Plenty has been written to help those who want their writing to be perfect (or at least not plagued with idiocies). Unfortunately, writing guidelines often descend into subjective battles between Strunk-and-White zealots and rebellious serial comma murderers.

But like it or not — and plenty of people don’t like it at all — following a few best practices and being careful to avoid mistakes will make you a better communicator. If you don’t want to be bogged down in linguistic minutiae, I don’t blame you a bit. But if you’d like to make your business communications (or your blog posts and contributions to discussion threads) lucid and effective, these tips may come in handy.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Lose the embellishments

Good business writing is concise. That doesn’t mean it has to be dull or unimaginative. But it should be free of awkward and unnecessary constructions, laborious details, and stuff you’ve thrown in because you think it makes you sound smart.

Wordy: “The pro version gives you the ability to enable error logging.”
Better: “The pro version lets you enable error logging.”
Or: The pro version offers error logging.

Your writing will also be stronger if you keep an eye out for redundant phrasing. I often see this sort of sentence:

Redundant: In addition to showing your users how to use basic business software, you should also make sure you show them how to search the network.
Better: In addition to showing your users how to use basic business software, show them how to search the network.
Or: Show your users how to use basic business software and search the network.

2: Watch out for commonly confused words

Many words are easy to mix up, and even the most meticulous writers occasionally slip. The “Oh c’mon, you knew what I meant, right?” camp will say it doesn’t matter. But to project professionalism and inspire confidence that you know what you’re talking about (and to keep the infernal grammar crusaders off your back), double-check for mix-ups like these:

  • accept/except
  • effect/affect
  • lay/lie
  • loose/lose
  • passed/past
  • personal/personnel
  • moral/morale
  • sit/set
  • its/it’s
  • your/you’re
  • their/they’re/there
  • theirs/there’s
  • then/than

3: Don’t get slap-happy with the Shift key

There are rules about how terms, titles, and names should be capitalized, and the rules vary from one organization, publication, and context to another. If you want to be scrupulous, find out what style you should follow and try to stick to it. If you want to be semi-scrupulous, carve out your own style and stick to it. Just don’t capitalize words or names at random. Again, it may seem like a small detail. But if your work reads like a ransom note or your readers barrel through a title thinking it’s part of a sentence — or if you go all e.e. cummings and don’t capitalize proper names or designations such as mhz — you’ll confuse or mislead people.

4: Keep apostrophes under control

You’ve probably seen your share of business signs that include bizarre apostrophe usage. Often, an apostrophe is inserted before the letter s, as in:

  • No camera’s are permitted inside.

In fact, there are Web sites, such as Apostrophe Catastrophes and Apostrophe Abuse, that are devoted to sharing these blunders. But correct use of apostrophes is fairly ironclad, without too much room for preferential quibbling. Use them for contractions, possessive nouns, and a quote within a quote.

Contractions are simple: The apostrophe stands in for the missing letters, as in you’re and it’s.

To show possession, the only big gotcha is determining whether you’re talking about one or multiple things:

  • The users’ machines have reached the end of their lifecycle.
  • The user’s machine has reached the end of its lifecycle.

And the quote within a quote is straightforward, too:

  • The customer shouted, “My computer keeps saying ‘Access denied,’ and I want it fixed right away!”

One other way you may see apostrophes used is with plural acronyms or years, like this:

  • I keep getting BSOD’s.
  • I worked on that project in the 90’s.

I’m not sure where this habit comes from, and at least one guide — The Chicago Manual of Style — has a rule against it. Since the apostrophe isn’t needed for clarity and may trip up readers because it mimics a possessive noun, it’s better to skip it.

5: Get to the point

This last tip is a bit different because it pertains to how a piece of writing is constructed rather than to the individual components of expression, like apostrophes, words, and capital letters. But it’s equally important (arguably more so).

One of the most common writing problems is the interminable preamble. Often, people aren’t sure what they’re trying to say or where they’re going when they begin writing something. So they prime the pump by meandering, making self-evident observations, and promising to address topics they don’t end up covering.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s a valid process — but only if you revisit your introduction for fine-tuning. Whether you’re writing an email, a report, a blog post, or a book chapter, your readers want you to cut to the chase. You don’t have to streamline the life out of your intros. Just tighten up your remarks, get rid of the clever bits you’re so proud of that nobody will care about, and make sure what you’ve said fits with what follows.

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