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How to Stop Embarrassing Yourself in Emails and Memos

Here are six tips to make your point clearly and gracefully in your business writing.
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Life in business sometimes seems like an excuse to go from one email, memo, or report to another. That is, when you're not wasting time in badly-run meetings. And when you're not writing them, you're reading them, trying to cut through all the bloviated management-speak and figure out what someone is saying.

Enough. It's time for some communications détente. You may not be able to make other people write better themselves, but you can help everyone reclaim lost time. Furthermore, you typically write to others to further the aims of the business or to persuade them to support your point of view. Either is difficult if you only manage to leave their eyes crossed or closed. Bad communication reflects badly on you and negatively affects your prospects

The good news: You can improve your business writing today. A few simple steps might not turn you into the next E.B. White or George Orwell, but it will help make you an effective communicator.

Decide what you actually want to say

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that writing is all about putting words down. It's not. Writing is actually the concise distillation of considered thought. Do the thinking first and know what it is you need to say. The time you spend in reflection and planning will save you significant time in the writing process, to say nothing of actually accomplishing something through stronger communication.

Write a detailed outline

I know you hate writing outlines. It's so, so ... grade school. But it's necessary. Architects create blueprints before contractors start on a building. Electronic engineers provide factories with schematics. Work from a plan and you won't so easily go astray or forget important points.

Intend to be clear, not erudite

I remember once writing a ghosted piece for a company. Management wanted a high-minded tone. They complained that a straightforward and clear description didn't address the top executive type of reader they wanted. So I added some dull strings of buzzwords here and there and they were delighted. Ultimately you have to give the client what it wants, even though you know they're sinking themselves.

Don't be like them. People may compliment you, but privately they think you are pompous and not all that bright. Be clear and get your point across. That is far more important than getting someone in a smoking jacket to hold their pipe, tilt their head, and knowingly nod, saying, "That person sure has a way with a phrase." If you need that atmosphere, watch reruns of Mad Men.

Write through the outline

The outline is your plan. Now, with as much clarity and as little distraction as you can muster, write all the sections. If you want to add flair, include some transitions to smooth the movement from one section to the next. But don't worry about that. Just write what you planned.

Read your draft out loud

Go hide away somewhere and literally read it out loud. This is one of the best tools to catch mistakes and general awkwardness. Best to print out the draft and work with a pen to mark where something isn't right.

Kill your darlings

This is classic advice reportedly from William Faulkner. That doesn't mean everything but the bare bones goes out the window. (Read the first few chapters of The Sound and The Fury to see what I mean.) It does mean that anything not serving the purpose of the writing must go.

Take one last look and send the missive on its way.

And speaking of White and Orwell, each was a master of exposition and wrote at length about how to improve your written communication. Check out Strunk and White's Elements of Style or Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language. Both offer great advice in short formats.

Last updated: Jul 25, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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