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Weekly 3: Better business writing

Summary: Get to the point. Edit to improve your message. Say sorry like you mean it. (~6 min read)

Idea Journal Weekly 3

May 19 · Issue #87 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Get to the point. Edit to improve your message. Say sorry like you mean it. (~6 min read)

#1. Business writing = efficient writing
Author Scott Adams writes that early in his corporate career, he noticed that some people in the business world wrote with an impressive clarity and persuasiveness.
At the time, he figured it was because they were especially smart. It never occurred to him that there was some technique that anyone could learn.
“As it turns out, business writing is all about getting to the point and leaving out all the noise. You think you already do that in your writing, but you probably don’t.”
You can see an example of this by editing the above sentence: the word “already” is assumed and therefore unnecessary. Removing it reduces the noise while retaining the same meaning:
“As it turns out, business writing is all about getting to the point and leaving out all the noise. You think you do that in your writing, but you probably don’t.”
Writing in the active voice also helps to clarify your point. It’s easier for our brains to understand concepts that are presented in a certain order.
For example, “The boy hit the ball” is easier to process than “The ball was hit by the boy.”
As Adams notes, it’s a small difference, “but over the course of an entire document, passive writing adds up and causes reader fatigue.”
#2. Use time and others' feedback to improve your writing
In their book Writing That Works, advertising executives Joel Raphaelson and Kenneth Roman warn that you should never send out the first draft of anything important.
Good writers know that editing is an essential part of the process – not just “a final perfectionist polishing.”
But no matter how good an editor you currently are, Raphaelson and Roman suggest that you can benefit from the following 2 tips:
1. Let time elapse between drafts
Ideally, you’re able to step away from the draft overnight, and come back to it in the morning with new eyes. Imperfections that were invisible the day before will likely now pop out at you.
2. Solicit other people’s feedback
As Raphaelson and Roman point out, when you ask for feedback from colleagues and friends, you’re putting them to work for you.
If their suggestions are helpful, say Thank you and include them. If they aren’t helpful, say Thank you and don’t use them. There’s no need to argue or prove them wrong. It’s your work and you are making the decisions.
Nearly everybody will find something you overlooked, and it can be valuable to discover even one point that isn’t clear.
The late advertising legend David Ogilvy sent drafts of all important papers to several of his associates with the directive: Please improve.
“He was the beneficiary of so many improvements that he lived his last twenty-five years in a sixty-room castle in France.”
#3. Own your apology -- and your solution
Authors and entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson write in their book Rework that there’s never really a great way to say you’re sorry, but there are plenty of bad ways.
One of the worst is the non-apology apology – it sounds like an apology, but doesn’t actually accept any blame.
Here’s an example: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
For Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, there are 2 reasons why this non-apology apology is so bad:
1. “… any inconvenience …“
If customers depend on your service and they can’t use it, it’s not an inconvenience – it’s a crisis. An inconvenience is a long line at the grocery store. They’re not the same thing.
2. “… this may have caused …“
The word “may” implies that there might not be anything wrong.
It devalues the real problem that your customers are experiencing. If the issue doesn’t affect them, you wouldn’t need to write anything at all. But if it does affect them, there’s no need for the word “may.”
The details of a good apology will vary depending on the circumstances, but every good apology has the below qualities:
  • It accepts responsibility – that the buck stops with you
  • It doesn’t have a conditional if attached
  • It seeks a way to make things right, and provides details about what you’re doing to prevent the issue from happening again
You can test how good an apology is by asking yourself: How would you feel about the apology if you were on the other end? If someone said those words to you, would you believe them?
But it’s worth remembering that even the best apology won’t rescue you if you haven’t earned people’s trust: “Everything you do before things go wrong matters far more than the actual words you use to apologize.”
Quote of the Week
“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”
- Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham in his essay Writing, Briefly
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