Recently I was recruited to teach a course on business writing at my company. Evidently the people in human resources learned about my past life as an academic and decided that I was the man for the job. In doing so, they accepted on faith that my brain was not completely dehydrated by my academic experience, which corrodes the mind in myriad ways but perhaps none more so than the prohibition against making definitive judgments. The result is writing that uses the word "seems" as often as the word "and," turns nouns into verbs ("impact"), and generally strives for obfuscation in order to preserve the academyís self-appointed role as the priesthood of a relentlessly secular culture.
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I had my doubts about teaching business writing, mostly because I have been writing for business for only two years. Prior to that, I had no truck with the corporate beast that oppresses untold millions, sentences souls to eternal emptiness, enforces a rigid orthodoxy of mind and spirit--and has made my life a damn sight better than it was before. Iíve noticed since the check cleared on my sell-out in 1999 that I sleep better, but I am sure that is merely because I am suffering from false consciousness.
To help me prepare the course, I turned to the third edition of Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business. Written by two former Ogilvy executives, Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson, the bookís front cover blurb hails it as "The Strunk and White of business writing." (Strunk and Whiteís The Elements of Style is the Strunk and White of writing books). The new edition of Writing That Works includes a chapter on e-mail in which, as elsewhere, the authors focus on writing that gets to the point as quickly as possible. Business writing is often turgid and verbose, and the authorsí guidelines for paring it down are generally sound. But at times, they insist on concision to the point of abruptness.
For example, the authors provide plentiful examples of business letters that donít get to the point quickly enough. But some of their rewrites could be faulted in the other direction. This is their rewrite of a letter asking for company literature, previous versions of which had been too long in getting to the request:
Dear Mr. Sullivan,
Do you have any literature that spells out how the Bell Laboratories organized in its formative days? If so, would you send it to me and bill me?
Weíre a small Internet firm selling office equipment, and your early experience might help us figure out the best way to get going.
Your help would be invaluable to us.
I used this example in my class, and my colleagues were almost unanimous in finding the letter too abrupt. For letters requesting something, the authors advise the following order: 1) What you want, 2) Who you are, 3) Thank you. But my class made good arguments for switching 1) and 2), and others felt that starting a letter with "Do you have" was rude.
The authorsí first piece of advice for leaving effective voice mails is as follows: "Make it concise and to the point. No pleasantries necessary." Iíve never left a voice mail at work without a brief pleasantry to begin, and I canít conceive of a good argument for leaving one out.
Obviously, Roman and Raphaelson take the title of their book seriously. Their focus throughout is on writing that communicates, that leads to action, that works as opposed to just talking. The first chapter, "Donít Mumble--And Other Principles of Effective Writing," is full of useful examples of overwriting, buzzwords, and vagueness, coupled with effective rewrites. The authors rightly skewer such abominable phrases as "to interface," "net net," "suboptimal," "resource constrained," and "incent." Throughout, they counsel the writer to purge unnecessary words, a piece of gospel truth whose importance can never be overstated. The chapter also includes a useful list of words commonly confused, such as affect and effect, appraise and apprise, and indifferent and disinterested. The list is far from inclusive, however, and should have been made into a separate index. But then the book itself lacks an index. Considering the subject matter, the omission is unconscionable.
Writing That Works covers most of the business writing landscape, with separate chapters on the following subjects:
∑ Writing and editing on a computer
∑ Memos and Letters
∑ Presentations and Speeches
∑ Plans and Reports
∑ Recommendations and Proposals
∑ Sales and Fund-Raising Letters
∑ Political Correctness
∑ Editing Yourself
∑ Making it Easy to Read
The book contains a good bibliography of other business writing resources, which, again, could have been much longer. There also could have been more on structure and organization of documents, and more attention paid to the concept of audience, which dictates almost everything in business writing.
The authors are sensible on the scourge of political correctness that originated in the academy and has now overrun more civilized portions of the society. They generally take a middle path, recognizing the permanence of a good deal of the changes in usage, and emphasizing the value of courtesy. But they rightly blanch at objections to perfectly good words and phrases like "shiftless," "crippled," "feminine," "ghetto," "illegal alien," and--yes--"fried chicken." On the problem of he/she when writing in a collective sense--for example, "Every novelist wants his work to be read"--they reject the solution that would recast the sentence as "Every novelist wants his or her book to be read." Their solution is to recast into the plural: "All novelists want their books to be read." The plural solution is certainly preferable to others, but it is still inadequate. The loss of the singular collective is a loss of a certain precision, even poetry, of expression. But this is a problem much larger than business writing.
The authors provide sound counsel on preparing and delivering presentations, asking for money, and writing proposals. The new e-mail chapter is helpful as well, but the authorsí attempts to lay down hard and fast rules have mixed results. Standards for e-mail use in business are still evolving. There are simply too many different kinds of situations and relationships within the workplace to adhere to these dictates across the board. Even the authorsí suggestion to avoid e-mail when a walk down the hall would suffice is problematic. Where I work, a walk down the hall brings me into contact with other colleagues, and more likely than not will draw me into a conversation, either business or social. If I had stayed at my desk and simply fired off the e-mail, I would not be interrupted.
Despite these reservations, I recommend Writing That Works. No set of standards is foolproof in the world of business, especially with the changes ushered in by the Internet, e-mail, and casual offices. Ultimately, the writer has to use his discretion based on company culture, circumstances, and personal relationships. Like our parents, Writing That Works provides a model to start with--and deviate from. If you make your living with words, itís a good book to have around.
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