Learning fundamentals of effective business writing

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By Goke Ilesanmi


There are four different skills of communication. These are listening, reading, speaking and writing. Listening and reading are technically referred to as Receiving or Receptive Skills because they are about assimilation; while speaking and writing are called Transmitting Skills because they are about articulation or dissemination. And mastery of all these skills is very important. But our main attention here is on writing skills given the thematic focus of this discourse.




Professional handling


  Business writing, especially for external communication to customers, suppliers, investors, etc., needs to be handled professionally. This is because when it is done properly, it will enhance corporate image, boost business, among others. But when it is not professionally handled, the impacts can be so damaging and tragic.


 We will therefore examine some of the concepts and principles critical to effective business writing/transactions.


  Good and effective business writing must have the following qualities: conciseness, completeness, correctness, clarity, consideration, courtesy, concreteness, etc.




Conciseness and completeness


  Conciseness refers to the idea of being brief and direct to the point. You avoid redundancy, wordy expressions, repetition here. However, being brief does not mean that completeness must be compromised.


   Completeness involves giving the recipient all the information needed. For example, if a customer has written to you to know some things about your product(s) or organisation, you have to include the answers to all his or her inquiry in your reply.






 A business letter, for instance, must be correct in information, style/tone and structure. That is, you use the right language, format and factual information.


This is the most important attribute in business writing. It involves more than freedom from errors. A writer’s credibility depends on accuracy of the message. If a writer misleads readers through carelessness or planlessness, his or her credibility will be eroded.






 Here you avoid ambiguous statements like “Give us more brilliant staff of yours”;  “Supply us more expensive Tantal”, etc. which reflect double meaning. For example, “Give us more brilliant staff of yours” in a situation where some have already been sent by a service company can either be interpreted as “Give us staff that are more brilliant” or “Give us more of your brilliant staff”. The same applies to the second example. Therefore, avoid a complex choice of words and lengthy sentences. Avoid writing polysemous words (that is, words that have more than a meaning) like “Referee”, “Coach”, in a way that can lead to lexical ambiguity. In other words, the context in which they are used should be detailed enough to make their meaning specific.


    To ensure that you write clearly, try to first sit down, think about what you want to write and arrange everything well so that you will not be writing effects before causes.


A good dose of grammatical acumen is a gateway to communication efficacy, therefore, it is good to try to acquire good knowledge of grammatical concepts like tenses, reported speech, word order, etc. to be able to achieve communication success. Word order is very essential because the way you arrange your words has a lot to do with meaning in spite of using the same number of words, e.g. “Non-regular supply of goods” is different from “Non-supply of regular goods”; while “Your demand almost always exceeds our supply” and “Your demand always almost exceeds our supply” are different in meaning.






   In the statement “Your demand almost always exceeds our supply”, the customer’s demand has surpassed our supply many times, while in the second example, that is, “Your demand always almost exceeds our supply”, his demand has never surpassed our supply but is only always nearing that range. You should try as much as possible to avoid spelling errors. Also avoid punctuation errors, as they can affect meaning. For example, “Tankal is one of the Nigerian products, which is rated high in the world market” is different from “Tankal is one of the Nigerian products which are rated high in the world market”. That is, application or otherwise of a comma before “which” will affect the verb structure.


    In a nutshell, a business letter that is not clear can cause misinformation and negatively affect the corporate image of the company writing it. Even though misspellings are not the same as low intelligence, misspellings can mar your business writing at least on paper, e.g “Complaint” and “Compliant” (Word order). Do not use jargon (technical vocabulary), slangs (expressions identified with a specific group), cliches (over-used words/expressions), etc.






  To create or sustain goodwill, good business writing must show respect. Even in the face of provocation from a customer or seller, politeness must not be sacrificed. The best way to do this is to use passive voice and sound impersonal by not mentioning the seller’s name. So you can say, “We write to notify you that most of the goods WE WERE SUPPLIED yesterday are not in good condition” (passive voice and impersonal).


  Apart from the traditional notion that passive voice is used for courtesy, courtesy can also be conveyed by sounding impersonal through active voice, e.g., “We write to notify you that most of the goods WE BOUGHT yesterday are not in good condition” (Active voice and impersonal).






  The two active and passive voice examples are impersonal and courteous because we did not say, “We write to notify you that most of the goods WE WERE SUPPLIED BY YOU yesterday are not in good condition” (passive voice and personal) or “We write to notify you that most of the goods YOU SOLD TO US yesterday are not in good condition” (active voice and personal).






  Another fundamental of effective business writing is concreteness. Here, one needs to use image-building words instead of obscure ones. The tone of a business letter for instance, must be specific and active, especially when one is not writing a complaint letter that requires passive voice. It must sound personal and effective. It must be definite and positive. Instead of saying: “Our products are always cheap”; say, “Prices of our small products range from N20, 000 to N30,000”. Do not say “We shall see very soon or next week”. Say “We shall meet with you on Tuesday, next week”.






   Sincerity is another essential of effective business writing. To achieve this, do not use exaggeration or unnecessary flattery. A tone of courtesy and sincerity builds goodwill for you and your organisation, while your message will achieve its objective. Do not say: “A company like ours will collapse within two hours if you delay our payment”. Say “If you pay your bill before December 20, you will maintain your excellent credit history with our firm and help our operations”.


   Customers or readers are too intelligent to be deceived as they know when you are sincere. Avoid exaggeration through the use of too many modifiers or too strong modifiers and incredible expressions if you want to radiate tone of sincerity in your business writing. Do not say: “We shall work day and night to see that we satisfy you”. Say: “We appreciate your goodwill and have taken specific steps to ensure your satisfaction.”






  Unity is also required to achieve effective business writing. Unity in a paragraph is achieved when the paragraph contains information that is directly related to the main idea (as contained in the topic sentence) and the information is presented it in a logical order with brevity. At this analytical juncture, let us give examples of sentences that have and lack unity.


 Example of unity: “Employees can be motivated in different ways. One of these is to give them sufficient salary. Another way is to allow them to go for further studies. They can also be motivated through transport allowance.”


 Example of lack of unity: “Employees can be motivated in different ways. I discussed with the HR manager recently on the need to sanction errant employees. We still meet this month to discuss ways of moving forward in this organisation”.






  Another fundamental of effective business writing is coherence. A paragraph radiates coherent when it contains sentences that are well integrated. Coherence is easily determined in a paragraph through effective use of transitional words, pronouns, repetition of key words and ideas, parallel structure that is, parallelism (agreeable  combination of grammatical structures).




Positive language


  Very close to courtesy is the need to use positive language. Positive language also builds goodwill like courtesy. But the two are not semantically-co-extensive; not totally the same. That is, positive language goes beyond respect (courtesy) as this also involves using positive words in ideas and structure instead of using words that sound negative to communicate positive expressions. For instance, instead of saying, “We do not use sub-standard materials for our production”; say, “We always use best quality or very standard materials for our production”.






   Most great and charismatic leaders are masters of communication. The fact must be stressed that corporate leaders must endeavour to make effective writing be part of their corporate culture, that is, a company-wide activity, a collective responsibility or a layer of responsibility just as it is done in journalism where a reporter will write a story, send it to his/her desk head after which the desk head will send it to the editor. Then the editor goes through and sends to sub-desk to go through and get back to him or her (the editor) for final approval. This is serious gate-keeping.




Corporate writing culture/style


  To entrench a corporate culture of effective writing, organisations need to have regular language and communication training. As in journalism, they also need to have a style guide as part of their corporate culture of excellence and consistency. This is because the practice of good, collaborative writing makes the difference between great business and bad business; between loss and profitability.




Managers and leaders need to express their ideas clearly, concisely and completely when speaking and writing. If your written messages are not clear or lack important details, people will be confused and will not know how to respond. In addition, if your written messages are too lengthy, people simply do not read them at all.


   According to Paul B. Thornton, an author, consultant, trainer and professional speaker, the process of good writing involves three basic steps. These are preparation, writing and editing. Practising the following principles will help you be a more effective writer.




Knowledge of your objective and list


You should think before you write. What is your goal? Make sure you fully understand the assignment. Are you writing a one-paragraph executive summary or a five-page report? Try to answer this question: What specifically do I want the reader to know, think or do? Another thing is to write down the ideas or points you want to cover. Why? This helps you get started in identifying the key ideas you want to discuss.


 According to Thornton, if you have trouble getting started, try discussing your ideas with someone else. ‘Kicking an idea around’ often helps you clarify your objective and fine-tune what you are trying to accomplish.




Organisation of your ideas


Organising your ideas constitutes yet another principle of good writing. Just as it is difficult to find what you want in a messy, disorganised desk drawer, it is hard to find important ideas in a poorly organised message. Here are a few ways you can organise your ideas:


·Importance: ·Begin with the most important piece of information and then move on to the next most important.


·Chronological order: Describe what happened first, second, third.


·Problem-Solution: Define the problem, then describe possible alternatives or the solution you recommend.


·Question-Answer: State a question and then provide your answer.


Organise your ideas so the reader can easily follow your argument or the point you are trying to get across.




Support and separation


Supporting your ideas is another major step in the process of good writing. Have an opinion but back it up – support with data. There are a number of ways you can support your ideas, including explanations, examples, facts, personal experiences, stories, statistics, and quotations. It is best to use a combination of approaches to develop and support your ideas.


   To make your write-up an excellent one, you need to separate the main ideas. Each paragraph should have one main point or idea captured in a topic sentence. The topic sentence is normally the first sentence in the paragraph. Each paragraph should be started by an indentation or by skipping a line.




Complete and short sentences


A sentence is about someone doing something – taking action. Someone may be a manager, employee, customer, etc. The “doing something – taking action” can include mental processes such as thinking, evaluating, and deciding, or physical actions such as writing and talking.


A good rule to practise is to have subjects closely followed by their verbs. Sentences should be a maximum of 12 to 15 words in length. According to the American Press Institute, sentences with 15 or fewer words are understood 90 per cent of the time. Sentences with eight or fewer words are understood 100 per cent of the time.




Be precise and accurate


Thornton says words such as “large,” “small,” “as soon as possible,” “they,” “people,” “teamwork,” and “customer focus” are vague and imprecise because readers may interpret these words to mean something different from what you intended. Therefore, reduce communication breakdown by being specific and precise. Define terms as needed. Readers may not understand certain acronyms and abbreviations, try to write them in full.




Use commas appropriately


Use a comma to separate the elements in a series of three or more items, e.g. His favourite colours are red, white, and blue. Use a comma to set off introductory elements: After coffee and donuts, the meeting will begin. Use a comma to separate adjectives: That tall, popular, handsome lecturer teaches Mass Communication.




Use the correct words


Here are several words that cause confusion. For example, “It’s” and “Its”; “You’re” and “Your”, etc. “It’s” is contracted form of “It is”. “Its” is the   possessive form, for example, “Its legs.” Lack of grammatical knowledge makes these structurally different but tonally similar words confusing to some people. This error can lead to change of meaning in a write-up.




Avoid redundancies


It is a redundancy to use multiple words that mean or say the same thing. For example, consider the following: Redundant- “I will not repeat the process again.” “Repeat” already means to do something again. So there is no need to add “Again”. Just say “I will not repeat the process.”


·Redundant – My personal beliefs… Beliefs are personal, so just state, My beliefs


·Redundant – I decided to paint the doctor green in colour. Green is a colour, so just state, I decided to paint the door green.






When using numbers in the body of your paper, spell out numbers one to nine, such as “Three men decided…” When using numbers 10 and above, it is proper to write the number, such as “The report indicated 68 customers…” This is basically discussed under the topic of Graphology (concerned with appearance of words) in Stylistics, an aspect of English Language.




Having a conclusion


  It is important for your piece of writing to have a conclusion. Would you like watching a movie that has no end or conclusion? The conclusion brings your points together. This is important because the reader wants to know the bottom line message.




Editing your work


You also need to edit your work. Read what you have written several times. On your first reading, focus on organisation and sentence structure. Shorten long sentences. Cross out unnecessary words and phrases. Reorganise material as needed. Read your work again and make sure commas are used appropriately and that there is a punctuation mark at the end of every sentence.


Read it the third time and focus on word choice. Are there certain words that are vague or ambiguous? Replace them with specific words. Read what you have written aloud to yourself or to a friend to see if he or she (and you) can understand it and adjust it in any way. A significant part of good writing involves editing. Very few people can sit down and write a perfect paragraph on their first try. It requires multiple rewrites.




Seeking help


There are many sources today through which you can seek help on how to improve your writing. You do not have to be a great writer to be a successful manager or leader. However, you must be able to clearly and succinctly explain your thoughts and ideas in writing. Strive to be simple, clear, and brief. Like any skill, “good writing” requires practice, feedback, and constant improvement.




Word segmentation


   In the course of writing or typing, it often becomes necessary to divide a word at the end of the line as a result of lack of enough space for accommodating the complete form of the word. The segmentation or division is structurally reflected through the addition of a hyphen (-), which comes immediately after the first part of the divided word at the end of the line.


   Some English language users do not bother to divide words at all at the end of the line, especially when writing in long hand. However, for those who maintain the consciousness of always adding a hyphen whenever there is a need for word segmentation, the following methods would be of immense help to them:




Division by structure


This is concerned with morphology which is defined as the study of the morphemes of a language and the way they are joined together to make words. Morphemes refer to the smallest meaningful units into which words can be broken. Therefore, division by structure implies dividing a word into the smaller units of meaning from which it is built up. The division may be along a prefix line, such as in-, un-, dis-, -im, etc. (as inappropriate, unpredictable, disappointment, impossible, etc.) or a suffix such as -ish, -ful, -able, etc. (as in Foolish, Spoonful, Surmountable, etc.).




Division by syllable


This is another way of dividing a word. It is concerned with dividing a word along the line of syllables or units of sound. For example, the word Fortune contains two syllables, that is, For-tune, while Unfortunately contains five, that is, Un-for-tu-nate-ly. Therefore, if these words are to be divided, one must make sure that the spot or spots of syllabic division are strictly observed. To divide Unfortunately, for example, the possible forms of structural fragments are Un-, Unfor-, Unfortu- and Unfortunate-.


In the dictionary, the bold dot(.) is used to mark the recommended places of word-division for all headwords, derivatives and compounds.




Division by meaning


Division by meaning is concerned with the decision of whether each part of a divided word can be understood or spoken so that the complete word is easily recognised from the two parts. For example, it may be a compound word made up of two different words, such as Head and Master as in Headmaster; Playing and Field as in Playing field; Single and Parent as in Singleparent, etc.


Note that in writing a compound word, three types of structure are possible, that is, combination, separation and hyphenation. In other words, you can write it together as one, separate it, or add a hyphen.




Summary of the word-division rules


Do not divide a suffix or two syllables such as –fully, –able, -ably, etc. Apart from the suffix –ly, do not divide a word so that a suffix of two letters (such as –ed, er, -ic, etc.) begins the next line. Do not divide a word of fewer than five letters. Do not divide a monosyllabic word, that is, a word of one syllable. Do not segment a word such that one of its parts is a single letter.


PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated on this page for details. Till we meet on Monday.


GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Certified Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.


Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425


Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com


Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng


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