“In the business writing system, the messages are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the writers who craft letters and the readers who read them. These are their stories.”
I have chosen to focus on business writing because a) it is my area of specialty and good a writer always stick to what they know, and because b) every writer (and writer wannabe) is a business writer even though you may not realize it. How so? Sending a query to a potential publisher is business writing. Emailing back and forth with your editor—business writing. A panicky paragraph in the middle of the night on April 14 when you realize you DO need your accountant to help you figure out your taxes—business writing.
I teach a two hour workshop on business writing. To keep the class fresh, I collect samples of business writing with errors or “crimes.” Each year, I sit down and comb through the pile I’ve collected in search of the top three crimes. The winners (or losers??) this year are. . . . (drum roll, please)
1. Focusing on the writer
2. Burying the request
3. Using passive voice
Focusing on the writer
Memos, letters, or emails need to be more concerned with the reader than with the writer. Before ever putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, consider these important questions:
- What is the bottom line message of interest to the reader?
- Why should the reader care?
- What’s in it for the reader to keep reading or to take the action I’ve requested?
Look for “I” instead of “you” pronoun usage as one piece of evidence that you may be committing the writer-focus crime.
EXAMPLE: I teach a two hour workshop on business writing. To keep the class fresh, I collect samples of business writing with errors. . .
REWRITE: You may be hurting your chances to get published by committing business writing errors that are easily correctable!
Burying the request
As fiction authors, you may find this next challenge quite difficult. It is your habit to build to a climactic point in your work or to hide certain details until the most opportune time. You certainly don’t revel “who did it” in the first sentence of your book. Yet, in business writing, your first line SHOULD be the who-done-it or the most important sentence of the work. My plea to every business writer is to move your action requests to the beginning of your document.
Read your first line carefully before sending any business document. Does it make the request you’ve set out to accomplish?
EXAMPLE: As fiction authors, you may find this next challenge quite difficult . . . My plea to every business writer is to move your action requests to the beginning of your document.
REWRITE: Move your action requests to the beginning of your document. This may feel odd to you as you are accustomed to building to a climactic finale or revealing information only later in the work . . .
Using passive voice
A quick flashback to high school grammar class is in order. Passive voice hides or demotes the subject in the typical subject-verb-object sentence structure.
Active voice: The writer (subject)/ committed (verb)/ a crime (object).
Passive voice: A crime (object)/ was committed (verb)/ by the writer (subject).
The switch to passive voice may seem an innocent enough writing behavior, but it has some sinister consequences. The normal English speaking pattern is subject-verb-object. Therefore, native English speakers most easily processes language when it is presented in the subject-verb-object pattern. Additionally, poor business writing tends to be overly formal. Passive voice contributes to a stuffy tone. Readers appreciate a conversational tone in business documents.
Three key pieces of evidence will help you locate passive writing in your letters:
- Look for the word “by”
- Look for the subject (or the doer) of your action—it should come before the verb
- Look for helper verbs supporting your action verb (was committed versus committed)
You may find that in your fiction writing there is a place for passive voice or for waiting to reveal important information. But business writing operates with its own set of laws. Know and follow these “laws” so you aren’t convicted of a deadly writing crime.
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