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2001 - Writing That Works - How to Communicate Effectively In Business.3rd ed.pdf

2001 - Writing That Works - How…

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Writing That Works Third Edition How to communicate effectively in business: e-mail letters memos presentations plans reports proposals resumes speeches Kenmeth Roman and Joel Raphaelson If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; If what is said is not what is meant, Then what ought to be done remains undone. —CONFUCIUS Contents Epigraph Preface: Why a Third Edition? 1. Writing That Works 2. Don’t Mumble—and Other Principles of Effective Writing 3. “I Love My Computer” 4. E-mail—the Great Mailbox in the Sky 5. Memos and Letters That Get Things Done 6. Writing for an Audience: Presentations and Speeches 7. Plans and Reports That Make Things Happen 8. Recommendations and Proposals That Sell Ideas 9. Asking for Money: Sales and Fund-Raising Letters 10. Coping with Political Correctness 11. Writing a Resume—and Getting an Interview 12. Editing Yourself 13. Making It Easy to Read Other Books That Will Help You Write Better Acknowledgments About the Author Praise for Writing That Works, 3rd Edition Previous Books Copyright About the Publisher Preface Why a Third Edition? The first edit ion of this book was writ ten on a typewriter; we delivered a typed manuscript to the publisher. We wrote the second edit ion on computers and delivered a printed manuscript . This edit ion was writ ten on computers and e-mailed to our editor—no manuscript , not even disks. That illustrates one of the changes in the way people communicate that propelled us to undertake a thorough revision. E-mail has become so ubiquitous that we added a chapter and revised several others to take full account of its influence. Another change in recent years is the fading of the internal memo — displaced in many uses by e-mail, in others by the presentat ion “deck.” Our purpose, however, remains unchanged. We wrote the book to help those millions of nonprofessional writers who must use the writ ten word to get results — in business, in government, in educat ion, in the arts. That ’s st ill our goal. Nor have we found any cause to abandon the principles we espouse. To the contrary, the speed and ease of e-mail and word processing serve as an invitat ion to sloppy writ ing. Replacing paper with a PC screen doesn’t change the need for clear, precise communicat ion. And replacing a formal memo with a bullet-pointed presentat ion deck doesn’t just ify loose thinking. In the second edit ion, we introduced some thoughts on how to avoid the pit falls of sexist language. We have expanded those thoughts into a separate chapter on polit ical correctness — and the extent to which it should or should not influence the way you write. Throughout the book, we have freshened examples and sharpened points by pract icing what we preach about edit ing. Coming from a world of thirty-second commercials has trained us to cut to the essence — and helped keep this book slim and our message accessible. Nothing that follows is academic or theoret ical. You will find advice you can act on, whenever you have to convert empty screen or blank paper into a let ter, a memo, a report , a recommendat ion, a proposal, a speech, a resume. You’ll get help from specific side-by- side examples of good writ ing versus bad. “Generat ions ago the telephone killed the art of execut ive writ ing. Now it ’s poised for a comeback,” reports The Wall Street Journal, not ing that e-mail sends everyone to a keyboard. No wonder companies inst itute writ ing courses. Effect ive writ ing is hard work even for the best writers (and even on a computer), but the principles are simple. They don’t require unusual talent or special skills. They are easy to understand and easy to put into use. What you do need is a degree of determinat ion — the perseverance to be sure you’ve said what you want to say. This book aims to help you do that with less difficulty and more confidence, and get the results you’re looking for — from everything you write. 1 Writing That Works “Too many of the communicat ions I get are meaningless,” observes a leading CEO. “They don’t help me understand what act ion the writer wants me to take. They waste my t ime.” We could fill a dozen pages with complaints of this sort . “Unclear, poorly writ ten, or confusing” is the verdict of vice presidents of two hundred major U.S. companies on a full third of the business writ ing they confront. New York’s Commissioner of Educat ion, frustrated that so many of the let ters and memos passing through his office were “confusing” or “did not answer quest ions quickly enough,” ordered his 250 top officials to take a course in writ ing. And so it goes. It adds up to a chorus of laments that so few people can put a thought into words that make it clear, state it precisely, and take no more of the reader’s t ime than is called for. Yet clarity, desirable as it is, is not the goal. The goal is effect ive communicat ion — writ ing that works. What does the reader need to know to comprehend your report and endorse its conclusions? To approve your plan, and pay for it? To respond swift ly to your e-mail? To send money for your charity, your candidate, your product or service? To invite you to a job interview? To make the right business decision? You’re not likely to get the results you seek if your writ ing is murky, long-winded, bogged down by jargon, and topsyturvy in its order of thought. Just as unproduct ive is what two Stanford professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, call “smart talk.” Writ ing in the Harvard Business Review in 1999, the professors ident ify smart talk as a major obstacle to taking act ion in business. A characterist ic of smart talk is that it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). People seldom act on what they cannot understand. Good results are even less likely if you flood the reader with informat ion that isn’t organized to lead to an act ion or isn’t relevant to a grasp of the subject . Even the federal government is start ing to recognize the benefits of simple, clear writ ing. The Securit ies and Exchange Commission inaugurated the plain-language movement by ordering mutual fund companies to rewrite their prospectuses. The Veterans Benefits Administrat ion t rained employees in its insurance division how to write more clearly, and the response rate to its let ters increased — saving the agency $500,000 a year. Companies are seeing how confusing communicat ion t ies up their service centers, and how clear communicat ions makes them more efficient and compet it ive. One execut ive suggests a discipline — putt ing down first what you want the reader to do, next the three most important things the reader needs to understand to take that act ion, then start ing to write. When you’re done, he suggests asking yourself whether if you were the reader, would you take act ion on the basis of what is writ ten. People who write well do well To get act ion from busy people, your writ ing must cut through to the heart of the matter. It must require a minimum of t ime and effort on the reader’s part . The importance of this increases with the importance of your reader. At any level, readers are likely to be swamped either with paperwork or a twenty-four-hour-a-day stream of e-mail, or both. Junior execut ives may feel obliged to plow through everything that comes their way. The president doesn’t — and damned well won’t . A senior execut ive says this about a client : His desk is usually absolutely clean, but I know that somewhere in that man’s life there’s a tremendous pile of paper. If I want him to read the memo himself, I’d better get right to the point and I’d better be clear, or he’ll just pass it along to somebody else, with a testy little note asking for a translation. The better you write, the less t ime your boss must spend rewrit ing your stuff. If you are ambit ious, it won’t hurt to make life easier for people above you. Bad writ ing slows things down; good writ ing speeds them up. The only way some people know you is through your writ ing. It can be your most frequent point of contact , or your only one, with people important to your career — major customers, senior clients, your own top management. To those women and men, your writ ing is you. It reveals how your mind works. Is it forceful or fatuous, deft or clumsy, crisp or soggy? Readers who don’t know you judge you from the evidence in your writ ing. Their judgment of you specifically includes the evidence you give them in the e-mail you dash off. It comes as a surprise to many people that readers of e-mail do not abandon their standards just because they are looking at a screen rather than a piece of paper. “Because it’s just e-mail,” says Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, “people think they don’t have to be grammatical or spell things right or take the trouble to write well. It’s very annoying.” Slapdash comes across as slapdash, wordy as wordy, and poor spelling and grammar as signs of ignorance or sloppiness. It is best to st ick to standard English usage and to observe the convent ions of spelling and punctuat ion. We advise this not out of academic fussiness but from observing how things are. If you write “it ’s” with an apostrophe to signify the possessive of “it ” (wrong), instead of the contract ion of “it is” (right), not all readers will detect your lapse. But those who do may be the ones who count. There st ill seems to be some correlat ion between literacy and seniority. Important matters are usually examined in writ ing — either in a paper to be studied privately, or in a formal presentat ion. It isn’t enough that you know all about your subject . You must make yourself clear to somebody who has only a fract ion of your expert ise. Above all, you must express your point of view persuasively. We have seen hundreds of papers that assert a point of view with energet ic enthusiasm, but astonishingly few that make a persuasive case. Often enough the case itself is a good one. But the writer self-destructs in any or all of the ways we go into later on. “It is an immutable law of business,” said the former head of ITT, Harold Geneen, “that words are words, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.” By itself, good writ ing is no guarantee of success. But words are more than words, and poor performance can often be traced to poor communicat ion. Your ability to write persuasively can help you get things done and arrive at your goal — today, this month, or during the decades of your career. Making time to write well Writ ing better does not mean writ ing more. There is paper enough in our lives now — despite the computer and e-mail — and precious lit t le t ime to read it . This book suggests some of the ways that improving your writ ing can save t ime for other people. But what about your t ime? While you respect the t ime of others, you must also protect your own. It takes t ime to write well. People are wrong when they say there are only twenty-four hours in a day, observes management guru Peter Drucker — there are actually only two, perhaps three, that you can use productively, and the difference between busy execut ives and effect ive ones is how they use that t ime. Effect ive means picking your spots, concentrat ing your energies on a major document or project or speech that will make a difference. The biggest t ime waster is shuffling things from one pile to another while you drown in a sea of indecision. Effect ive execut ives t ry to handle paper only once — hard to do, but it works. They delete or respond to e-mail on the spot. They decide quickly whether to answer, file, or toss out. They respond to easy matters instant ly — by return e-mail or through comments writ ten direct ly on let ters and memos and returned at once. Or send short handwrit ten notes (or e-notes) of direct ion, praise, or crit icism. Major papers, on the other hand, require study. Read them act ively, get to the principal arguments, and decide what must be done. Consider a “maturing file” for knotty problems. Many disappear if given t ime. Others call for more thought. There is no rule that says you must answer or file everything that is sent to you. Fortune columnist Stewart Alsop became so swamped with the flood of e-mail that he first stopped responding to every message, then stopped reading them all. His reasoning: The fact that someone sends me a message does not automatically impose an obligation on my part to respond. If that were true, then it would logically follow that I should allow strangers to rule my life. I don’t like that idea. So I’ve started to delete messages without reading them first. This kind of discipline sets aside the t ime for the t ruly important as opposed to the merely urgent. It helps you clear the decks — at the office or at home — for the jobs that really matter. High among them will be major pieces that you write. The rest of this book provides specific advice on skills and techniques that will help you put whatever t ime you spend on writ ing to good use. Implicit on every page is the idea — the truth — that the ult imate t ime-saver is effect ive communicat ion. 2 Don’t Mumble - and Other Principles of Effective Writing When God wanted to stop the people from building the Tower of Babel, he did not smite them down with a thunderbolt . He said: “… let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” He could think of no surer way to keep the tower unbuilt than to garble communicat ions. While the Lord confounded language on purpose, humans do it inadvertent ly — albeit with similar results. The suggest ions in this chapter will help you avoid that fate for your own towers, whatever they may be. Above all, don’t mumble Once you’ve decided what you want to say, come right out and say it . Mumblers command less at tent ion than people who speak up. Keep in mind E. B. White’s sobering injunct ion: “When you say something, make sure you have said it . The chances of your having said it are only fair.” Instead of this … … saythis It is generally desirable to communicate your thoughts in a forthright manner. Don’tmumble. Toning your point down and tiptoeing around it may, in many circumstances, tempt the reader to tune out and allow his mind to wander. Here are some more suggest ions: 1. Make the organization of your writing clear Most people “write badly because they cannot think clearly,” observed H. L. Mencken. The reason they cannot think clearly, he went on, is that “they lack the brains.” We dare to assume that you, as a reader of this book, are brainy enough to think clearly. You know how to organize your thoughts into a coherent order. Now you must make that organizat ion clear to the reader. When you write anything longer than a few paragraphs, start by telling the reader where you are going. The committee proposes that the company invest $1 million in a library. First you must know where you are going yourself. Make an out line of your major points, placing support ing details in their proper posit ion. Then, in your paper, use your out line to signal the major points for your reader. Underline and number each important sect ion heading. This serves the same purpose as chapter t it les in a book. End with a summary. And keep in mind that a summary is not a conclusion. Your summary should introduce no new ideas; it should summarize, as briefly as possible, the most important points you have made. If your paper comes to a conclusion — the point of your case — your summary should summarize that too, to fix the essent ials of your message in your reader’s mind. Summary: Make an outline; use your outline to help your reader; number and underline section headings; summarize. Note: Some lengthy documents start with a summary, often called “Execut ive Summary.” The same principles apply. 2. Use short paragraphs, short sentences — and short words Three major art icles start at the top of the front page of every issue of The Wall Street Journal. The first paragraphs of these art icles are never more than three sentences long. Many paragraphs contain only a single sentence. The first sentences themselves are crisp and compact: It all began to crumble the afternoon Mom’s Best Cookies, Inc., fired Mom. The cult of James Dean was fostered by his early death, and it didn’t hurt his hometown any. It’s official — Wall Street is declaring war on sexism. By contrast , here is an example of the kind of mumbling first sentence that confronts people in their office reading: This provides the Argus, Mitchell & Dohn perspective on a consumers'-eye view of the current position and growth potential of Blake’s Tea and Jones’s Tea, the major entries of National Beverages in the English tea market. The Wall Street Journal is broadly read — beyond business and Wall Street. Readers and editors alike give much of the credit to its readability. Journal editors have put into pract ice this simple principle: Short sentences and short paragraphs are easier to read than long ones. And easier to understand. As for short words, you don’t have to turn your back on the riches and subt let ies of the English language. Nobody will excoriate you for using a long word whose precise meaning no shorter word duplicates. But prefer the short word to the long one that means the same thing: Prefer this… …to this Now Currently Start Initiate Show Indicate Finish Finalize Speed up, move along Expedite Use Utilize Place, put Position Reliance on long words, which are often more abstract than common short ones, can be a sign that you have not worked out exact ly what you want to say. If you have dist illed your thinking to its essence, you will probably be able to express it in simple words. Here is how George Bernard Shaw, in his days as a music crit ic, described his start led response to a new work: “I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when I stare.” Once Shaw had figured out what his unusual react ion had been, he was able to describe it in words of one syllable. Shakespeare expressed the deepest emot ion in the simplest words. Says King Lear on the brutal murder of his beloved Fool: “And my poor fool is hang’d. No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all? Thou’ll come no more. Never, never, never, never!” T he Reader’s Digest once published an art icle on the power of short words. The last sentence pointed out, to the surprise of most readers, that no word in the eloquent three-page essay had more than one syllable. 3. Make your writing active — and personal Good writers choose the act ive voice over the passive voice whenever possible — and it ’s possible most of the t ime. Act ive verbs add energy to your writ ing. That ’s why they’re called active. This simple pract ice also improves your writ ing by making it more personal, a human being talking rather than an inst itut ion. The passive voice hides who is speaking or taking act ion; the act ive voice reveals it . Passive, impersonal Act ive, personal It is recommended We recommend He should be told Get Alice to tell him Personal sacrifices are being made, although the degree of participation is not absolutely identifiable. We see people making sacrifices. How many people? We can’t say for sure. A lot of business writ ing mumbles along in the passive voice because high school English teachers told us not to start sentences with “I” without the first person singular (preferring “the cookies were eaten by me” to “I ate the cookies.”) But there are plenty of good ways to subst itute act ive for passi


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