Updated: Sep 12, 2020
You don’t have to be a grammar jailbird anymore. I’m going to free you from delinquent business writing and help you put your words in order.
This grammar rebel isn’t asking you to write perfect sentences. Heck, I don’t. All I want is to help you improve your writing competence so that it reflects your intelligence, professionalism and expertise.
Here are 10 Business Writing Felons You Can Fix Today:
1. Not Describing A Company As A Single Entity
Business people get this wrong all the time: A company is an individual entity so write about it in the singular. For example:
Wrong: ABC offer consulting and systems integration services worldwide
Right: ABC offers consulting and systems integration services worldwide
2. Exclamation Mark Incorrectly Placed
This is a bugbear of mine. I know you’re excited about something but if you’re going to add the exclamation mark do it right. For example:
Wrong: Our new robots cook better than any fancy restaurant chef !
Right: Our new robots cook better than any fancy restaurant chef!
There is no space between a word and the exclamation mark! Same goes for full stops and commas.
I also caution you to not use more than one exclamation mark when crafting professional communications. Using a lot of them can make you look emotionally immature!!!!!
3. Over-use Of The Comma
The biggest problem with commas in the B2B IT world is that we use too many. So read back what you’ve written and take out most of them.
If you’re using a lot of commas to string a long sentence together, go back and put in a full stop and start a new sentence. I consider an overly long sentence to be 30 words or more.
If you’re going to use a comma, use it to prevent ambiguity.
Let’s eat, Timmy (Correct at the dinner table)
Let’s eat Timmy (Correct on a raft in the ocean)
There are quite a few rules about the use of commas, but I’m not going to cover them here, as the above advice is enough to help business writers improve clarity.
4. Random Capitalisation
This one gets my goat too. Come on guys, I know you want to emphasise a point which may be that your company is a Leader in digital disco dancing, but it’s still spelled, ‘leader’.
The rule is capitalise the first word of a document and the first word after a full stop. You also capitalise proper nouns like names for an individual person, place, organisation and your formal processes and methodologies.
Wrong: ABC’s Transition Approach
Right: ABC’s transition approach
A caveat here: capitalising words in headings and sub-headings is okay.
5. Mixing Up Your It’s and Its
We all get this one wrong even when we know the rule because most of us are writing to tight deadlines and we’re rushing through writing assignments. However, it pays to go back and check it’s versus its. As a Professional Somebody, you don’t want to look a fool getting this wrong.
Remember, it’s, is a contraction of, it is or it has. For example:
It’s never too late to improve your grammar skills.
On the other hand, its, is possessive, meaning, ‘belonging to it.’ For example:
A robot dog wouldn’t chase its tail because it’s too smart for that sort of fun.
6. Incorrect Use Of There, Their, They’re and Where, Were, We’re
While business writers know this stuff, the above are on my list because I see them misspelled a lot and this type of mistake can make you look dumb or lazy. If you’re writing to prospects, customers, partners or even employees, it’s important to triple check the spelling of these words otherwise your competency and credibility will be questioned.
Here is an example in case you need a refresher:
There are a lot of smart people in IT, but their grammar lets them down. They’re often distracted by internal musings and so forget to do a spell check.
We’re not saying they should be flogged or jailed. But were it not for editors, a lot of people’s content would be unreadable, and where would that get us?
7. Zombie Nouns
In B2B IT, we tend to use abstract language when writing. Unfortunately, this distances us from the reader we want to convince of our point of view.
This reader disconnect usually happens when we use too many nominalisations. These are nouns made from other parts of a speech by adding a suffix: ity, tion and ism.
While nominalisations have their place, using too many will deaden your language and send your reader to sleep.
Here is an example from Helen Sword’s fabulous video on zombie nouns:
A zombie sentence: The proliferation of nominalisations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
The living, breathing version: Writers who overload their sentences with nominalisations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
Use nominalisations where it’s appropriate but for the most part, stick with active verbs.
8. Passive And Aloof Writing
Passive writing isn’t wrong. It’s just not appropriate most of the time in the world of business communications. Our role in B2B IT is to help customers transform the way they run their companies through technology. Which is why language that inspires action is more appropriate than abstract, academic writing.
Active language also cuts word count by 10-15 percent and makes your writing clear, direct and reader-friendly.
Also, attaching personal pronouns to active verbs creates a personal connection with the reader. For example:
Passive: ABC recommends that DEF consider a 6-9 month transition timeline to minimise business risk
Active: We recommend a 6-9 month transition path to minimise your business risk
Passive: ABC proposes monitoring DEF’s systems, and recommends that this should be extensive, and depending on your needs, it can be offered as a 24 hour, 7 day a week, secure, monitoring service.
Active: Our government-cleared security staff will monitor your systems 24/7.
In the passive example above you’re not stating who or what is doing the action and this can give the impression you’re unwilling to be direct. The reader may infer a lack of commitment or lack of confidence.
If you minimise zombie nouns and passive, wordy sentences, you will create vibrant messages that influences readers and inspires them to change.
9. Word Order Confusion
In the English language, you must keep essential components together: subject (who or what), verb (did) and object (what). Subject, verb and object give the reader your core message. If you separate them by qualifications or circumstances, it takes readers longer to process your meaning.
Here are some examples from Susan McKerihan’s excellent book, Clear & Concise:
Complicated: We developed, as part of a code of practice, reporting standards for the financial reports
Better: As part of a code of practice, we developed reporting standards for the financial reports.
The following example while amusing illustrates how incorrect word order can change the meaning of what you’re saying:
Misplaced modifier: I have discussed the proposal for restocking the 500 freezers with my colleagues
Correctly positioned modifier: I have now discussed with my colleagues the proposal for restocking all 500 freezers
Word order is a common mistake most business writers make even professional writers like Yours Truly. It’s why I check my writing several times over.
10. Out Of Control Acronyms
Using acronyms isn’t good or bad. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to use acronyms. Let’s say you’re responding to a customer’s Request for Proposal (RFP). Well it’s a good idea to use their acronyms quite a bit. This makes them feel you understand their business and industry.
However, when using your internal acronyms, especially technical or business terms like WTF, spell it out in full first, like so:
“Why The Frown? (WTF)”
Don’t be lazy okay.
Write acronyms in full. Write acronyms in full. Write acronyms in full. Write acronyms in full. Please.
Are my brainwashing powers working on you? I hope so because you will irritate readers if they don’t understand your internal corporate jargon. And we don’t want to antagonise readers especially if we’re trying to sell them stuff.
You don’t have to be a grammar guru. I’m not and I don’t care to be. But I'm a reader as well as a writer, and readers get cross when they can’t understand what the writer is trying to say.