Five Steps to Clearer Business Writing: The Bob Vila Edition
Clear, straightforward business writing can do a lot: get you hired, get you promoted, save you time, make you money, and save you money. Lots of money. Think we’re exaggerating? Think again. Researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey found that using a clear writing style would save the U.S. Navy alone $27 million to $75 million annually in time wasted reading and rereading. That’s a lot.
Regardless of whether you’re a seaman or sales professional, chances are you communicate every day in writing: emails, reports, letters, Web content, proposals, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if that writing was more understandable, relatable, credible, and persuasive? Sure it would! So this week we’re taking a cue from our favorite home improvement guru and discussing five ways to remodel your writing with clearer, more persuasive messages. On to the list!
1. Start with a Solid Structure Structure matters. Much like documents and paragraphs, sentences are clearest when their main idea is up front. So move it. Put your subject, verb, and object (in that order) toward the beginning, and then include exceptions or details at the end. And if you’re describing a sequence of actions, provide them in chronological order. These structures mirror the way people process information, allowing readers to get the point without rereading or chronic head scratching. Bonus.
Example: Unclear: A massive document full of marketing collateral, factual errors, and vague explanations of how projects would be completed, the sales proposal was finally submitted by the other company. Clearer: The other company finally submitted their sales proposal, a massive document full of marketing collateral, factual errors, and vague explanations of how projects would be completed.
Extra Tip: Variety is important for readability and flow, so while main messages should stay in the subject–verb position, don’t force every sentence into the same structure. Explore different length and structure combinations, and if you’re struggling to break down sentence elements, check out this free diagramming tutorial from the Wisc-Online digital library.
2. Clear Out the Clutter Conciseness also matters, so don’t make a simple idea difficult by including extra words. For instance, when identifying your subject, verb, and object, you may find unnecessary phrases and prepositions, jargon, or redundancies. Cut them. Doing so will prevent confusion and save reading time. Nice. And while you’re at it, swap “is” verbs with verbs that reflect the action being described. This will cut word count and strengthen your message. Brilliant!
Example: Unclear: The point I wish to make [unnecessary phrase] is [“is” verb] that employees working at XYZ Company are [“is” verb] in need of [the real action being described] a much better manager of their projects. (24 words) Clearer: Employees at XYZ Company [subject] need [stronger verb] a much better project manager [object]. (10 words)
Extra Tip: While extra words are the bane of clarity, be careful not to streamline to the point of dumbing down your message. Whenever you’re writing an important document, have a few colleagues read through your draft to ensure the message is clear, complete, and appropriate for your audience. You’ll be amazed what another set of eyes will catch.
3. Focus on the Flow Your sentences now have clear, simple structures and no clutter. Check. But are they connected to each other in a logical and unified way? Make sure by using words or phrases that transition a thought from one sentence to another, helping readers understand ideas as the content progresses.
For instance, if you write a sentence about your company’s experience and the next sentence gives an example of that experience, you may want to start the second sentence with For example, To demonstrate, or something similar. Easy. And once you’ve completed your thought, hit “enter” and transition to a new paragraph.
Example: Unclear: XYZ Company completed their first project by the deadline. The budget was exceeded. The client decided not to extend the contract. Clearer: XYZ Company completed their first project by the deadline; however, the budget was exceeded. Therefore, the client decided not to extend the contract.
Extra Tip: Good transitions are critical to saving readers’ time, holding their attention, and being persuasive. So when editing your work, read it aloud to identify confusing or awkward transitions. It works like a charm. Also, print out a reference list of common transitional phrases/words and their functions. Like this one.
4. Be Careful What You Modify “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.” We love this Groucho Marx quote. Not only is it a funny mental picture (really, think about it), but it’s also a good example of a misplaced modifier. Here’s the deal: Modifiers are words or phrases (in my pajamas) that give detail about another word (elephant) in a sentence. They’re useful, but misplacing them can cause serious reader confusion. Avoid misunderstandings by placing modifiers directly next to the word or phrase you want to modify.
Example: The only difference between the following two sentences is the location of the modifier almost. Does it make a big difference in their meanings? Yep. 1. Almost every employee on XYZ Company’s team completed the project. 2. Every employee on XYZ Company’s team almost completed the project.
Extra Tip: Sometimes modifiers aren’t simply misplaced; they’re inserted without anything to modify. Yikes. They can be tricky to catch, so remember that these phrases, known as dangling modifiers, often have an –ing verb or to + verb structure. In addition, they’re usually at the very beginning or end of a sentence. Here’s an example: Upon submitting the proposal, an embarrassing error caught my attention. Who is submitting the proposal? The embarrassing error? My attention? Nope and nope. The sentence’s first phrase has nothing to modify. It’s just dangling, waiting to confuse some poor reader.
5. Keep Your Construction Parallel Few things confuse readers more than when a sentence has words, phrases, or clauses with similar functions but different constructions. For example, let’s say a sentence lists a series of three actions: examining, testing, and create reports. Something is wrong. That’s right, each action is not expressed in the same grammatical form (in this case an -ing verb). Create reports should be reporting.
Similarly, parallel structure is needed when you have elements joined by coordinating conjunctions (for, an, nor, but, or, or yet), correlative conjunctions (either…or, neither…nor, both…and, not only…but also), or a linking verb or form of to be. Remodel done.
Examples: Unclear: XYZ Company’s website and [coordinating conjunction] what its marketing materials are emphasize attention to detail, commitment to excellence, and being dedicated to clients [element in a series]. Clearer: XYZ Company’s website and marketing materials emphasize attention to detail, commitment to excellence, and dedication to clients. Unclear: To succeed is [form of to be] being on time and on budget; therefore, the team not only aims for efficiency, but also [correlative conjunction] quality. Clearer: To succeed is to be on time and on budget; therefore, the team aims for not only efficiency, but also quality.
Extra Tip: When a sentence includes a series of actions in infinitive form (to + verb), you can use to before all the verbs or only before the first one. Just don’t mix (e.g., to examine, test, and report instead of to examine, test, and to report).
Get Chatty: Like all writers, we’re always looking for new tips and strategies for building better business writing. So share your insight. What steps have you taken to improve the clarity of your writing? Leave a comment and let us know!
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