentler; less direct

Example: You must pay your bill before the 15th of each month vs. Bills must be paid before the 15th of each month.

Inspires more confidence Appropriate for scientific and technical writing where no clear actor needs to be identified

 

Often smoother and more fluid; easier to read; less clunky or choppy; more concise

Example: The billing department will send a bill next month vs. A bill will be sent by the billing department next month.

Can avoid placing blame or taking direct responsibility

Example: We apologize for the error that was made in your order vs. We apologize for the error we made in your order.

 

More specific and direct  

Obviously, you must consider the context and intent of your correspondence before deciding whether passive or active voice would best suit your purpose. In a billing notice, for example, passive voice might work best in an effort not to offend a customer who may simply have forgotten to pay the initial invoice, or who isn’t late at all. Similarly, passive voice can serve you well if you want to avoid taking direct blame for an inconvenience or issue, or placing direct blame on someone else (such as your reader). On the other hand, if your correspondence requires you to be more direct and specific, active voice will better suit your needs.

Consider These Questions

On a final note, whenever you read a business correspondence and notice yourself skipping sections, as yourself:

Why did I skip this and read that? What engaged me here, and what bored/confused/intimidated me there?

Becoming more self-aware as a reader can help you avoid mistakes when you’re writing.

As you write, ask yourself:

  • Have I given the reader options, or am I making demands?

  • Have I used respectful, courteous language?

  • Have I used a positive approach?

Finally, when you edit your correspondence before sending it out, make sure you consider clarity, brevity, active voice, and simple word choice. Or, as I like to put it, remember your ABCS:

  • Active voice
  • Brevity
  • Clarity
  • Simple words.

Announcing My First-Ever Launch Party!

Several months ago, I learned that a piece I wrote, “Rescued,” inspired by my relationship with my sweet husband (so often my muse), would be included in Nine Lives: The Life in 10 Minutes Anthology. I was, of course, thrilled. I couldn’t wait to pick up my own copy at Chop Suey Books–hold it in my hand. Today, I am even more excited–because the other contributors and I are getting even more than that! The producers and publishers of the book are putting on a launch party at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond in June. How could I have known when I visited VisArts several years ago as part of a course for my master’s degree in creative writing, or attended their open house, or took some glass slumping classes there, that soon, I would be a writer-guest at a launch party there! I have never attended a launch party before, and am so excited to be a part of this one.

Submitting your written work is kind of like fishing–you might not catch anything, but there’s a little thrill in just having your bait in the water.

So, it’s fair to say that I’ve been nearing Cloud 9 with my writing success lately (I think the only thing that could put me there would be finding an agent for my novel). One of my sisters told me today she’s so happy my writing has taken off lately. And I am, too. I just hope it continues. In the spirit of that hope, I submitted nine different pieces–everything from poetry to short stories to essays–to three different publications today. It feels good to have something out there. It’s kind of like fishing–you might not catch anything, but there’s a little thrill in just having your bait in the water.

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Several of my friends, my husband, and I participated in a glass slumping workshop at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond back in April. I never would have guessed I’d be attending a launch party there in June!

 

 

 

 

 

Where I’ve Been

IMG_4688
Above is the shield that represents my four  “most cherished talents,” two of which I recently found a way to bring together.

If you read this blog even remotely regularly, you haven’t had much new to read recently. It probably looks like I haven’t been writing at all–but I have. Just not here. Until now. Today. Finally. I’m so happy to be back–and to tell you of my recent writing adventures, which are the reason I have been so absent from Mind the Dog over the last few weeks.

Just over a year ago, I was reading The Path by Laurie Beth Jones, trying to figure out my life’s purpose and what steps I needed to take to achieve it. After completing several engaging exercises, including drawing a rather inartistic rendition of a shield meant to portray my four “most cherished talents” (my stick-figure quality drawings represented nature, writing, running, and time management), I had come up with this version of a mission statement:

My mission is to:

write, remember, and nurture

love

for animals.

I remember sitting on an airplane, flying home from a brief trip to California, puzzling over this mission statement, my book resting on the gray, little seat-back tray in front of me. A few pages beyond the page where I had filled in the blanks of my mission statement, I underlined this sentence in the book:

“Make sure all your activities can flow from and relate back to your mission.”

That just didn’t seem possible with this particular mission. How could all my activities support my desire to remember, nurture, and write about my love for animals? How could all my activities stem from that or relate back to that? I puzzled over it, told a friend about it, puzzled over it some more, and then put the book on a stack of other books on my dresser and kept living the way I had been living for the last decade.

But over the last few weeks, something happened–something that allows me to get one step closer to this organically crafted mission statement. I found out about a company called Owl Mountain Products and their website, ScoutKnows.com. And I found out they were looking for writers. I went through the application process, which included first writing an e-mail explaining why I was a good (the perfect!) fit for the role, and second, if my e-mail succeeded in getting their attention (it did!), in writing a test assignment. It was a challenging and rather depressing subject, and at one point, when I was feeling a bit down, my husband said to me, “Just think, babe. If they publish that article, the person reading it will be someone who really needs that information. You’ll be helping someone out a lot.” He was right. I would be helping someone–and that someone’s dog. Potentially lots of someones and their dogs. Reinvigorated with purpose, I finished the test assignment, learned a lot in the process, and ultimately, became (one of) the newest members of the ScoutKnows writing team. I really don’t think I could be any more excited about it. It perfectly combines my love of dogs with my love of writing, and I can hardly wait to get my first writing assignments for the site.

In addition to this exciting news, I’ve been working on various articles via a platform called Contently. The site allows writers to create a portfolio and potentially find freelance jobs writing for various companies and publications. I also achieved a writing contract with Mother Earth News for an article due in September, projected to run in the winter of 2018.

All this freelancing has left me very little time for blogging–but I’m not complaining, honestly. I’m thrilled!

 

Much vs. Many

To follow up on my last post regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less,” let’s briefly discuss when to use “much” and when to use “many.” Although the latter two seem to be confused far less frequently than the former two (largely because we seem to have an inherent sense of which one simply “sounds right”), people still sometimes mix them up.

Use “much” with singular nouns and “many” with plural nouns. For example, you didn’t eat much cereal, but you did eat many muffins. “Cereal” is a singular, mass noun, whereas “muffins” is a plural noun. There is one box or one bowl of cereal, but there are several muffins.

You would ask, “How much chicken did he eat?”, but “How many eggs did he eat?” (This would be different, of course, if you were dealing with an extremely hungry person, in which case, you might actually need to ask, “How many chickens did he eat?”)

You can talk about how much milk you drank, but how many cookies you dipped into it. You might describe how many sundaes you ate, but how much ice cream.

(Side note: Apparently, I am the aforementioned extremely hungry person. I started this post with breakfast examples, moved on to dinner, and followed with dessert–not deliberately! For more examples of how to correctly use “much” and “many,” click through the slideshow of (food!) photos below.)

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For further explanation of the relationship between “less”/”fewer” and “much”/”many,” click here.

 

 

Fewer vs. Less

fewer-vs-less
Above, my friend and I show off our paintings after a recent paint night. If we had used fewer colors, we would have used less paint. Use “fewer” for countable items, and “less” for one, mass item.

It’s research paper season in my world right now, and as I read page after page of student work, one mistake keeps surfacing: confusion regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.”

Most of the time, people probably aren’t even aware that they are getting it wrong. After all, saying something like, “I should have eaten less cookies” really doesn’t sound that bad (unless you know better, which you are about to). But it is wrong. What the regretful victim of the sweet tooth should have said was: “I should have eaten fewer cookies.” Now, if she had been talking about cake, she would have been correct in her use of “less.” “I should have eaten less cake” is correct.

So why is “I should have eaten less cake” correct where “I should have eaten less cookies” is incorrect? Well, whereas “cookies” are several, countable items, “cake” is one, mass item. If you eat less cake or less pie, you eat fewer slices of cake or pie. The cake and the pie are singular, mass items, but the slices are individual, countable pieces.

Basically, you use “fewer” when discussing a number of individual items that you can count–crackers, cookies, hours, vegetables. You use “less” when discussing one item that can be larger or smaller in size.

For example, when you have fewer minutes, you have less time. Time is one thing made up of a bunch of minutes.

Similarly, when you eat fewer pieces of cake, you eat less cake. The cake is one baked good made up of several pieces.

For one final example: If you eat fewer meals, you might eat less food. Food is not a countable item, but the number of meals you eat in a day is.

Hopefully, you now have fewer questions and less confusion about the English language! 😉

Reader’s Choice: Your Writing Questions, Answered

Perhaps you’ve always wondered what the difference between “Master’s” and “masters” is, in the context of one’s graduate degree.

Maybe you’ve never quite understood the difference between “affect” and “effect.”

Possibly, the semicolon is a source of infinite confusion for you.

Whatever your writing-related quandary may be, comment below or send an e-mail to mindthedogwritingblog@gmail.com to get it all cleared up in an upcoming post!

I look forward to hearing from you!

 

Still a Writer

As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.

On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.

And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.

Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.