Enterprise Software

Another 10+ tips for keeping your writing sharp and professional


Your job focus may be technical, but you can't completely escape the burden of writing tasks: e-mails, status reports, performance evaluations, RFPs, and system documentation, to name just a few possibilities. If your writing experience has been limited, you could probably stand to brush up on those skills -- especially if you're a manager or aspiring to become one.

In a previous installment, we reviewed some of the fundamental rules of good business writing. Here are a few more. You can download the complete checklist in PDF format for quick reference.

#1: Do not overuse commas

A pause in reading is not always a good reason to use a comma. You should use less punctuation if you can reasonably do so; however, there are many times when a comma is required. For example, you must use a comma when using conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses. And in general, you should use a comma to separate a series of adjectives.(If you can mentally substitute the word "and" for the comma in the series, you need the comma.) Also use a comma with a date and a year.

Example:

On July 4, 1776, Congress signed the Declaration of Independence.

Without the specific date, don't use a comma:

July 1776 was one of the most eventful months in our history.

Check your grammar handbook for the correct use of commas and other punctuation.

#2: Write unified and coherent paragraphs

A paragraph has unity if all its parts work together to explain a single idea logically. It is coherent if each sentence links smoothly to the ones before and after it. Transitional words can help, such as first, next, then, and finally. Another way to achieve coherence is to use pronouns that are standing in for nouns or names that were used earlier in the paragraph.

#3: Make company names singular

Example:

Ernst & Young ordered some computers for its new office.

#4: Be sure subjects and verbs agree

Use a singular verb or pronoun with a singular subject, and a plural verb or pronoun with a plural subject.

Examples:

The four workers have copies of their assignments.

Or:

The CEO was late for her appointment.

#5: Use parallel words or phrases in lists and series

If you have a list or a series, be sure each item in the series starts with the same kind of word -- with a noun, a verb, or a gerund (-ing word used as a noun).

Examples:

The training program will include:

  • Oracle databases
  • Microsoft certification
  • Retention of customers (not "Retaining customers")
  • Workspace management (not "How to plan workspaces")

The new IT manager's job description includes:

  • Planning for new projects
  • Attending meetings
  • Conducting staff meetings
  • Interviewing and hiring new personnel

#6: Use bullets

As illustrated in the examples above, bullets are the easiest way to present related items. Bullets make a series much easier to read, so use them if you have three or more items to list. Don't use punctuation with bulleted items unless each bulleted item is a sentence; in that case, place a period after each one.

#7: Capitalize correctly

In general, you should capitalize only at the beginning of sentences and with proper nouns. Don't capitalize to emphasize words or show their importance. Instead, use italics and bold formatting for emphasis. Job titles are not necessarily capitalized.

Examples:

Our president, John Rodriguez

Or:

President John Rodriguez

Or:

John Rodriguez, president

#8: Write numbers correctly

Spell out numbers from zero through nine. If you must begin a sentence with a number greater than nine, spell it out. Write figures for numbers 10 and over.

Examples:

The first three pages are blank.

We received 10 complaints.

Ten people attended the meeting.

She has 120 employees.

Exception:

10 things you should know about ERP (That's just how we do it at TechRepublic. Creative license...)

#9: Write with confidence

Your message should have a confident attitude, so avoid phrases such as I hope, If you agree, If you'd like to, or I know you are busy, but....

#10: Use a courteous and sincere tone

Avoid being trite, condescending, or offensive.

Examples:

By paying your bill before May 15, you will maintain your excellent credit history with us.

Not:

Companies like ours can't survive unless you pay your bill.

I have forwarded your complaint to the shipping department. You should hear from them within the week.

Not:

You sent your complaint to the wrong department.

#11: Use nondiscriminatory language

Make no assumptions about any group of people and treat everyone equally. In general this means:

  • Don't use first names (unless everyone's name is used that way).
  • Don't make references to females as ladies or girls.
  • Don't use -man occupational titles (such as foreman, chairman) if you can avoid them.
  • Don't use derogatory words (such as gyp, derived from gypsy).
  • Don't use job titles that imply that only men or only women hold certain jobs. For instance, use personnel rather than manpower.
  • Don't use demeaning or stereotypical terms.

#12: Avoid abbreviations in a narrative

Spell out the names of states.

Example:

The company has offices in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky.

Not:

The company has offices in IL, MO, and KY.

In a narrative, spell out all common nouns you might be tempted to abbreviate.

Examples:

Accountant, not acct; association, not assoc.; building, not bldg.; company, not co.

#13: Proofread and use a spell checker

The more you reread and spell-check your writing, the more mistakes you will find -- and fix. If you lack confidence in your editing abilities, do it anyway (it's good practice for you), but have someone else you trust proofread it as well.

10 comments
cquirke
cquirke

If you don't use US farce-about-ace date formats, you don't need a comma within them; e.g. "we are closed from 22 December 2011 to 4 January 2012". Yes, I prefer gender-neutral writing, because it's a discipline that feeds back into how one thinks. Just as coffee-guts make you feel paicky and lead you to wonder what you're panicking about, so striving for gender-neutral writing reminds you that your audience (and/or the folks you are writing about) are not necessarily men.

ccie5000
ccie5000

Tip #11, "Use nondiscriminatory language" is good in theory, but in my opinion the examples are poorly chosen. - "Don't use first names ...": In my experience, most people *prefer* to be called by their first names, or even nicknames (such as "Bob" for "Robert"). - "Don't make references to females as ladies or girls.": I agree, "girls" is diminutive and inappropriate (unless you're really talking about children). But what's wrong with "ladies"? Do you also advise not to use "gentlemen"? - "Don't use -man occupational titles (such as foreman, chairman) ...": This is plainly sexist advice, and assumes "-man" titles imply the male gender. The problem is not with the title, but with thinking the title implies gender. As part of extinguishing sexist thinking over time we should *always* use the "-man" titles, and when there is any doubt, make it clear *of course* the title does not imply gender. - "Don't use job titles that imply that only men or only women hold certain jobs. ...": (See above - titles don't imply gender.) ccie5000

alex.a
alex.a

Sorry, but I must disagree with the rule regarding gender-neutral titles. There is nothing more irritating than having to deal with made-up words such as chairperson (or, worse yet, chair). If a gentleman heads a group, he is the chairman. If a lady, she is also the chairman. Although there was a time when a lady director was properly called a directress, directors are now directors regardless of gender. And sorry again, but a man is a gentleman and a woman is a lady unless evidence proves otherwise.

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

1) Minimize use of pronouns. What is obvious to the writer may be ambiguous to the reader, so it is better to over use proper nouns to ensure clarity. 2) Avoid speaking in 2nd person; avoid using "you". This article may be an exception to this rule, but in general, I find that "you" is often used by writers to refer to the population as a whole, but is also frequently interpretted by readers as referring directly to themselves. I usually try and use "one/he" or "people/they" in these situations. 3) Differentiate between fact and opinion. If an article contains both, identify personal opinion with an opening like "I believe". 4) Use Graphics and Diagrams. A good diagram augments written text by providing a parallel visual description of the content. A poor diagram, however, just takes up space and in the worst case adds confusion.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

Overall it is a great post with very helpful tips. Perhaps there is an international flavour to grammar as there is to spelling. "Flavour" being a simple example. On Point One: [i]For example, you must use a comma when using conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses.[/i] In our part of the world, the comma prior to the conjunction preceding the last point is not the common punctuation. Indeed, in local schools where such discipline is still taught, a student would be told not to use the comma at that point in the sentence. Regarding Point 5: The use of 'lists' or 'bullets' has really taken off in recent years. They were not used as commonly in the past as they are now, particularly in personal communications. One reason for their increased use is the simplicity with which word processors and screen editors enable multiple styles and indented paragraphs. They aid the communication by breaking up large ideas into more easily understood 'bites'. They also aid the format of the page (60% white space being the target, according to many documenters). However, if you use lists you need to apply the appropriate grammar according to the style of document you are creating. For example, the lists shown in the main post are not appropriate in person-to-person writing. They need to have either commas or semicolons following each point and a conjunction following the penultimate point that suits the context of the points (for example and, but, or, nor etc.). The lack of punctuation would be acceptable in certain styles of documents, for example marketing brochures or PowerPoint slides. Okay, so I'm ready to be flamed.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

When you read your words read them like somebody else wrote them.Put yourself in the frame of mind of reading a magazine article written by somebody other than yourself.A Thesaurus is a good idea.Punctuation is up to you.The reader has to understand your exact intent.Avoid using the same words over and over again.An example is:If I would then she would and we both would".Use a spelling checker.If you do not have a spelling checker use the one in your e-mail or the one in Yahoo Answers.In tech avoid contractions."I can't get this hard drive to work"or"I can not get this hard drive to work".Save a copy of all of your writing to a text file then to a CD.If it's for the Internet,take a screen snapshot of the page after you publish it.

stuartc
stuartc

Can only agree. I'm really getting fed-up with these titles of people. Stop trying to be so PC! It was always a chairman and never a chairperson.

bruce
bruce

One of the 'problems' with the English language is the lack of neuter pronouns. Other languages don't share this problem since most nouns are either masculine or feminine. This leads to such difficulties as, "A Heart Patient must be monitored for his own good". In an attempt to neuter our writing, the former is often replaced with "A Heart Patient must be monitored for his or her own good." Other possible replacements are: - his/her - their - the patient's - one's None of which I find particularly appealing. I think its time we invent a new word: hes! Thus the former becomes "A Heart Patient must be monitored for hes own good."

sheryl.stiles
sheryl.stiles

The reason a chairman was ended with man is because language was created when men were considered dominate of the species. Chairperson was the beginning of women being recognized as an equal. Keeping it gender-neutral alleviates some of the prejudices a person might have when dealing with a chairwoman. I notice it is an Alex and a Stuart that dislike the gender-neutral titles. Maybe it is time to get over it.

BarnabyJonas
BarnabyJonas

They're not equal in the 100 meter dash.

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