Written by, Julie Busyn
Once someone discovers you have an English degree, you instantly become the go-to for proofing, editing, and creating a wide array of materials. You’re called on to write and weigh in on everything from original website content to legal contracts to social media posts for your kids’ school’s PTA. Since I spent most of my career in sales, where my carefully crafted phrases were spoken rather than written, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) can feel like a cathartic little homecoming.
It’s no secret I’m a word nerd. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology and influence of word choice. With a marketing minor, I naturally gravitated to the fine art of business writing. Sounds easy enough… just use big, smart-sounding, worky words, right? Actually, it’s the opposite. The key to effective business writing is communicating an idea in the most succinct but memorable way possible. In a journalism course, we were asked to write on a topic then rewrite the same paper using 50% fewer words, without diluting its meaning or impact. It’s harder than you think, and it makes you completely rethink your word choices. The more specific and descriptive the word, the more memorable, or “sticky”, it is. Don’t say something is really big. Say it’s massive. This holds true in any writing genre. Even the ho-hum, everyday email.
Want to write an email that someone might read and (OMG) remember? Here are a few basic tips:
- BE YOURSELF… add a little personality while keeping it professional. People will read your words in your voice. Make sure it sounds authentically you.
- BE LIKEABLE… we’re naturally inclined to help people we like. Be the person someone wants to help.
- KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE… if you speak “above” or “below” your audience, you’ll lose them.
- AVOID AMBIGUITY… ask for precisely what you want and when. If you need something by end of day, don’t say “ASAP”, as your reader could interpret that as ASA-I Get Around to It (like next week).
- STAY ON TOPIC… use a specific, descriptive subject line, then make sure your content sticks to that one subject.
- USE BULLETS… to highlight your key points. Let’s face it, they might be the only things that are read.
Email closings are where I find one of the most common grammar mistakes I see in business writing – use of “and I” rather than “and me”. It pops up frequently in social media, too. Without droning on about parts of speech, just know there are times when it’s actually correct to refer to “Bob and me”.
WRONG: Please reply to Bob and I at your earliest convenience.
RIGHT: Please reply to Bob and me at your earliest convenience.
WHICH TO PICK?: When in doubt, take out the other person’s name to hear what makes sense. For example would you say, “reply to I” or “reply to me”? Pretty obvious now, right?
WRONG: This is a picture of Bob and I at the company picnic.
RIGHT: This is a picture of Bob and me at the company picnic.
WHICH TO PICK? Same rule… kick that Bob guy out to hear what makes sense. You’d never say, “this is a picture of I” without raising an eyebrow or two.
Spelling and grammar can feel so “last century”, but they DO matter. Mistakes happen, and we’re all prone to a fat-finger now and then. Yes, even I am. That said, know your limits and don’t be careless. I may be able to diagram a sentence (useless superpower #317) but if I have a leaky faucet, I’m calling a plumber. Likewise, if you’re creating something that’s either A) going to a large, unfamiliar audience or B) being mass-produced or published, find or hire yourself a word nerd to give it a once (or thrice) over. A misspelling among friends is far less costly and humiliating than one printed on 25,000 pocket schedules for a professional football team. This may or may not have happened to my husband back in 1998. Let’s just say nothing important has left his desk without my review since.
While slightly off topic, I will close with a debate that was recently held in our office. Should a single or double space be used after a period? It’s a stylistic choice, but the quickest way to reveal your age is to add a double space after a period. Say what?? It’s true. If you give that spacebar a second whack, you tell the world you’re expecting an AARP card any day now. Why the change? The need for the second space simply doesn’t exist anymore. Remember typewriters? The word alone can make you almost smell the ribbon and white-out. The fact is, a typewriter’s static font size and spacing didn’t offer enough white space between the period and next letter when a single space was used, making one sentence visually blend into the next. Solution? In the words of Britney Spears, “hit me baby one more time”… and the double space was born. It died with the birth of the word processor. Computerized fonts allow for dynamic spacing that varies between certain letters and characters. A single space now offers ample visual cush between the period and next letter. Save yourself those extra keystrokes for searching cat videos.