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The Truth About the New Rules of Business Writing: Most People Aim for the Wrong Target

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Take the first steps in writing-for-results by learning to describe the characteristics of strong writing.
This chapter is from the book

There's an old saying, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." Or, if you like sports analogies better: "It's much easier to hit a target you can see."

Most of us never learned to write for practical purposes. Early in our school years we were drilled on mastering grammar and punctuation, and in high school and college, usually practiced a literary style suitable for academic essays.

Then we enter the business world, and unless we're lucky enough to fi nd a writing mentor, we encounter few good models to light the way. Most people write carelessly, using old-fashioned, outdated styles that are ill suited to today's tempo and spirit. So we muddle along without knowing how to improve our own written communication.

Does this matter? Yes! Because it produces writing that doesn't work—meaning it fails to accomplish our goals.

So the first step in writing-for-results is to describe the characteristics of strong writing. Having a clear vision of the target is a huge part of getting there, and it enables you to apply skills you already own but may never have thought about.

Define good writing yourself

We're sure you know more about good writing than you think. Try this: Make a list of everything you don't like about other people's writing, whether in books, newspapers, e-mails, letters, newsletters, on the Web, in blogs, and so on.

To start you off, here are some of the characteristics that come up on most lists when we do this as a group activity:

  • Hard to understand
  • Boring
  • Confusing
  • Illogical
  • Wordy
  • Message obscure
  • Purpose unclear
  • Hard to read aloud

Add as many characteristics to this list as you can—and you've defined bad writing! For more descriptors to expand your personal list, see the "bad writing" rundown later in this chapter, drawn from our workshop participants.

Next: What happens when these negative words or phrases are reversed to make them positive? The preceding words or phrases might reverse this way:

  • Easy to understand
  • Interesting
  • Clear
  • Logical
  • Concise
  • Message obvious
  • Purpose obvious
  • Easy to read aloud

Take your full expanded list of negatives and reverse them.

Now you've successfully defined good writing and know what to aim for. You need only to believe in your definition and that it works for every purpose. This alone will immediately put you way ahead of most people.

Notice that incorrect spelling, punctuation, and grammar might not even have come up on your "bad" list, or may have turned up at the end. Instinctively, people know that technical know-how doesn't define good writing, although it matters because technical mistakes interfere with clarity and understanding. Today your computer programs can give you plenty of help with the technicalities—we'll show you how to use that support effectively.

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