When you write at work, be clear, brief, personal

Working Life

October 22, 1995|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Like it or not, we are writing more than ever at work these days. Faxes often require written responses. Computers, which many people thought would lead to the paperless office, have just made it easier to churn out reams and reams of memos. Even e-mail, a chat in cyberspace, depends on the written word.

Much of what comes across our desks (and computer screens) is aimless, wordy and boring. To help you look better in writing, follow these 10 commandments:

1. Be brief. Whether you're sending an official memo or --ing off a quick e-mail message, start with a clear statement of why you're writing. ("We need extra help for our fall sales campaign, and I'd ++ like permission to hire a temp.") Fit your memo on one page (about 250 words in e-mail) and make it simple to read. Short sentences (10 words or less) and paragraphs (no longer than four sentences) work best.

2. Set the right tone. Every office file includes memos written in anger or frustration. They leave a nasty paper trail. Write that irate note, if it's absolutely necessary, but delay sending it until you can make the tone more professional.

3. Get personal. To grab attention, address your reader directly with words like "we," "us," or "you." Impersonal words ("one") or phrasing ("Staff should report all inquiries") are a turnoff.

4. Weed out repetition. Try not to repeat things you've already covered. And don't use many words when a few will do. Some of my favorite mouthfuls: "in connection with" (with), "in the event that" (if), and "the price is inclusive of" (the price includes).

5. Use topic sentences. Start each paragraph with a strong sentence summarizing what follows. ("This strategy can serve several purposes.") That way, someone who does not have time to read every word can skim the memo and grasp what it's about.

6. Give sentences clear subjects. If high school grammar lessons about the difference between active and passive voices left you yawning, don't despair. Just make it clear who's responsible for every action. For instance, the phrase, "once it is decided" (passive voice), leaves us asking, "Who will decide?" The quickest cure is to pin the action on a person or group. Our sample fragment becomes "once our department decides" (which, by the way, is now in the active voice).

7. Avoid "ramblers." Some sentences, like this one, can be hard to read because they are so long, or because they switch subjects midway through, and by the time you reach the end of them, you may even forget what the sentence was about. Ramblers are easy to fix. Just split a long sentence into two or three shorter ones.

8. Write the way you speak. Contrary to popular belief, pompous language doesn't make you sound smart. It just makes you sound pompous. How many people do you know who say, "I am in receipt of" (instead of "I received"), or who refer to "utilization" (instead of "use")? Reading your memo aloud is a good way to flag such stuffy phrases.

9. Find things to cut. The easiest way to write concisely is not to reread every sentence as you write it. Instead, do a first draft that includes all the necessary information. Then pare it down. Throat-clearers, such as "it is important to remember that" or "it is interesting to note that," are obvious things to trim.

10. Check for mistakes. I'm a big fan of computerized spell-checkers, but they don't pick up words that you've spelled correctly, but used incorrectly. Examples: "their" and "there," "discreet" and "discrete," "who's" and "whose."

Keep in mind your busy boss or colleague who already has too much to read. Good writing will make all of your jobs easier.

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