Leverage the power of effective writing
Be a Brilliant Business Writer gives you tools for mastering the art of persuasive writing in every document you create, from email and client letters to reports and presentations. Jane Curry and Diana Young will show you how to convey your message with clarity and power, increase your productivity by reducing rewrites, and provide just the right tone for navigating the minefield of office politics. With its smart, savvy advice, Be a Brilliant Business Writer will help you write to boost the bottom line, win professional accolades, and gain greater job security.
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About the Author
JANE CURRY earned her PhD in English Education from the University of Chicago. DIANA YOUNG received her PhD in English from Stanford. Their company, Curry Young Consultants, Inc., based in the Chicago area, delivers customized writing and editing services to high-profile corporate clients and to employees at every level—from the mailroom to the C-suite.
Read an Excerpt
If a man has nothing to say, he should refrain from giving evidence of that fact in writing.
Succeeding in corporate America is challenging in the best of times, but when economic conditions are weak, demands increase—and fewer people are asked to do more—and in less time. In fact, many of you are so pressed for time you often have to slam away at your keyboards into the night, working against impossible and competing deadlines. No wonder most of you appear to need a good cry, a dry martini, and a long nap.
Like you, people who read business documents are crying, too, and wishing they could drink martinis and take naps, although not with you. Yet, corporate America almost fights against writing efficiency. Look around you: the landscape is littered with lost opportunities buried in the vast pit of empty words that is the final resting place of most business writing.
It’s not that business people don’t know that good writing is important or can’t write; it’s that they don’t know how to write what counts. So many words are spewed out in the course of every business day like so much toxic waste, and their pernicious effect limits what businesses can accomplish both by eliminating the potential for reflection and discussion and by delaying action.
This book is designed to help you write well, write fast, and whip the competition. This book is for you if you understand that writing is more than a soft skill that everyone already knows how to do. Embrace this book if you see writing as an economic engine that can help you:
• Increase profits
• Influence decisions
• Serve your professional reputation
• Support your firm’s strategic goals.
You already know how to write
Since you already know how to write, you don’t need or have time to learn a whole new approach to writing: what you need are strategies that can help you leverage your skills so that you can write more effective documents in less time—within the political context of corporate America. You need strategies that can help you elevate your voice above the corporate drone and help you achieve the business results you want.
Forget what you learned in school
If you want to increase your productivity, forget what you learned in school: forget outlining with Roman numerals, forget brainstorming, and stop obsessing about whether you need a comma before “and” in a series. Focus on what counts, on what will improve your readers’ understanding and prompt the outcomes you want.
Using this book, you can tap into strategies that will help you achieve the measurable economic benefits of effective writing: more business won, new efficiencies achieved, and more professional satisfaction and security.
Just turn to any page.
If you want to write persuasively
As you know, persuasive writing is not a soft skill—it is economically and professionally central to your success in corporate America. Persuasive writing confers a competitive advantage and allows you to highlight your relevance, which in turn helps you keep your job, strengthen your relationships, and win more business.
If you want to write persuasively, forget about building to your conclusions and sounding like the genius you wish you were. Then, apply the following five principles:
1. Organize so your key points are clear
2. Include only relevant content
3. Make sure readers actually read and respond to what you’ve written (see chapter 2)
4. Write clearly and concisely (see chapter 3)
5. Write with the right tone (see chapter 4).
1. Organize so your key points are clear
Organize your content so that your communications deliver the outcomes you want.
Make sure every opening sentence in every email and document passes the “So what?” test
You have no claim on your readers’ time, so if there’s even a chance readers could respond to the opening sentence of your document or email by saying “So what?” or by asking “And how is this relevant or important to me?” you need to revise the opening so they know exactly why they should keep reading.
Here are a few typical irritatingly useless opening sentences from email; all fail the “So what?” test, and work better than Ambien or narcolepsy at putting readers to sleep.
Opening sentences that fail the “So what?” test
My name is John Grant, and I work in the marketing department at Branding, Inc.
I have attached a summary of the analysis we conducted last week of the Gigabyte Gateway.
Over the past few months the procurement department has been evaluating its vendor relationships as well as the expectations associated with those relationships.
The following sentences pass the “So what?” test, making clear to readers why they should keep reading, especially if they want to be loved.
Opening sentences that pass the “So what?” test
I work with Anne Bradstreet at Branding, Inc., and am wondering if you have any data on teenage users of your social networking site.
Please let me know if you have any questions about the attached summary of our analysis of the Gigabyte Gateway.
We would like to meet with you next week to talk about our relationship in the coming year.
Put your key point first in the topic sentence of every paragraph
Your readers pay attention to the first sentence or two of every paragraph, and then they drop like flies. In fact, by the middle of the second sentence, most readers are already thinking about whether they can last another hour without a plate of fries. That’s why putting your key points first is critical.
So, never organize academically; in other words, never write to build suspense. We have mystery novels for this.
Original—poor academically organized paragraph with key point misplaced in last sentence
The team’s analysis is enhanced through a continuous and lively dialogue between all team members and management. An important part of the team’s role is to communicate their views to the entire management team. Managers play a pivotal role as it is their responsibility to challenge and question analysts’ views and assumptions continually. In the end, we believe better client recommendations are made as a result of this rigorous ongoing discussion.
Unlike the poorly organized paragraph above, the following passage begins by highlighting information that’s compelling for readers; when you are trying to decide what information should go in the first sentence—in client correspondence in particular—stay away from beginning with details about yourself or your firm; readers will find this as off-putting as people who wear ties identifying them by name (RON).
Instead, make your first sentences serve your clients’ or readers’ needs by focusing on the value you offer.
Revision—with key point in the topic position
We provide you with better recommendations as a result of our rigorous review and discussion. To ensure that our decisions are informed by a thoughtful and demanding review:
• Our analysts constantly discuss the results of their research with managers and their teams
• Our managers are charged with challenging and questioning the analysts’ views and assumptions.
In the poorly organized original below, you’ll see how overloading your openings with details and failing the “So what?” test will make readers’ eyeballs spin like slot machine tumblers in seizure-like displays of frustration.
Original—begins with mind-numbing detail that no one will ever read, including you
As you asked at our meeting last week, I’ve completed a multiple regression analysis of the twelve factors that are impeding our ability to address the lack of an efficient way for us to evaluate the ROI generated by our internal training indicatives (as stipulated by policy #2451a, in effect as of 10.09.10). This lack is counterproductive to our Training Goals and fosters mistrust. My analysis was not fruitful and therefore, I would like to make another suggestion about how to get the new Training Assessment done. Since it involves so many divisions and activities, I recommend that we establish a coordinated system between our divisions because doing so would be a good test of our new cooperative environment and help us assess both our abilities and this training initiative.
I’ll call you soon to follow up. In the meantime, you can reach me either by email or on my cell phone at 123.456.7890. Thanks.
No emotionally healthy person will read past the phrase “multiple regression analysis” unless threatened with a hog-stunner. Think of it this way: if you begin any document with a series of details strung together like cheap plastic beads, you’ll cheapen your ideas, and readers will know you shop for meaning at the intellectual equivalent of Wal-Mart.
Let your first sentence shine by immediately making clear why readers need to keep reading.
Revision—email with clear topic sentence and without irrelevant coma-inducing details
Re: Recommendation for addressing assessment of new training initiative
I have a solution for addressing the issues raised last week about our new Training Initiative.
I recommend that we establish a coordinated system between our divisions as a test of our new cooperative environment and to help us assess the Training Initiative.
Right now, we have no system to ensure our divisions can work together, which is counterproductive to our training goals and fosters mistrust.
I’ll call you soon to follow up. In the meantime, you can reach me either by email or by cell at 123.456.7890. Thanks.
When you are done writing, review your topic sentences and make sure they create an outline of your key points.
Outline of key points—client letter with a series of good topic sentences
Dear Dr. Thomas,
I am contacting you on behalf of Western University (WU) to request your participation in an Animal Facilities Benchmark Study.
WU has hired my firm, Academic Consulting, to conduct a comprehensive assessment of research administration. As part of this assessment, we are working with Dr. Beth Zelano, the Director of WU’s Center for Comparative Medicine, to gather data on staffing levels and animal use volume in facilities at peer research institutions.
How you can benefit from participating in this study
We will share all of the data collected with all the institutions that provided the data. In addition to WU, we have also contacted Duke University, Emory University, Stanford University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Michigan, Washington University, and Yale University.
The information we are seeking
The attached spreadsheet shows the information we are seeking. This data should be relatively easy to compile, particularly the census data, which is similar to what is required for AAALAC accredited institutions. For this study, we have targeted Directors, Assistant Directors, Facility Managers, and Business Managers. If you feel someone else at your institution would be more appropriate to complete the template, please let us know his or her name and email address.
We ask that you please return the completed template by June 6, 2010. I will be happy to answer any of your questions; please just call or email me.
Thank you for considering our request.
2. Include only relevant content
To determine what content and details you should include and what you should exclude, you need to distinguish relevant from irrelevant details.
Distinguish relevant from irrelevant details
Relevant details help improve both your readers’ understanding and the quality of the decisions they make; irrelevant details make readers want to orchestrate your transfer to the godforsaken settlement of Wayfar on the planet Tatoonine.
So how much detail do your readers need? Not this much:
Original—with tedious, irrelevant details
I know that you are probably not the correct person to contact about this, but I thought you could possibly point me in the right direction. I found a position for one of my friends on the job post page on the intranet and he ended up getting the interview and being hired back in June. I know he put my name down as a referral on the application and he mentioned it in the interview process to his HR contact. We were told in our orientation that if you bring people into the company who get hired you receive a referral bonus after their first six months. Well my friend’s six-month anniversary is coming up at the end of November and I was looking to find the correct contact to make sure I would be receiving the bonus and around when it could be expected. I would greatly appreciate any advice you could give me. Thanks.
Will Martha live long enough to care about the writer’s endless, narcissistic detail? No. Now read the revision that follows.
Revision—with only relevant details
Do you know who in HR handles referral bonuses? If you are not the right person to contact, can you point me in the right direction? I would love to collect my bonus!
Thanks for your help.
Now, consider the next example from an industry analysis, which calls to mind Isaiah 6:11: “Then said I, Lord, how long?” All the writer needed to do in this document was explain the kinds of coal the company mines.
Original—a slag heap of meaningless detail
Coal is classified as a fossil fuel. It is an organic, combustible sedimentary rock derived from vegetation that accumulated under conditions that prevented complete decay. Coal is generally classified into five major categories based on the amount of transformation undergone from the earlier plant and peat stages, heating value, and other characteristics:
1. Peat: consists of partly decomposed vegetation remains, has a high oxygen and water content and represents the first stage in the coalification process.
2. Brown coal or lignite: a brownish-black coal with generally high moisture and ash content, and the lowest carbon content and heating value. These coals have a relatively low carbon content, about 60% to 75% on a dry basis and high moisture content, ranging between 30% and 70%. These coals are difficult to transport due to a susceptibility of spontaneous combustion. Lignite has an average heat content of 13 million Btu per short ton with an ignition temperature of approximately 600°F.
3.Sub-bituminous: a dull, black coal with a higher heating value than brown coals and lignite. Carbon contents are higher than brown coals, ranging from 71% to 77% with moisture content of about 20%. Sub-bituminous coal has an average heat content of 18 million Btu per short ton.
4. Bituminous: a soft, intermediate grade of coal that is the most common and widely used in the United States. Carbon content ranges from 78% to 91% with water content of 1.5% to 7%. Bituminous coal has an average heat content of 24 million Btu per short ton with an ignition temperature of approximately 800°F.
5. Anthracite: the hardest type of coal, consisting of nearly pure carbon. Anthracite has the highest heating value and the lowest moisture and ash content. It typically has carbon content greater than 92% and very low moisture content. It is difficult to ignite but has a high heating value. Anthracite has an average heat content of 25 million Btu per short ton with an ignition temperature of approximately 950°F.
Furthermore, coal can have two additional classifications: (1) Steam, also called thermal, and (2) Metallurgical, also called coking. The most significant distinguishing characteristic is whether or not the coal is agglomerating (to make into or become an untidy mass). Of the five ranks listed above, bituminous is commonly agglomerating and, hence, all bituminous coals are coking coals, but not all have the other necessary characteristics (low sulfur, etc.) to make them metallurgical. This does not preclude these coals from being used as steam coal and, in fact, a vast majority is consumed as steam coal. The basic requirements for a coking coal to have the designation of a metallurgical coal are: volatile matter up to 35%; low sulfur content (less than 1.25%); and a reasonably low, but uniform ash content (ash content of less than 8%). These general requirements have become even less specific over the years as coke producers, especially the Japanese, have greatly improved their techniques for blending metallurgical coals to produce very high-quality coke.
Table of Contents
If you want to write persuasively 1
If you want readers to actually read and respond to what you’ve written 13
If you want to write clearly and concisely 38
If you want to write with the right tone 51
If you think you should write the way you talk 57
If you want to make your writing flow 61
If you want your business writing to be more creative 70
If you think you have to create a formal outline before you start writing 72
If you know what you want to say but aren’t sure where to start 73
If you need to write for senior management 80
If you need to share technical information 87
If you want to write procedures people can actually follow 97
If you don’t want your email to land you in jail or lose you your job 106
If you need to convey bad news 110
If you want to write financial documents that work for senior management 117
If you want to write persuasive PowerPoint presentations 136
If you want to write executive summaries, sales letters, and email that increase your win ratio 148
If you want to send a thank-you or a follow-up note 169
If you want to write resumes and cover lettersthat will get you noticed—in a good way 176
If you want to know when an email isn’t the best political choice 187
If you want to make the leap from academic to business writing without self-destructing 190
If you want to make sure your writing is right 201