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    The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business (Part II)

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    Last week we celebrated the second week of the NCAA basketball tournament by creating our own "Bizzaro" version of the Sweet 16, but with business writing in mind. In part one of "The Sour Sixteen." we examined eight writing errors that you should steer clear of anytime you're writing important workplace documents. While the NCAA tournament field is down to its Final Four, we'll delve into eight final writing problems. Before we begin, here is a quick look back at the first half of the list. Notably

    1. Lack of focus
    2. Missing important proper nouns
    3. Using slang
    4. Forcing artificial language
    5. Using the wrong word
    6. Missing comma after introductory elements
    7. Faulty subject-verb agreement
    8. Incorrectly joined sentences

    The next four problems concentrate on two important traits of writing, voice and sentence fluency.

    1. The writing sounds too informal
      A professional writing voice is a lot like proper business attire. Just as you wouldn't wear a T-shirt and athletic shorts to a formal business meeting, you shouldn't write a memo that includes slang and emoticons. In workplace writing, it is best to avoid an informal voice altogether. An informal voice is characterized by frequent contractions and personal pronouns; humor and slang; and shorthand and emoticons. It is perfectly appropriate to use an informal voice when you're jotting down notes or gathering your thoughts, but when it comes to drafting workplace documents or e-mail, opt for a more formal tone.
    2. The writing sounds too formal
      Yes, there is also a point when business writing can sound too formal, or stiff. Grasping this point may seem contradictory after reading the previous rule about informal voice. However, there is an appropriate medium between the two. We call it "The Business Middle." The Business Middle is a conversational but professional voice. It uses friendly and natural expressions but is still free of humor and slang. Notice the difference in these two passages:
      Formal and stilted: This correspondence is in reference to the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. My decision is to agree to the conditions of employment for that position that were expressed to me…
      The Business Middle: Thank you for offering me the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. I am happy to accept the position at the annual salary of…
      The Business Middle is appropriate for most business letters, workplace e-mails, and memos. If you're writing a more formal document, such as one dealing with legalities or bad news, it's best to use a more serious and objective tone. One final thought on the levels of formality: If you're struggling to find a happy medium between informal and formal voice, it's best to err on the side of formal. After all, it's always less awkward to be a bit overdressed rather than noticeably underdressed.
    3. The writing is too negative
      Another problem relating to voice occurs when the writing comes across as overly negative. A negative tone is one that focuses on a problem, rather than a solution; it is accusatory rather than cooperative. Here are some tips for achieving a positive writing voice:

      Focus on…
      • The subject, not the personalities of the people involved
      • Solutions, not the problem
      • Strengths, not weaknesses
      • Suggestions, not threats
    4. The sentences are too repetitive
      Effective writing flows smoothly from sentence to sentence. If you start all your sentences the same way, you risk creating choppy writing. Choppy writing is predictable and hard to read, which is why you should vary the beginnings and length of your sentences. Consider the difference in fluency in the following examples:
      Repetitive: The report shows that first-quarter earnings continue to improve. The report's findings show that we should reinvest.
      Varied: The report shows a marked improvement in first-quarter earnings. If earnings continue to rise, we should reinvest.
      To improve the fluency of your own writing, consider different ways to begin sentences, or ways to combine ideas.

    The last set of errors focuses on English language rules. Business writing and business correspondence must follow the correct use of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, words, and grammar. Sometimes these language errors are hard to spot, but even the most obscure error can be bad for business. As you will see, the following mistakes can create confusion, which prevents clear and straightforward communication.

    1. Unnecessary shift in tense
      A shift in tense happens when a writer uses two different tenses in the same sentence when only one is needed. Such an error can distort when something is happening.
      Shift in tense: I prepared the invoices and verify all the expense reports.
      Corrected: I prepared the invoices and verified all the expense reports.
      Make sure the tense (past, present, or future) remains consistent throughout each sentence.
    2. Indefinite pronoun reference
      An indefinite pronoun reference results when it is unclear which word or phrase a pronoun refers to.
      Unclear: Once they transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package. (They could refer to the workers or the owners.)
      Clear: Once the employees transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package.
      You can fix an indefinite pronoun reference by using more specific words to rename the subject or by rearranging the sentence.
    3. Missing comma in compound sentence
      A compound sentence made up of two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as sentences) needs a comma and a conjunction to properly link the two clauses. Oftentimes, writers will ignore the comma before the conjunction, even though the conjunction itself is not strong enough to hold the two clauses.
      Incorrect: I was unhappy with the conversation so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
      Correct: I was unhappy with the conversation, so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
    4. Missing commas around additional information
      When a group of words adds information that is not needed to understand the sentence, you should set off the extra information with commas.
      Example: Third Community Bank, which was founded in 1957, is opening three new locations in the area.
      Remember, commas are needed only when the phrase (extra information) can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

    So there you have 16 writing errors that are bad for business. Think about them the next time you're assigned a writing project at work. By making a point to avoid them, you'll improve the transparency of your communication. And that's good for business.

    —Tim Kemper

    Photo by Frank Douwes