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Write Better in 2014

One of my favorite, unintentionally-funny headlines ran years ago in the Milford (Connecticut) Citizen:

       Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

And this one from The Journal News, of White Plains, New York:

       15 Pit Bulls Rescued; 2 Arrested

Both headlines remind me that nobody’s perfect. Even professional writers need a little help now and then. You might not be a novelist or a newspaper editor, but if you spend a chunk of every day cranking out proposals, reports, or meeting notes, here are few tips to improve your business writing this year.

Don’t confuse words.

Always, always, always read through your document and weed out any confusion between “there,” “their” and “they’re.” Or “your” and “you’re.” Or “it’s” and “its.” These might seem like minor mistakes, but they strip the professional polish right off that presentation.

Another big one? Affect vs. effect. “Affect” is usually a verb and “effect” is usually a noun. While “to affect” is the action of influencing something, an “effect” is the result of an action. Grammar Girl has a fun memory trick for this that involves shooting aardvarks with arrows (you know, if you’re into that).

When in doubt, Google the word for a quick usage refresher.

Avoid jargon.

Business speak might be forgiven if everyone in the room has an MBA. But clarity always should be your goal. So when you’re writing a document with a potentially wider audience, ask yourself if there’s a more common word that will communicate better.

Here are a few jargon-y standbys to eradicate:

  • Utilize – Perfect for when you want a longer and less-efficient word for “use”!
  • Impact – If a meteor is speeding toward earth, then you should brace for this. But if you’re just trying to avoid choosing between affect and effect, see above.
  • Empower – As the clever folks at Voxy put it (before we lost the great man), “Nelson Mandela empowers. Your iPhone does not. ‘Enhance’ or ‘enable’? Sure.”
  • Synergize – Yes, putting more heads together is often a good idea. But as Forbes points out, we learned this long ago from Sesame Street: “Big Bird called it ‘cooperation.’”

If you find it hard to break yourself of the jargon habit, draft your document with the words that come naturally first. Then read through it with a critical eye, highlighting all the business-ese and replacing those phrases with language you could use in any context.

Watch your demonstrative pronouns.

This. That. These. Those. Legitimate words, but too often we use them as filler.

For example: Hanson recommends using WordPress for this site. That is because it is easy to make updates.

A smoother option: Hanson recommends using WordPress for this site to make updating easier. Better, right?

If one of your goals for 2014 is to improve your writing skills, start with just one of these suggestions and work to incorporate it into your habits. Once it becomes second nature, move on to the next.

Or keep a checklist of best writing practices at your desk and apply it to the first draft of every document.

The point is, it’s never too late to become a better business writer. A few minutes of editing may help you avoid an embarrassing headline – or report title – of your own.

Welcome to the Treehouse!

"Welcome to the treehouse,” said CEO Steve Hanson the day we moved into our new headquarters. On an upper floor at the edge of the woods, we now enjoy a view from the trees. We think of this space not as a lofty perch but as a place to gather and seek a broader perspective. The same thing applies to our blog.

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