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.


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


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.


The four workers have copies of their assignments.


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).


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.


Our president, John Rodriguez


President John Rodriguez


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.


The first three pages are blank.

We received 10 complaints.

Ten people attended the meeting.

She has 120 employees.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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

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


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.