Peter Sauerbrey’s three ways to write more clearly, concisely, and effectively, in any language

Many of us were taught to write as though we would become novelists, playwrights and other literary creatures although we were much more likely to need to write like journalists.

Fifteen years of teaching corporate writing around the world convinces me that most of us are better writers than we think, and we share an affliction: we write the way our teachers taught us to write. We were taught to write term papers, when we needed to be taught how to write clearly, concisely and effectively.

Thinking our way into a business document is seldom a specialty among writing teachers, especially creative ones. The evidence I see in companies worldwide is that many of us had wonderful creative writing training but most of us were never taught to think as business writers.

Write Upside Down

We’ve gone through the torture, learned grammar and how to organize documents, artfully crafting a beginning, middle and end. Lo, the business novelette. Our common writing affliction: we type while thinking, and eventually “come to a conclusion.” Novel-writing is found throughout the business-writing spectrum—administrative, engineering, sales, marketing, research, quality control, compliance, financial, human resources, web copy.

Turn it upside down and edit for wordiness and you have: journalism. As global corporate writers, we are mass media professionals. How does your favorite newspaper or news portal organize world events so that you can find the information you want in seconds?

1 Think Action

The first question most of us ask when opening emails is, “What do you want me to do?” Many email writers put requests, with action verbs, in the subject line. There is no general rule. You must decide. Sales and marketing writers often dance around this one: will I offend you if I tell you to buy something, or am I safer suggesting you click to “Save 20% Now.”

Outline first—use a scratch pad, your imagination, some brainstorming software, whatever is best for you. Think about what you want your reader to do. (If you are not requesting an action, use “FYI” to let me know I don’t have to do anything. I’ll thank you for saving me the time it takes to find a possibly hidden request.) In this way, you can identify your action first, where readers can easily see it. This tip alone reduces or eliminates complete rewrites, cutting your writing time by up to half. Never put important information in the subject line without repeating it in the beginning of the letter. Some people’s mailboxes are set up so they only see the first few characters of their subject line. And some people habitually ignore the subject line anyway.

2 Write a Lead

Lead is what journalists call the first sentence in a news story.

Envision a triangle with a flat side on top and a point at the bottom. This is journalism’s inverted pyramid—a news writing style traditionally used in newspaper, radio and television news-reporting. The classic hard-news lead includes the Five Ws: who, what, when, where, why, and sometimes how. (Feature, or “soft news” stories are different.) The lead goes on top where important information belongs

Journalism is usually informational and seldom calls for action (with the exception of editorials and op-ed pieces). In corporate writing, we must add the action part, which often, depending on our audiences, comes first. Let’s look at how to turn a boring engineering report into a sizzler using simple language and a little bit of thinking.

In a two-day Burger Writing seminar at a global commodities-manufacturing company, I worked with 24 engineers who wanted to write better production reports. Participants brought their most recent monthly production reports to our workshop; they all worked different shifts as engineer/plant supervisors. Most of the reports were long. One droned on for 28 pages, which generated lots of discussion and good-natured laughter. While all engineers/plant supervisors were expected to have read all others’ reports, none of them had. In the author’s Recommendation and Conclusions section at the bottom—where valuable information is safely concealed in most of the engineering reports I’ve seen—I noticed the author’s gentle hint that a couple of things in the plant “might need a little tweaking.”

I asked the author what he meant by “tweaking.” He dismissed my question as irrelevant. I asked why he put irrelevant information in the recommendations-and-conclusions section. He confessed that he hated to write these reports and would just as soon move on to someone else’s document. Finally, after I pestered him a little bit more, he said he thought a “tweak or two” might increase plant efficiency. “How much of an increase?” I asked. “Two-and-a-half to three percent,” he said, then described his recommended adjustments. The first involved a simple ratio mixture, the second called for a slight temperature change—that would cost nothing to implement.

Eyes lit up as fellow engineers saw a great idea being born. All felt the author had a profitable idea. A quick calculation showed a potential US$3.7 revenue benefit—at no cost. The reluctant author got a round of applause. We all wrote new leads and compared them. Mine went something like:

To increase revenues by $3.7 Million—at no additional cost—I recommend we:
• Increase the temperature on line B … and
• Adjust A-B line flows.

We broke with company policy and used the first-person/I in our rewrite, agreeing that idea people should be recognized for their brilliant suggestions. We also redirected the document to include an audience that does not normally read such reports: senior corporate management. We anticipated that the document might be forwarded to higher levels, including top financial management. The plant manager forwarded the report up the line to senior management as we expected he would. Soon after, the author-engineer discovered something special in a letter from the company president: a bonus check for $30,000.

3 Keep It Simple

In global corporate writing, many of our readers know English as a second or even third language. Use the simplest words, and the simplest constructions to convey your message accurately and meaningfully. Fancy language is generally viewed as pretentious.

“Unfortunately, most of us have been trained to choose our words to impress rather than communicate,” wrote the late Robert S. Burger, journalist, Dartmouth College professor, and founder of Burger Writing Courses. If our education was typical, he said, most teachers liked our writing best if we used a lot of Latin-and-Greek-derived words, and the longer the better. So instead of writing “use,” “get,” “buy,” “spend,” we dug into the thesaurus and came out with “utilize,” “procure,” “purchase,” “expend.”

That doesn’t mean you should try to write strictly in one-syllable words. Rather you should always use whichever word tells your story best.

Sweet brevity was seldom applauded while you were in school; long-winded dissertations often were. Look into any company’s files and you’ll find evidence that writers are still writing to the teachers who once required them to write 500-word (or longer) papers.

The people you write to today aren’t looking for stylistic or literary value. They just want you to tell them what they need to know and what you want them to do. You must give them what they want, as quickly, clearly and directly as possible.

We’ve all read how-to books to help us write better but never learned to think. To customize your documents to your readers’ point of view, without formulas, you must first think. When writing to multiple readers, think a little bit harder to create a lead that welcomes different audiences. You can write a better document than any expert because you know your audience better than anyone else. That’s nice to know. It’s also lot of work, and your readers won’t do it for you.

Peter presents Burger Writing Courses at companies in North America, Europe and Asia. He clients have included DuPont, Merck, Pfizer, BASF, Basell, Bayer, Siemens Healthcare, Exxon-Mobil, and The New York Times. He has been editor and chief of corporate ... (Read More)

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