This chapter is adapted from Business Communication for Success.
This chapter presents a high-level overview of important considerations while writing. Specific examples are presented in the next Writing Supplement Chapter.
I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. -James A. Michener
Half my life is an act of revision. -John Irving
Business writing ultimately values writing that produces results or outcomes in environments where you do not have the luxury of controlling the variables, designing the context, or limiting the scope of your inquiry. Your business document will be evaluated by both a primary audience–those you prepared the document for like bosses, colleagues, clients–and, likely, a secondary audience–those who find your document online, get forwarded the message, or incidentally have access to your writing. In short, what we write often finds a broad audience.
In every career, industry, and profession, today’s business climate is a result-oriented . Regardless of what you write, there exists the possibility, even probability, that misunderstandings and miscommunications can and will occur. Although you will not always have control over the importance of the ideas you are assigned to communicate in your writing, there is one thing you can control: errors. If you avoid mistakes, both in the document itself and in the way your audience interprets your message, your document will have its best chance of success. Thus, a thorough revision is an important part of your writing process.
As you review and evaluate documents, those written by you and others, you will need to keep in mind the three goals: to be correct, to be clear, and to be concise. Next you will have to focus on effectiveness and efficiency, recognizing that in a climate of increasing demands and limited resources like time, you need to get it right the first time.
Being a business writer can be stressful, but it can also be rewarding. Recognition from your peers—suppliers, internal department colleagues, or customers—can make it all worthwhile. Still, the reward in terms of acknowledgement may come in the form of silence. When your document clearly meets expectations and accomplishes its goal, the outcome may be the absence of error or misinterpretation, a rare occasion that often goes unheralded. As a business writer you need to value your work and note what works. When it does, take pride in your hard work in effort. You may not always be celebrated for your error-free documents that communicate concepts and ideas clearly, but know that they are successful, and their success is your success.
General Revision Points to Consider
Just when you think the production of your document is done, the revision process begins. The writing process requires effort, from overcoming writer’s block to the intense concentration composing a document often involves. It is only natural to have a sense of relief when your document is drafted from beginning to end. This relief is false confidence, though. Your document is not complete, and in its current state it could, in fact, do more harm than good. Errors, omissions, and unclear phrases may lurk within your document, waiting to reflect poorly on you when it reaches your audience. Now is not time to let your guard down, prematurely celebrate, or to move on to the next assignment. Every document, whether written by a seasoned expert or a novice writer, requires editing and revision.
General revision requires attention to content, organization, style, and readability. These four main categories should give you a template from which to begin to explore details in depth. Across this chapter we will explore ways to expand your revision efforts to cover the common areas of weakness and error. You may need to take some time away from your document to approach it again with a fresh perspective. Take at least 24 hours away from your document between the drafting and revision process. Writers often juggle multiple projects that are at different stages of development. This allows the writer to leave one document and return to another without losing valuable production time.
Content is the first key aspect of your document. Let’s say you were assigned a report on the sales trends for a specific product in a relatively new market. You could produce a one-page chart comparing last year’s results to current figures and call it a day, but would it clearly and concisely deliver content that is useful and correct? Are you supposed to highlight trends? Are you supposed to spotlight factors that contributed to the increase or decrease? Are you supposed to include projections for next year? Our list of questions could continue, but for now let’s focus on content and its relationship to the directions. Have you included the content that corresponds to the given assignment, left any information out that may be necessary to fulfill the expectations, or have you gone beyond the assignment directions? Content will address the central questions of who, what, where, when, why and how within the range and parameters of the work or school assignment.
Organization is another key aspect of any document. Standard formats that include an introduction, body, and conclusion may be part of your document, but did you decide on a direct or indirect approach? Can you tell? A direct approach will announce the main point or purpose at the beginning, while an indirect approach will present an introduction before the main point. Your document may use any of a wide variety of organizing principles, such as chronological, spatial, compare/contrast. Is your organizing principle clear to the reader?
Beyond the overall organization, pay special attention to transitions. Readers often have difficulty following a document if the writer makes the common error of failing to make one point relevant to the next, or to illustrate the relationships between the points. Finally, your conclusion should mirror your introduction and not introduce new material.
Style is created through content and organization, but also involves word choice and grammatical structures. Is your document written in an informal or formal tone, or does it present a blend, a mix, or an awkward mismatch? Does it provide a coherent and unifying voice with a professional tone? If you are collaborating on the project with other writers or contributors, pay special attention to unifying the document across the different authors’ styles of writing. Even if they were all to write in a professional, formal style, the document may lack a consistent voice. Read it out loud—can you tell who is writing what? If so, that is a clear clue that you need to do more revising in terms of style.
Readability refers to the reader’s ability to read and comprehend the document. A variety of tools are available to make an estimate of a document’s reading level, often correlated to a school grade level. If this chapter has a reading level of 11.8, it would be appropriate for most readers in the eleventh grade. But just because you are in grade thirteen, eighteen, or twenty-one doesn’t mean that your audience, in their everyday use of language, reads at a postsecondary level. As a business writer, your goal is to make your writing clear and concise, not complex and challenging.
You can often use the “Tools” menu of your word processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word) to determine the approximate reading level of your document. The program will evaluate the number of characters per word, add in the number of words per sentence, and come up with a rating. It may also note the percentage of passive sentences, and other information that will allow you to evaluate readability. Like any computer-generated rating, it should serve you as one point of evaluation, but not the only point. Your concerted effort to choose words you perceive as appropriate for the audience will serve you better than any computer evaluation of your writing.
2 Specific Revision Points to Consider
This section presents six specific elements of every document to check for revision. When revising your document, it can be helpful to focus on specific points. When you consider each point in turn, you will be able to break down the revision process into manageable steps. When you have examined each point, you can be confident that you have avoided many possible areas for errors. Specific revision requires attention to the following:
Format is an important part of the revision process. Format involves the design expectations of author and audience. If a letter format normally designates a date at the top, or the sender’s address on the left side of the page before the salutation, the information should be in the correct location. Formatting that is messy or fails to conform to the company style will reflect poorly on you before the reader even starts to read it. By presenting a document that is properly formatted according to the expectations of your organization and your readers, you will start off making a good impression.
Another key part of the revision process is checking your facts. Did you know that news organizations and magazines employ professional fact-checkers? These workers are responsible for examining every article before it gets published and consulting original sources to make sure the information in the article is accurate. This can involve making phone calls to the people who were interviewed for the article—for example, “Mr. Diaz, our report states that you are thirty-nine years old. Our article will be published on the fifteenth. Will that be your correct age on that date?” Fact checking also involves looking facts up in encyclopedias, directories, atlases, and other standard reference works; and, increasingly, in online sources.
While you can’t be expected to have the skills of a professional fact-checker, you do need to reread your writing with a critical eye to the information in it. Inaccurate content can expose you and your organization to liability, and will create far more work than a simple revision of a document. So, when you revise a document, ask yourself the following:
- Does my writing contain any statistics or references that need to be verified?
- Where can I get reliable information to verify it?
It is often useful to do independent verification—that is, look up the fact in a different source from the one where you first got it. For example, perhaps a colleague gave you a list of closing averages for the Dow Jones Industrial on certain dates. You still have the list, so you can make sure your document agrees with the numbers your colleague provided. But what if your colleague made a mistake? The Web sites of the Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers list closings for “the Dow,” so it is reasonably easy for you to look up the numbers and verify them independently.
Always spell a person’s name correctly.
There is no more embarrassing error in business writing than to misspell someone’s name. To the writer, and to some readers, spelling a name “Michelle” instead of “Michele” may seem like a minor matter, but to Michele herself it will make a big difference. Attribution, giving credit where credit is due, is essential and often involves listing people by name. There are many other reasons for including someone’s name, but regardless of your reasons for choosing to include names, you need to make sure the spelling is correct. Incorrect spelling of names is a quick way to undermine your credibility; it can also have a negative impact on your organization’s reputation, and in some cases it may even have legal ramifications.
Correct spelling is another element essential for your credibility, and errors will be glaringly oblivious (that’s a joke) to many readers. The negative impact on your reputation as a writer, based on perceptions that you lack attention to detail or do not value your work, will be hard to overcome. In addition to the negative personal consequences, spelling errors can become factual errors and destroy the value of content.
While you should use the “spell check” button in your word processing program, you should also know computer spell-checking is not enough. Spell checkers have improved in the years since they were first invented, but they are not infallible. They can and do make mistakes. Often an incorrect word may in fact be a word, and according to the program be correct. For example, suppose you wrote, “The major will attend the meeting” when you meant to write “The mayor will attend the meeting.” The program would miss this error because “major” is a word, but your meaning would be twisted beyond recognition. In short, there is no substitution for careful human proofreading and editing!
Punctuation marks are the traffic signals, signs, and indications that allow us to navigate the written word. They serve to warn us in advance when a transition is coming or the complete thought has come to an end. A period indicates the thought is complete, while a comma signals that additional elements or modifiers are coming. Correct signals will help your reader follow the thoughts through sentences and paragraphs, and enable you to communicate with maximum efficiency while reducing the probability of error.
Table 1 lists twelve punctuation marks that are commonly used in English in alphabetical order along with an example of each.
Table 1 Punctuation Marks
|Michele’s report is due tomorrow.
|This is what I think: you need to revise your paper.
|The report advised us when to sell, what to sell, and where to find buyers.
|This is more difficult than it seems—buyers are scarce when credit is tight.
|Lincoln spoke of “a new nation…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
|The question is a many-faceted one.
|To answer it (or at least to begin addressing it) we will need more information.
|The answer is no. Period. Full stop.
|Can I talk you into changing your mind?
|The manager told him, “I will make sure Renée is available to help you.”
|Theresa was late to the meeting; her computer had frozen and she was stuck at her desk until a tech rep came to fix it.
It may be daunting to realize that the number of possible punctuation errors is as extensive as the number of symbols and constructions available to the author. Software program may catch many punctuation errors, but again it is the committed writer that makes the difference. Here we will provide details on how to avoid mistakes with three of the most commonly used punctuation marks: the comma, the semicolon, and the apostrophe.
Revise for Style
There are so many considerations you may want to keep in mind when revising for style. The chapter supplement offers details for each of the elements listed below.
- Break Up Long Sentences
- Revise Big Words and Long Phrases
- Evaluate Long Prepositional Phrases
- Delete Repetitious Words
- Eliminate Obscure Expressions or References
- Avoid Fillers
- Eliminate Slang
- Evaluate Clichés
- Emphasize Precise Words
- Evaluate Parallel Construction
- Cut Obscured or Buried Verbs
- The “Is It Professional?” Test
As an experienced business writer, you may be called upon to collaborate and review others’ work. Having a clear understanding of the process will help you be efficient in your review, producing constructive changes or advice that would benefit the essay while resisting change for change’s sake.
Writing with others can be difficult. Most important is the establishment of who has the final say on a document. It is crucial that you discuss with your teammates if it alright to edit the document (e.g., “Would you prefer that I make suggestions in comments or directly edit the document?” “Should I use track changes or highlight the things I change?” “I’m not particularly strong at grammar, could you please proofread my section for issues with grammar and spelling?”) Be open and honest with your collaborators and set clear boundaries that help you determine who is doing what in the writing process. When you write with others you may find it useful to use comments, track changes, or digital collaborative writing spaces like Google Docs to help facilitate team-writing. It is helpful to assign each member of your team a specific role, section, or job in the writing process to ensure that you do not duplicate each others’ efforts. Perhaps the most important role is the person designated to unify the style, format, and voice of the document. One team member should be designated as the ‘voice’ of the group. This person should, ideally, be a very strong writer with the ability to edit, synthesize, and proofread content. Last, when writing with others, we sometimes engage in evaluation, commenting on and suggesting changes to writing by other people. Evaluation other people’s writing is difficult and can often feel personal. The next section details how to deliver appropriate evaluative feedback to teammates.
Five Steps in Evaluation
Whether you are evaluating a document for your own team someone else’s writing, the goal is to offer fair, constructive, and useful feedback. There are five steps to writing evaluation:
- Understand the task or assignment.
- Evaluate how well the writing carries out the assignment.
- Evaluate assertions.
- Check facts.
- Look for errors.
First, review the instructions or tasks that were given to the writer. Make sure you understand the assignment and the target audience. What resources did the writer have access to, and how much time was allotted for completing the assignment? What purpose did the document need to fulfill, and what role will this document have in future business activities or decisions?
Second, evaluate how well the document fulfills its stated goals. As a reader, do you see the goals carried out in the document? If you didn’t know the writer and you were to find the document next year in a file where you were searching for information, would it provide you with the information it aims to convey? For example, suppose the document refers to the sales history of the past five years. Does the writer provide the sales history for the reader’s reference, or indicate where the reader can get this information?
Evaluate the assertions made in the document. An assertion is a declaration, statement, or claim of fact. Suppose the writer indicates that the sales history for the past five years is a significant factor. Does the writer explain why this history is significant? Is the explanation logical and sufficient?
Evaluate the facts cited in the document. Does the writer credit the sources of facts, statistics, and numbers? For example, suppose the writer mentions that the population of the United States is approximately three hundred million. Obviously, the writer did not count all U.S. residents to arrive at this number. Where did it come from? If you have access to sources where you can independently verify the accuracy of these details, look them up and note any discrepancies.
Finally, check the document for proper format and for errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Word processing spell checkers do not catch all errors.
Delivering the Evaluation
If you are asked to evaluate someone else’s written work, keep in mind that not everyone can separate process from product, or product from personality. Many authors, particularly those new to the writing process, see the written word as an extension of self. To help the recipient receive your evaluation as professional advice, rather than as personal criticism, use strategies to be tactful and diplomatic.
Until you know the author and have an established relationship, it is best to use “I” statements, as in “I find this sentence difficult to understand.” The sentence places the emphasis on the speaker rather than the sentence, and further distances the author from the sentence. If you were to say, “This sentence is awful,” all the author may hear is, “I am an awful writer” and fail to pay attention to your message, the sentence under examination, or ways to improve it. Business writing produces products, and all products can be improved, but not all authors can separate messenger from message.
Avoid the use of the word you in your evaluation, oral or written, as it can put the recipient on the defensive. This will inhibit listening and decrease the probability of effective communication. It can be interpreted as a personal attack. Just as speakers are often quite self-conscious of their public speaking abilities, writers are often quite attached to the works they have produced. Anticipating and respecting this relationship and the anxiety it sometimes carries can help you serve as a better evaluator. To help the recipient receive your evaluation as professional advice, rather than as personal criticism, use strategies to be tactful and diplomatic.
Phrasing disagreement as a question is often an effective response strategy. For example ask: “What is this sentence intended to communicate?” This places the emphasis on the sentence, not the author, and allows for dialogue. Phrasing your evaluation as a question emphasizes your need to understand, and provides the author with space to respond in a collaborative fashion.
Focus on the document as the focal product, not the author. There may be times when the social rank or status of the individual involved with work requires respectful consideration, and choosing to focus on the document as a work in progress, distinct from authors themselves, can serve you well. This also means that at times you may notice a glaring error but be reluctant to challenge the author directly as you anticipate a less than collaborative response. By treating the document as a product, and focusing on ways to strengthen it, keeping in mind our goals of clear and concise as reference points, you can approach issues without involving personalities.
Proofreading and Design Evaluation
In traditional publishing, proofreading and design are the final stages a book undergoes before it is published. If the earlier steps of research, organizing, writing, revising, and formatting have been done carefully, proofreading and design should go smoothly. Now is not the time to go back and revise a document’s content, or to experiment with changes in format. Instead, the emphasis is on catching any typographical errors that have slipped through the revision process, and “pouring” the format into a design that will enhance the writer’s message.
By now you have completed a general and specific review of the document, with attention to details outline above. You may have made changes, and most word processing programs will allow you to track those changes across several versions and authors.
If you are asked to review a document, design an element that deserves consideration. While most of our attention has focused on words (i.e., sentence construction and common errors), design can have a strong impact on the representation and presentation of information.
Document layout refers to how information is presented, including margins, line justifications, and template expectations. Just as frame creates a border around a painting, highlighting part of the image while hiding the margins, the document layout of a page influences how information is received. Margins create space around the edge and help draw attention to the content. One-inch margins are standard, but differences in margin widths will depend on the assignment requirements. A brief letter, for example, may have margins as wide as two inches so that the body of the letter fills up the stationery in a more balanced fashion. Template expectations are distinct from audience expectation, though they are often related. Most software programs have templates for basic documents, including letters, reports, and résumés.
Templates represent the normative expectations for a specific type of document. Templates have spaces that establish where a date should be indicated and where personal contact information should be represented. They also often allow you to “fill in the blank,” reflecting each document’s basic expectations of where information is presented.
For example, line justification involves where the text lines up on the page. Letters often have a left justify, lining up the text on the left side of the page while allowing the ends of each line on the right side to be “ragged,” or not aligned. This creates even spaces between words and gives the appearance of organization while promoting white space, the space on the page free of text. Balance between text (often black) and white space creates contrast and allows for areas of emphasis. Left justify often produces the appearance of balance, as the words are evenly spaced, while left and right justify can produce large gaps between words, making the sentences appear awkward and hard to read.
Paragraphs are the basic organizational unit for presenting and emphasizing the key points in a document. Effective paragraphs can provide an effective emphasis strategy, but the placement within the page can also influence recall and impact. The first point presented is often the second in importance, the second point is the least important, and the third point in a series of three is often the most important. People generally recall the last point presented, and tend to forget or ignore the content in the middle of a sequence. Use this strategy to place your best point in the most appropriate location.
A lengthy document that consists of paragraph after paragraph can become monotonous, making reading a chore and obscuring pieces of information that need to stand out. To give the document visual variety and to emphasize key information, consider the following strategies:
- Bullets (•)
- Numbers (1,2,3 or I, II, III)
Remember, however, that using all caps (all capitals) for body text (as opposed to headings) is often considered rude, like shouting, particularly in electronic communications.
If a visual aids, such as graphics, tables, and images can help you make your point better, then include them. When including visual aids take care to make sure that the verbal and visual messages complement each other. The visual should illustrate the text, and should be placed near the words so that the relationship is immediately clear (e.g. “Figure 1 shows our major steps). Sometimes during editing, a photograph will get pushed to the next page, leaving the relevant text behind and creating discontinuity. This creates a barrier for your reader, so avoid it if possible.
Using your editing skills, find and correct the errors in the following paragraph:
I never wanted to bacome a writer, but when I decidedon a career in sales, I found out that being able to write was a skill that would help me. So much of my daily work involved Writing that I sometimes thought i’d fallen asleep and woken up in someone else’s life. Messages, about actual sales, were the least of it. In order to attract customers, I have to send notes to people I already knew, asking them for sales leads. Then when I got a lead, I’ld write to the contact asking for a few munutes of their time.If I got to meet with them or even have a phote conversation, my next task was to write them a thank—you not. Oh, and the reports-I was always filing out reports; for my sales manager, tracking my progress with each customer and each lead. If someone had tell me how much writing sails would involve, I think I would of paid more attention to my writing courses en school.
the intended recipients of a business communication (report or presentation)
People who were not the intended recipients of an act of business communication (e.g., forwarded emails, information posted online, etc.).
Central questions of who, what, where, when, why and how within the range and parameters of the school or work assignment.
The manner in which an argument is presented to readers. This includes the structure of the argument (e.g., claim-data-warrant) and the overall structure of the paper including headings, logical flow, etc.
An approach to writing that states the main argument early and overtly.
An argument approach that presents an introduction and evidence before making the central claim
Purposeful statements that move the reader from one topic, idea, or section to the next. These often include overt signpost words like first, next, last, etc.
The flow of a document including content and organization, but also word choice and grammatical structures. Team documents should be edited to have a consistent style throughout.
The reader’s ability to read and comprehend the document.
The design expectations of author and audience including headings, salutations, etc.
objective statements that can be checked for accuracy in the document.
Finding additional sources that validate, back-up, counter, or compliment the claims made in your writing
commenting on and suggesting changes to writing by other people
a declaration, statement, or claim of fact
how information is presented, including margins, line justifications, and template expectations.