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2013 Writing Resolutions

Happy New Year!  Surely your number one resolution is to improve your business and technical writing skills, so in that vein I thought I’d send you some items to consider.

These are six common problems that give business and technical writing a bad name.  Perhaps awareness of these problems will help you avoid them.

1.  Marathon sentences.  Sentences the length of William Faulkner’s do not produce effective business writing.  Long sentences can reflect laziness on the writer’s part. When you want to improve your writing, separate thoughts that need to be separated. No sentence should run much longer than two lines.

2.  Passive voice. No, this is not passive “tense,” as it’s commonly called.  Passive voice has little to do with tense.  Voice refers to the way a sentence is structured.   This sentence is in the passive voice:  “The road was crossed by a chicken.”  Turn it around to make it active:  “A chicken crossed the road.”  You are now making a direct statement about who is doing what.

A sentence written in passive voice takes the reader seven times longer to comprehend than an active-voice sentence.  This is because the reader has to mentally reverse the sentence.

If you want to speak like a politician and say “A mistake was made” instead of “I made a mistake,” that’s your choice.  But at least know that you’re choosing one voice over the other.

3.  Sentences that start with “it” and “there.” Instead of writing: “It has been decided that the project will be started this month,” stand tall and take credit for your decision with a sentence in active voice:  “I decided to start the project this month.” Put people first in your sentences for improved clarity.

4.  The word “it’s.”   “It’s” stands only for “it is.”  There are no exceptions to this rule.

5.  Nouns that end in “tion.”  In workshops, we train this to participants using the statement “Shun the ‘tion.’”  Rooting out the verb in words that end in “tion” reduces wordiness and vagueness. For example:

Not this:  The Transit Authority is making the necessary internal notification to our coach operators and customer service representatives.

But this:  The Transit Authority is notifying our coach operators and customer service representatives.

6.  Foggy memos and status reports.  Harold K. Mintz, a former senior technical editor, says every memo and status report should answer at least three questions:

    • What are the facts?
    • What do they mean?
    • What do we do now?

Answers these questions as early as possible in the writing.

Want to further enhance your writing for 2013?  Check out our new e-Learning lessons on clear email writing and developing U.S. standards for clear business writing.