Improving your Business Writing may require an exorcism.
Many people struggle with and, indeed, fear and dread business writing.
Overcoming this may require remembering and ridding ourselves of academic ghosts that have long haunted our writing.
To do that, please join me in a mental time capsule that takes us
back in time - back to the fifth and sixth grades.
Back in the fifth and sixth grades, you probably went through the
school system similar to the way I did. You spent all day with
the same person; it wasn't your mother or father. You spent a big
part of your day with your elementary school teacher.
I admire elementary school teachers. They are my heroes. They
face a lot of challenges. They have to teach you science, math,
social studies, English, and geography. They sometimes concerned
themselves with eraser clapping, milk money, and PTA meetings.
One of these responsibilities is to teach you English. When they
put on their English teachers' hats, their primary responsibility
was to teach you the concept of a sentence.
Back then, in 5th and 6th grade, we were young. We were
impressionable. And, coming from authority figures we heard words
Terrifying sounding words, right?
That experience with those four terrifying words left an
everlasting impression on us.
Big People like Big Words.
What other conclusion could we come to? Our knowledge base was
very limited. We didn't know any better. We were young and very
After learning the kinds of sentences, we learned the types of
And we learned:
"This is a simple sentence."
"This is a compound sentence; it contains two independent
"This is a complex sentence which contains one dependent and one
"This is a compound-complex sentence and because it contains two
independent clauses and a dependent clause, it becomes a long
In our young, impressionable minds, what then became the standard
by which we thought we were going to be judged?
First, we learned that big people like big words. Now, we learn
that big people like big sentences.
Those elementary school teachers took a very logical approach.
They started very simply and ended with more difficult material.
This approach showed us the various ways we speak and the various
types of sentences we could use in writing. Unfortunately, in our
young, impressionable minds, we retained only the message:
Big People Like Big Words; Big People Like Big Sentences.
Then, you entered the seventh grade. Maybe by this time, you met
a specialist - a dedicated English teacher. That dedicated
English teacher assumed that the fifth and sixth grade teachers
taught you all these neat things about sentences. Now you have to
put these sentences together into something called a "paragraph."
Think about your first encounter with paragraph writing.
I know the only two things you ever really remember about
paragraph writing. I know those two things because I ask
participants in my workshops, "What do you remember about writing
that first paragraph?" I get eight to ten different answers.
Number one and number two are always the same.
Think back to that first paragraph you had to write. Tell me what
you remember about that first paragraph. (Remember, I asked you
to play make believe.)
Go ahead, say it out loud. Or, if you're reading this in your
office or on a plane, and you don't want people to throw a net
over your head, say it to yourself. Tell me the first thing you
remember about writing that first paragraph.
Agony! Okay, what else? Say it; I know it's on the tip of your
Yes, that's right.
That's number one on the hit parade - Indent.
Of all of the things that people could remember about
writing, what sticks in their brains?
Now, many letters we receive come to us left justified, which
means many people have dropped the concept of indenting.
The second thing people tell me they remember about writing their
first paragraph is that that first paragraph had to be 100 words.
Either 100 words or a certain number of sentences.
Remember how we used to write? We looked at that blank sheet and
uttered the writer's prayer,
"Please God, let words appear"
We wrote that first sentence and then we counted the words.
"12 - yes! We're on our way."
Then we looked for the second sentence and wrote that down. Then
what did we do? We counted the words. We associated writing with
Then, we entered the 10th grade, 11th grade, or 12th grade.
What kind of writing are we doing now?
Remember those dreaded assignments - term papers, themes,
compositions, book reports?
We are no longer talking 100 words. Now we're talking ten pages!
Remember how suddenly the margins got bigger? We learned how to
play the game.
Remember how our penmanship improved? We used to write small. Ten
pages, wow! All of a sudden, our writing became larger. That's
how we got to 10 pages.
Also, back then, when we had to write that 10 page term paper, we
introduced ourselves to two items - a dictionary and a thesaurus.
Back then, we started doing bizarre things - like utilizing
"utilize" rather than using "use." We wrote the paper and it was
only eight pages long.
That will never do. So we reread the paper and found this little
word "use." That word was too small. So, we looked in the
dictionary and found the word "utilize" - the stuff
dreams are made of.
Early in our education, we learned some valuable lessons.
First, big words fill pages. What was our objective? We had to
Second, we learned a system for good grades. The more big
words we used, the better our grade. The better the grades, the
more big words we used. Writing became a game. We knew how to
play the game. That stuck with us.
In the fifth and sixth grade, we heard words like "declarative"
and "interrogative." When we wrote our term papers, we used words
like "utilize" and "endeavor."
Then some of us entered college.
Do you remember the horror of filling two blue books during the
Did those blue books tell what you knew about the subject?
Did they tell how you could apply that information in real life?
All that experience showed was how well we could shovel academic
Throughout your formal education, you had a number associated
with writing, 100 words, 10 pages, two blue books.
Now you get into a business environment to find out that none of
that stuff works. It's a completely different focus.
Because we focused on getting to 100 words, 10 pages and two blue
books, the length of our sentences increased, our words got
bigger, and we used more prepositional phrases.
Because we wrote like that in school, we naturally transferred
that approach to business writing.
In business, our audience does not have time to read two-pages
when one-page will do. Our audience is not impressed by the
length of our sentences or the extent of our vocabulary.
In the past, because we focused on getting to 100 words, 10 pages
and two blue books, we increased the length of our sentences,
searched for bigger words and used more prepositional phrases.
To get better results with our business writing, we need to
reverse that process. We need to become clear, concise, correct,
complete and conversational.