Writing Well

Originally posted to SuiteU, part of Suite101. SuiteU is being removed from the site. I wanted to save the ecourses so this resource would not disappear.

Writing Well

By Katherine Swarts


Professional authors hear it on a regular basis: “I could write a book, too, if I had the time.” Obvious implication: writing is easy. Well, maybe writing is easy. But writing well definitely isn’t. Think back to your earliest school reports. Remember how your teacher insisted on seeing a rough draft before the final copy? And remember how you grumbled, “Why should I do all that extra work?”

Because writing is work. Authors know that. Other people tend to forget after graduating from research papers.

Okay, but you’re not an author, and you don’t care if your byline ever graces so much as a letter to the editor. So why should you bother improving your writing skills?

Because you still have to write: Friendly e-mails/Thank-you notes/Letters of complaint/Office memos/Business reports/You name it.

Have you ever read an e-mail advertisement and thought, “Why should I hire someone who can’t even spell?” Or looked over a letter and muttered, “What is this person trying to say?” If you want to make a better impression than that—whether your readers are supervisors, customer-service representatives, or old friends—polishing your writing skills is a good place to start.

You may be thinking, “Yes, but I use state-of-the-art word processing software with spelling and grammar checkers.” Checkers can be helpful, but they don’t take the work out of writing. They won’t create smooth transitions between paragraphs. They won’t write to your reader’s vocabulary. They won’t stop you when you’ve said everything that needs saying. They don’t even do their proper jobs flawlessly. To paraphrase a classic ditty, “Eye no this peace is error-free; my checker tolled me sew.” That line—good only for laughs in the real world—got by my computer’s spell checker without a single red mark.

Not to mention that spelling and grammar checkers often wag their fingers at things that are correct. According to the Word 2000 spell checker, my name, “Swarts,” doesn’t exist. With a long list of names and addresses, the typical spell checker can leave you wondering if the operator was shot at the keyboard and spurted blood on the screen. Worse yet is the grammar checker that doesn’t recognize good conversational writing. Reread the first two paragraphs of this introduction:

“Professional authors hear it on a regular basis: ‘I could write a book, too, if I had the time.’ Obvious implication: writing is easy. Well, maybe writing is easy. But writing well definitely isn’t. Think back to your earliest school reports. Remember how your teacher insisted on seeing a rough draft before the final copy? And remember how you grumbled, ‘Why should I do all that extra work?’

“Because writing is work. Authors know that. Other people tend to forget after graduating from research papers.”

See anything wrong in there? No? Well, the grammar checker did. It underlined “Because writing is work” and labeled it “Fragment (consider revising).” Revising to what, it doesn’t say. “You had to do the extra work because writing is work”? That gets past the grammar checker, but it also commits a cardinal sin against readable writing: it says in eleven words what could be said in four. It sounds stiff and redundant, less natural than the sentence fragment.

In any case, it takes more than perfect grammar to create an effective letter, an impressive business report, or even an understandable memo. It takes clear, concise, and convincing writing. Harnessing the Power of the Written Word is the perfect course for “everyday writers” who want to ensure that ordinary written communications achieve their purpose, whether it’s convincing a manufacturer to replace a faulty doodad or giving a warm feeling to the friend who opens your e-mail.

The course will cover: Minimizing misinterpretations ·Cleaning up clutter ·Writing to persuade ·Making a professional impression ·Editing your work ·Writing the friendly letter ·Writing the thank-you note ·Writing for the hard cases—condolence and complaint

Harnessing the Power of the Written Word will be valuable if you: Write memos, reports, and/or letters in the course of business ·Are drafted to write an article for your business’s, organization’s, or congregation’s newsletter ·Have to write a letter of thanks or condolence ·Need to write a letter of complaint ·Get the urge to write a letter to the editor ·Feel you “don’t write often enough” (even if just by e-mail)

“Wait a minute. Who needs writing skills to dash off an e-mail? I don’t have time to proofread that. And anyway, they’ll know what I mean.”

Probably they will. Then again, maybe they won’t. Picture receiving the following note from your former college roommate:

“Hi, Tracy, thought you’d be interested in this contest. All you have to do is e-mail your entry to this address and include your name, city, and county.”

Hold it. Should that be county or country? They’d be more likely to ask what country you came from, wouldn’t they? Unless this is a contest reserved for residents of your state. Hard to tell, since the note doesn’t mention states at all….

If you’re lucky, the message includes a link to the sponsor’s website and more detailed instructions. If not, you have to e-mail your friend back. Either way means extra work. Many people will give up without trying, wondering if any of the former roommate’s professors bothered to emphasize clarity.

And that’s just for a casual note. Imagine the consequences if:

You send your supervisor a note explaining why you deserve a raise—and you misspell his name;

Fifty staff members get up early on the wrong Saturday because your memo said, “the seminar is on the 11th” instead of “the 18th”;

Your department sends out a thousand sales letters that read, “We value attention to detil”;

You order twenty copies of a book instead of two copies;

A new widow receives a letter that starts, “So sorry to hear your husband is out of his misery.”

Harnessing the Power of the Written Word will help you avoid such embarrassing experiences and create writing that gets you what you want. Yes, good writing is hard work. No, you may never have the talent of a best-selling novelist. But basic writing skills have countless uses in everyday life. You may even fall in love with the written word.


Lesson 1: The Basics: Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling

A refresher on the “little things” that can make the difference between a good impression and a poor one. Covers word usage, spelling, and the proper use of punctuation marks.


I know, we all covered spelling and punctuation in grade school. But we all tune things out, we all forget, we all get out of practice. Word usage, spelling, and punctuation are just little things, after all.

Don’t forget, though, that little things can make or break a good impression. Suppose you receive a sales letter that starts, “Trust us to handle your acounts.” What is your reaction? That if the company can’t get a simple word right, they’ll probably be equally careless with the details of your accounts? Most people expect that someone who’s careless with little things will be careless with important things as well. And no one wants to hire a careless person.

If you have any doubts that little mistakes are important, consider the following case, cited in Why Does My Boss Hate My Writing? by Becky Burckmyer (an excellent business writing book now unfortunately out of print). Two thousand brochures went to the printer reading “compliment” instead of “complement.” One little letter, nobody will notice, right? Wrong. The writer “spent the night gluing two thousand tiny little e’s on top of i’s because his boss was so furious she refused to pay for a reprint” (p. 48). Laugh at such stories all you want, but don’t reenact them.

It is in the hope of preventing similar fiascoes that we are starting this course with a “refresher lesson” in the basics. This lesson will cover tiny but important details such as knowing the precise meaning of every word, mastering accurate spelling, and using the right punctuation marks in the right places. All simple things. All vital to good writing.

The discussion of punctuation covers two-thirds of the lesson, simply because there are so many punctuation marks. However, we will start with the broader picture—word usage and spelling.


Lesson Objectives: To pinpoint the most common usage and spelling mistakes ·To review the functions of the most commonly used punctuation marks

Lesson Resources: The Elements of Style ·How to Write It ·“Ode to a Spell Checker” ·“Punctuation Made Simple” ·“Common Errors in English”

Suggested Preparation: Read The Elements of Style, Chapters I and IV. ·Go over How to Write It, pp. 8-11 and Appendix III


Lesson 1: The Basics: Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling

Words, Words, Words

A Matter of Definition. The right word can make the difference between communication and confusion. The Elements of Style discusses over 100 “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused” in Chapter IV. Three examples are:

Affect vs. effect. Affect means “to influence.” Effect (the noun) means “result”; effect (the verb) means “to bring about.”

Imply vs. infer. Imply means “to suggest”; infer means “to deduce.” Writers imply; readers infer.

Literal. “Often incorrectly used in support of exaggeration or… metaphor” (The Elements of Style, p. 52). Don’t write “I was literally dead from exhaustion” while you’re still alive.

The KISS Principle. “KISS” means “Keep It Short and Simple.” Never say in eight syllables what you can say in two.

Excess words and redundant phrases will be covered in Lesson 3. Here we look at simple words as opposed to fancy words. The former is usually the better choice. Writing illustrate for show, objective for aim, or visualize for see makes a writer sound stuffy or snobbish, rather than well-educated.

For more examples of “flowery” words, see How to Write It, pp. 8-11.

Don’t Invent Your Own Words. Many people use a suffix at the slightest excuse. “There is not a noun in the language to which -wise cannot be added if the spirit moves one to add it” (The Elements of Style, p. 64):

We’re doing fine, budgetwise.

Things look tough, policywise.

The carnival refreshment business is booming, funnel-cakewise.

Such “coined” words imply that you have a minuscule vocabulary, or are given to slang. That’s bad news, imagewise.

Notes on Spelling. Spell checkers can help by calling your attention to nonexistent words. But since checkers pinpoint unrecognized words, not misused ones, trusting the checker for everything can lead to disaster. See “Ode to a Spell Checker” (http://www.is.tcu.edu/userservices/tcuus…

Moreover, spell checkers have limited effectiveness when it comes to proper nouns, many of which are not in the dictionary. Since getting the other person’s name right is a primary rule of effective writing, check all names against reliable sources. And take it from someone who has written or spelled out “S-W-A-R-T-S” many a time only to receive a name tag marked “Schwartz” or “Swartz”: never “correct” the spelling of a stranger’s name.

Basics aside, some words are misspelled more often than others. Appendix III of How to Write It has a list of commonly misspelled words, as does the Common Errors in English website (http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/m… and the Elements of Style website (http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk4.html… Study these lists; even if your computer has the words on file, you may someday find yourself writing by hand, using an old-fashioned typewriter, searching for a word in a database, or performing some other task that requires personal knowledge of spelling. And:

When In Doubt, Look It Up. If you’re one of those unfortunate souls who are never in doubt (but frequently wrong), train your “doubt instinct” by reviewing The Elements of Style and the commonly misspelled words every month—or week. In any case, keep a dictionary handy to verify definitions as well as spellings.


Lesson 1: The Basics: Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling

Punctuation, Part 1

The Period. Periods end a complete (declarative or instructive) sentence. Many writers chop sentences in half: “Sam was late for the meeting. Because he was stuck in traffic.” That should be: “Sam was late for the meeting because he was stuck in traffic.”

Perhaps these writers confuse narrative with Q & A format: “Why was Sam late for the meeting?” “Because he was stuck in traffic.”

If a sentence seems too long, by all means divide it into two sentences—but make sure they are sentences. See The Elements of Style, p. 7, Rule 6.

The Comma. Commas are used:

In quotes, to replace periods. Only periods, and never at the end of a sentence:

“I’ll be late for the meeting,” Tom grumbled.

Not: “I’ll be late for the meeting.” Tom grumbled.

But: Tom grumbled, “I’ll be late for the meeting.”

And: “Am I late for the meeting?” Tom asked.

To set off clauses: “Karen, who uses that office, is due soon.” Two commas are essential here.

To divide items in an informal list. That is, a list forming a sentence within a paragraph: “All campers should bring flashlights, sweaters, compasses, sleeping bags, and food.” Many people eliminate the last comma—the one before “and”—but without it, you might advertise for someone with experience in “chemistry, metalwork, marketing and research and development” and get an expert in market research when you wanted someone who could tie research to development.

Before conjunctions: “Amy planned to join us, but something came up.” The comma isn’t essential here, but it saves the reader’s mental breath.

To indicate natural pauses in a sentence. This one is also flexible. Just don’t write, “Everyone is required, to attend.”

See The Elements of Style, pp. 2-7, for more on commas.

The Semicolon. Semicolons turn two (related) sentences into one: “Gary said to start without him; he’s having trouble finding the right file.” The two parts of the sentence must themselves qualify as complete sentences. See The Elements of Style, p. 5, Rule 5.

The Colon. A colon precedes a clause, often a quote, which interprets or amplifies the preceding material:

You need two things for brainstorming: a pen and your imagination.

The material preceding the colon must form a complete sentence; the material after the colon need not.

When a colon introduces an informal list, the list is divided by semicolons instead of commas, especially when it is a list of complex items that include commas: “Pictured from left to right are: Tina Gray, executive director; Paul McGregor, chief of staff; and Marilyn Boone, advertising director.”

See The Elements of Style, p. 7, rule 7, for more on colons.

The Dash and the Ellipsis. A dash, which also sets off a subordinate clause, is less formal than a colon and stronger than a comma: “Your first action at the meeting—if you insist on going—should be to sit near the door.” See The Elements of Style, p. 9, Rule 8.

Ellipses (…) indicate omitted words, or a thought trailing off:

He frowned. “It sounds like a good idea, but…”

Ellipses following complete sentences may be preceded by periods: “It sounds like a good idea, but there are so many variables….”


Lesson 1: The Basics: Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling

Punctuation, Part 2

The Parentheses. Parentheses set off incidental information. If you can’t omit the parentheses and everything inside, and still have a complete sentence, the parentheses are in the wrong place.

“Everything inside” includes punctuation. Punctuation belonging to the main sentence goes outside parentheses:

I got there as fast as I could (I even took a short cut), but everyone had left.

Not: I got there as fast as I could (I even took a short cut,) but everyone had left.

But: I got there as fast as I could. (I even took a short cut.) Unfortunately, everyone had left.

See The Elements of Style, p. 36, for more on parentheses.

The Quotation Marks. Besides direct quotes, quotation marks can indicate titles of stories, articles, or songs. (Book and periodical titles are indicated by italics or underlining.) Sometimes quotation marks indicate irony:

Our “trustworthy accountant” has left town with $50,000.

In American writing, a quote within a quote is indicated by single quotation marks:

“Today,” said the professor, “we will begin studying the works of Poe, starting with ‘The Purloined Letter.’”

Most end punctuation goes inside quotes, but colons and semicolons go outside:

“I’ll pick up lunch,” she said.

But: She said, “I’ll pick up lunch”; the delicatessen was on her route.

When a quote is immediately followed by parentheses (within the same sentence), end punctuation follows the parentheses:

Craig wrote on the survey, “My favorite business author is Jay Conrad Levinson” (of Guerrilla Marketing fame).

See also The Elements of Style, pp. 36-37.

The Apostrophe. An apostrophe replaces letters in a contraction—do not becomes don’t—or indicates possession: Jessica’s raincoat; Adam’s report; Lois’s desk. (Some people drop the second sLois’ desk—but The Elements of Style favors Lois’s; see p. 1, Rule 1.)

Possessive pronouns never use apostrophes. Keep the apostrophe out of his, hers, whose, and its. The last is a frequent offender; if I had a dollar for every time I’ve read something like “The book has food stains on half it’s pages,” I could replace that book and the rest of the library. If you can’t substitute it is or it has and still have a coherent sentence, use its.

More on the apostrophe—and on many punctuation marks covered in Section III—can be found on the Punctuation Made Simple website, http://chuma.cas.usf.edu/~olson/pms/intr…

The Question Mark. Question marks end sentences of inquiry: “How many representatives are we sending to the convention?” Question marks may also be used for emphasis: “Are we going to stand for this?”

The Exclamation Point. Exclamation points (sometimes called exclamation marks) are punctuation’s equivalent of shouting. Like shouting, exclamation points should be reserved for emergencies. And like shouting, exclamation points are too often used indiscriminately:

“Dear Sir or Madam: I have never been subjected to such indignity! When you promised a free book, I expected it to be free! It arrived with a $20 invoice! And when I called your customer service department, they implied I was a deadbeat!”

This customer may well have a legitimate complaint, but after the second exclamation point, it’s unlikely anyone will take the letter seriously. (More on letters of complaint in Lesson 4.) Too many exclamations make the writer sound unreasonable, if not hysterical.

See also The Elements of Style, p. 34, “Exclamations.”


Lesson 1: The Basics: Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling


Burckmyer, Becky. Why Does My Boss Hate My Writing? Holbrook, Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1999.

“Common Errors in English: Frequently Misspelled Words.” http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/m…

Lamb, Sandra E. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write. Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

“Ode to a Spell Checker.” http://www.is.tcu.edu/userservices/tcuus…

“Punctuation Made Simple.” http://chuma.cas.usf.edu/~olson/pms/intr…

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.

“Words Often Misspelled.” http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk4.html.


Lesson 2: The Audience: Writing on Their Level

If you use terms your reader doesn’t recognize, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. If you take an overly casual approach to a formal communication (or vice versa), you’re asking for trouble. Know your audience before you start writing.


Addressing your work to the wrong reader is almost as bad as writing in a foreign language. By “addressing your work to the wrong reader,” I don’t mean sending a letter to the wrong person. I mean using vocabulary, allusions, or levels of familiarity that are inappropriate for the person your work is intended for.

You wouldn’t start a request for a job interview with, “Hey, buddy, got any openings?” (If you’ve actually considered doing this or anything similar, write 500 times, “There are good ways and bad ways to stand out in a crowd.”) Sales-minded writers—whether they’re trying to sell magazine articles, professional services, or themselves as job or political candidates—all too frequently try to get attention with crimson stationery, handwritten letters, luminous ink, or confetti enclosures. The attention this approach gets is usually the wrong kind. Leave flashiness to the catalog and brochure writers, and stick to the white-paper-and-just-the-facts approach.

The vocabulary of a communication should suit the manner of presentation. If you’re dealing with a serious matter and a near stranger, choose formal but natural-sounding language—“I would like detailed information on your current sales opening” as opposed to an overly casual (and overly demanding) “I want more information on that sales job you advertised,” or an impossibly formal “I wish to inquire into the sales position which has recently become available.”

A friendly communication should sound reasonably casual. Some people were so brainwashed by grammar-school preaching against contractions that they write, “I did not think we would ever get home” in e-mails to their mothers. “I didn’t think we’d ever get home” may be the obvious choice for friends or family, but even in more formal writing, contractions aren’t all bad. “Didn’t” as opposed to “did not” is preferable for almost any communication addressed to an individual, not to mention articles and books read by the general public.

In really formal writing—business plans, sales proposals, or scholarly articles—addressed to a general audience, contractions are less appropriate. Make every one you use give at least three good reasons for its existence.

This lesson will cover the basics of both business and social communications, and conclude with a section on potential difficulties.


Lesson Objectives: To learn how to word various business communications ·To master effective social communications ·To eliminate blunders in confusing or sensitive situations

Lesson Resources: How to Write It ·The Elements of Style

Suggested Preparation: Read How to Write It, Chapters 7-8, Parts IV and IX, and Chapter 58.


Lesson 2: The Audience: Writing on Their Level

Business Matters

Don’t Call People [the Wrong] Names. Aside from sibling switches (“No, Aunt Brenda, I’m Marty, he’s Jim”), few people call relatives, friends, or longtime coworkers by the wrong names. It’s new or occasional contacts that cause trouble.

But the problem goes beyond getting the first and last names right. If the whole office is on a first-name basis, your boss may be insulted by a memo addressed to “Mr. Green.” If even colleagues are “Mr.” and “Ms.” to each other, the supervisor will definitely take offense if you call him “Jason.”

As a newcomer, keep your ears open, follow established customs, and err on the side of formality when in doubt. Even if first names are the rule, make sure you get them right. The Richard who has always been Rich or Rick to his friends is unlikely to appreciate being called “Dick.”

Writing to Colleagues. A memo to a coworker, or to the office as a whole, takes a more formal tone than a note to a friend. Avoid slang, exaggeration, and small talk, and don’t pile on the contractions.

Writing to Supervisors or Potential Customers. When writing to a boss or potential client (and remember that clients and customers are also your bosses), err on the side of formality. Delete all negative words (never, failed, ignore), stick to the point, and address all correspondence to “Mr.” or “Ms.” until the person requests otherwise. Politicians and fundraisers are notorious for addressing strangers by first names, hoping to create in the recipient a feeling of obligation to a “friend.” It rarely works.

Writing to Subordinates. You should also watch the names when it comes to people you outrank. The custom of calling subordinates by their first names (and expecting them not to return the favor) is out of fashion. If you’re “Ms.” so is your secretary.

Subordinates deserve respect in other areas as well. There are many ways of talking down to people: direct insults (“This work is incredibly incompetent”); superlatives (“I have never seen such a fiasco”); outright demands; icy formality; an overly familiar tone (which can also get you into legal trouble). The correct tone to take with a subordinate is formal and straightforward. Never imply that a subordinate position equals inferiority or indentured servitude.

Writing to the General Public. This category covers general sales letters (and advertisements) addressed to a wide audience. Don’t put “Important Information” or some other generic attention-getter on the envelope; it won’t fool anyone. Refer to specific content that will catch your ideal customer’s interest.

Once customers open the envelope, tell them first what they need, then why you’re the one to give it to them. Never start with yourself. As human-relations expert Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Of course you are interested in what you want…. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want” (Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success, p. 44).


Lesson 2: The Audience: Writing on Their Level

Social Matters

Invitations. A written invitation may come as an e-mail, an informal letter, or an engraved “request the honour of your presence” card. Any written invitation warrants a written reply, unless the invitation specifically requests a telephone call.

An informal invitation takes the tone of a friendly letter (see below). Include date, time, place, and a few details on the event. When answering such an invitation, just say “Looking forward to it” or something similar, and repeat the date, time, and place to make sure you both got it right. If declining an informal invitation, say “I’m sorry I can’t come”; if you’re genuinely sorry, explain briefly what will keep you away.

Formal invitations (and replies to formal invitations) have set rules of format: Refer to any etiquette book for instructions. Unless a formal invitation includes a response card, replies must be handwritten.

Writing a Thank-You Letter for an Event. Anyone who takes the trouble to host a formal or semiformal gathering deserves a written acknowledgment from each guest. (These notes are traditionally called “bread and butter” letters, probably because they are associated with gatherings that serve meals.) Overnight guests should also send letters of thanks. Tell your host you had a great time and what your favorite parts of the party or visit were. A handwritten letter makes a better impression than an e-mailed or printed thanks.

Writing a Thank-You Letter for a Gift. A verbal “thank you” is acceptable for a shower or children’s birthday gift, but a formal occasion or a mailed package deserves a written acknowledgment—if only to reassure the sender that the package wasn’t lost in the mail or the shuffle. As with the thank-you for an event, write the letter by hand.

“Thank you for…” is an acceptable opening but does sound rather forced. “I really enjoyed…” and “Your gift was just what I needed for…” are better. Be as specific as you can.

Writing a Friendly Letter. A “Hi! How are you?” note to a friend or relative needs little instruction. You’re close enough to this reader to know what he or she is interested in—mutual hobbies, hometown news, books you’re reading.

Do remember that written communications lack voice tone to indicate irony or humor, so think twice before writing anything you don’t want taken literally. And don’t write anything super-personal, either, unless you’re positive no one else in the recipient’s home will read the letter.

A Note on E-Mail. E-mails are far more likely than snail mail letters to be read by someone other than the intended recipient. Never write anything in an e-mail that you’d hate to see posted on the bulletin board at work. Beware of forwarding messages indiscriminately; that can clog up a lot of mailboxes, not to mention spread a lot of false rumors. And although e-mail is hardly a private medium, make sure you send every message to the correct address—and only the correct address.


Lesson 2: The Audience: Writing on Their Level

Potential Problems

Lesson 4 will cover I-hate-to-have-to-write-this communications in detail. Here, we’ll examine pitfalls in easy-to-write letters.

“Dear What’s-Your-Name.” Letters to parties of unknown name (such as customer service representatives) were traditionally addressed to “Dear Sir” or “Gentlemen.” This gets things off to a poor start if a woman opens the letter. “Dear Sir or Madam,” the original solution, sounds stiff to many people, since “Madam” is no longer an everyday word. (The abbreviation “Ma’am,” still common in speech, is too informal for most letters.) “Ladies and Gentlemen” is better, but it does sound somewhat like a public announcement. Write to a specific person whenever you can.

Even with a specific name, problems can arise. The prejudice against “Ms.” may be dead, but that doesn’t help you figure out whether an addressee is Mr. or Ms. It’s embarrassing to write “Dear Ms.” to what you thought was a clearly feminine first name and find you were addressing a man.

Standard practice is to address the letter to a first and last name: “Dear Mallory Smith.” It’s a little awkward, but it avoids the insult of a figurative sex change. (Never write “Dear Mallory” in a business letter to a stranger.) The best solution is to do advance research, but that’s not always possible.

The “Thanks (But No Thanks)” Letter. Even writing to people you know has its problems. When you’re genuinely thankful, there’s little trouble writing a thank-you note. But if you hate a gift or had a miserable time at a party, don’t say so straight out. Let it go at “It was thoughtful of you to remember us.”

If the problem is recurring—if you’re a teetotaler who gets a bottle of wine every year—the best you can do is casually mention your distaste in a friendly letter written on some other premise. Do this far enough before the holiday that the ploy isn’t obvious.

Unwarranted Assumptions. There are always exceptions to what “everybody knows,” even if it made the front page of every major newspaper. Don’t write, “You saw this or that on the news.” Review the facts.

Don’t refer to office customs or politics and assume everyone knows what you’re talking about. Don’t use a pop-culture analogy without defining it. And don’t refer to a city without naming the state or country. Most people think of California when they hear “Pasadena.” We Houstonians think of Pasadena, Texas, to our southeast. It’s easy to assume that the world shares your mental database. Don’t.

Jargon. Ditto for technical terms and abbreviations. Many non-bankers have never heard of a certificate of deposit; they know only the musical and computer versions of the “CD.” As The Elements of Style puts it, “Not everyone knows that MADD means Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and even if everyone did, there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time” (p. 80, Rule 19).

Cross-Cultural Communication. Even if not everyone understands everything, today’s world is still an interconnected world. You may do business with people in other countries, or you may correspond with missionaries or international pen pals. Learn their customs, especially what is considered offensive in their societies. And remember that not all governments value privacy or free speech, so be extra-careful about referring to sensitive matters such as religion. For specifics, find a good reference book or cultural representative.


Lesson 2: The Audience: Writing on Their Level


Carnegie, Dale. Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success. New York: Galahad Books, 1998.

Lamb, Sandra E. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write. Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.


Lesson 3: The Editing: Yes, That Quick E-Mail, Too!

The second draft is always better than the first. Find out why and how to edit your work.


Shortest time writing usually equals longest time reading—unless the reader gives up on the whole thing first. As the famous quote goes, “Sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Substitute “report” or “memo” for “letter” if you like; the concept is the same. In these days when time is harder to come by than money, few people want to read anything loaded with “padding.” One secret of good writing is to make every word justify its existence.

Lesson 1 touched briefly on extra-long words. This lesson will look at unneeded words. When writing a first draft, the tendency is to put down everything you know. There’s nothing wrong with that in a first draft, but there’s a lot wrong with trying to make that first draft also serve as the last draft.

Even if your writing is free of verbiage, it may move along like a jerky car engine, leaping scattershot from one topic to another. A piece should flow smoothly from beginning to end, each sentence and paragraph leading naturally into the next. This lesson will examine transitions, beginnings, and endings.

Finally, we’ll look at the mechanics of good editing: checking facts and spelling; tricks and gimmicks of editing; and the importance of letting a piece “cool” before sending it (even if it isn’t loaded with emotion). Even if you’re the “edit-as-you-go” type, a day or a week away from the manuscript can help you see things you never noticed.


Lesson Objectives: To learn what a document can do without ·To discover how writing can flow smoothly from beginning to end ·To learn the most effective editing methods for each individual and situation

Lesson Resources: The Elements of Style ·How to Write It

Suggested Preparation: Read The Elements of Style, Chapters II and V. ·Go over How to Write It, pp. 7-11.


Lesson 3: The Editing: Yes, That Quick E-Mail, Too!

Clearing Out Clutter

Unnecessary Information. Do you enjoy holding the phone while an automated answering system reels off twenty options? Readers react the same way to long, irrelevant paragraphs. If you’re reporting on a new auto design, don’t include a complete history of transportation. And if you (or your lawyers) insist on creating a contract or policy statement that covers every single contingency, then put the most universally relevant sections first, use boldface headings, and stick to the point within each section. However complicated the communication, there is no excuse for running off on a tangent.

Redundant Phrases. “Omit needless words,” says The Elements of Style (p. 23, Rule 17). Never say in ten words what you can say in three. Write “consensus,” not “consensus of opinion”; “hastily,” not “in a hasty manner”; “because,” not “owing to the fact that.” The fact that is a notoriously sneaky phrase: The Elements of Style calls it “an especially debilitating expression [that] should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs” (p. 24), yet coauthor E. B. White admitted he himself was “batting only .500” (p. xvi) in getting rid of that phrase after years of professional writing. So keep your eyes open.

Unnecessary Adjectives. Descriptive, specific writing is important in making an impression on your reader. But “describing” words—adjectives—don’t always equal descriptive writing. Many writers take a weak generic noun and try to pump it up with an adjective: Our guards need dogs to help patrol the plant. vs. Our guards need big dogs to help patrol the plant.

But the second sentence isn’t too strong either. How about: Our guards need Dobermans to help patrol the plant.

That’s descriptive. That’s how to convince the plant manager to budget for four-legged security.

Unnecessary Adverbs. Adverbs are to verbs what adjectives are to nouns, and the attempt-to-compensate-for-weak-generic problem is the same. Which sounds strongest:

I went to the hospital to see how Yolanda was doing.

I went quickly to the hospital to see how Yolanda was doing.

Or: I rushed to the hospital to see how Yolanda was doing.

Adverbs can pad adjectives, too. Very is a frequent offender; for some people, everything is “very big,” “very good,” or “very hot,” never simply big, good, or hot. If the emphasis is essential, try enormous, exceptional, or scorching.

“Not” is another weak word. A phrase containing “not” should be replaced with a positive equivalent: “dishonest” instead of “not honest.” See The Elements of Style, p. 19, Rule 15.

Unnecessary Qualifiers. Qualifiers are “of course there are exceptions” words such as usually, practically, normally, fairly, and generally. Writing loaded with qualifiers makes you sound wishy-washy, or terrified of lawsuits. The Elements of Style calls qualifiers “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words…. We should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then” (p. 73, Rule 8).


Lesson 3: The Editing: Yes, That Quick E-Mail, Too!

Ensuring Smooth Flow

Themes and Theses. What are you writing about? Answer in one sentence or less, or go back and rewrite your outline. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, neither will anyone else.

A theme is the subject of your work; a thesis is a sentence stating what you plan to prove or describe. You don’t have to quote the theme or thesis in your work, but you’d better edit out anything that isn’t directly related to both.

To minimize verbiage, start with narrow themes and theses: “the profits attributed to our marketing program for 2002,” not “the value of marketing.”

Getting Things in the Right Order. Besides relating to the main idea, everything should relate to what goes before and what comes after. Even if you’re writing in list form (“25 Reasons to Increase Our Marketing Budget”), group closely related items together. If you start with “the better to reach the larger public,” follow that with “an increase in customers,” not “the ability to hire more qualified people.” Group the latter with other staff-related reasons.

Transitional Words and Phrases. If you’re writing in essay form, transitions are vital to smooth flow. Sharp breaks jar readers:

“We must do something about free-roaming pets in our neighborhood. A child was mauled by a German Shepherd yesterday. Other dogs are digging up gardens, and cats are harassing the birds.

“The Owen Ross Park on Elm Street is falling into disrepair….”

Whoa. What does the park have to do with free-roaming pets? Is this a list of neighborhood problems? Then start with “Our neighborhood is experiencing several problems,” and begin new paragraphs with transitional words and phrases: “furthermore”; “however”; “finally.”

If no transition seems right, maybe the paragraph is out of context. Move it elsewhere, or discard it altogether.

Knowing Where to Start. Part of ensuring smooth flow throughout is starting in the right place. Get the reader’s attention right away:

“Our direct mail campaign is enjoying some success, but we need to reconsider our choice of mailing lists.”

Then give the background—why the campaign was formed, how it was implemented, the results, and how the conclusion was reached. Reader will review the details with more interest once they know what to expect. Unless you’re writing a mystery, don’t hold readers in suspense. Follow the journalist’s “inverted pyramid” principle—heaviest material on top.

Knowing When to Stop. Some people beat a topic to death long after readers are sick of it. Better to leave people wanting more than to convince them you’re a bore or an egomaniac.

Almost as bad is the writer who stops so suddenly that readers bruise their ribs on their mental seat belts. Take a paragraph or two to restate your conclusions, summarize your points, or refer back to the beginning. The last—the “come full circle” approach—frequently takes the form of a conclusion or follow-up note to an opening anecdote. (Brief anecdotes are excellent openings, but don’t interrupt the story at too suspenseful a point; it distracts from the meat of the piece.)


Lesson 3: The Editing: Yes, That Quick E-Mail, Too!

On Editing Methods

Checking the Facts. When including statistics, references, online addresses, direct quotes, or anything else with one correct version, make sure every letter is accurate. And check the broad facts too. Did you attribute that quote to the right person? Is that website still online? A single mistaken fact can result in a hundred irate phone calls—or even a lawsuit.

Using Reference Books. While checking the facts, make sure your reference books are up to date. Reference books include directories, atlases, and encyclopedias—not to mention databases and other electronic “books”—as well as dictionaries and style manuals. It also includes the recommended resources for this course: The Elements of Style; How to Write It; and the websites.

As mentioned in Lesson 1, when in doubt, look it up! (If you have regular problems in any area, look it up even when not in doubt.) Make sure your spelling, phone numbers, and bibliographic format are all “by the book.” If your employer has a preferred style manual, by all means follow it—even if it disagrees with The Elements of Style.

Should You Read It Out Loud? Many authors and business writers swear that reading a piece out loud pinpoints awkward spots that no visual reading can catch. I rarely use this technique myself, and it’s obviously not practical in a library or crowded office. But by all means use this method if it helps you. It’s an individual matter.

Another gimmick many writers recommend—especially for those who have real difficulties with editing—is reading a piece backwards, word by word from the end to the beginning. Again, do it if it works for you.

How Long Should It Wait for Editing? Whatever editing technique you use, don’t edit immediately after the writing and then pronounce your work perfect. Letters written in the heat of anger aren’t the only things that should cool before being sent; if you edit immediately, your brain will still be in “first draft” mode, blind to new possibilities. Wait long enough for the exact words of the original draft to grow fuzzy in your brain, but not so long as to forget the thrust of what you were saying. I recommend a one-week cooling period for important business writing.

Editing a Rush Job. Of course, you don’t always have a week to spare. You may be writing a memo about tomorrow’s meeting, or an answer to a time-sensitive invitation. And few people want to let an e-mail sit in the outbox for long.

Even when sending something immediately, though, it pays to read it over. No one expects a casual note to be flawless, but people do expect you to spell their names right, omit obvious typos, and include all essential information. Anyone can overlook such basics when writing in haste; I’ve received e-mails from editors and librarians that called me by the wrong name, said “call this phone number” without including the number, or spelled “submit” as “summit.” If the most literate people in society can make such elementary mistakes, so can you. Even if readers understand tight deadlines, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that you’re indifferent or partly illiterate.

With a handwritten letter, you may not want to write the whole thing twice (though it’s fine if you do). Anyone worthy of a handwritten letter will forgive one or two cross-out corrections. But do read the letter over, make those corrections, and add a P. S. for anything you forgot.


Lesson 3: The Editing: Yes, That Quick E-Mail, Too!


Lamb, Sandra E. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write. Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.


Lesson 4: The Hard Cases: How Not to Rub People the Wrong Way

Sooner or later, we all have to write things we’d rather not write, or things with higher-than-average potential to offend. This final lesson covers letters of complaint, letters of condolence, and other difficult-but-necessary communications. We’ll also look at the art of persuasive writing, and at ways to eliminate hints of bigotry and sexism.


We all sometimes have to write letters we wish were unnecessary, or things with higher-than-average potential to offend readers. Knowing your audience and communicating your message clearly are vital.

While friendly notes and thank-you letters are relatively easy to write, some letters have to be approached with the skill of a diplomat trying to resolve a centuries-old feud. A letter of apology, a customer complaint, a reprimand to a subordinate, or a letter dealing with a death all have potential to bruise feelings if not handled with extreme care.

A letter to the editor, request for donations, or other communication designed to win the reader to your side won’t break a heart or ruin a relationship if badly worded. But it may ruin your chances of getting what you want, if it annoys or bores your readers. The true language of persuasion flows as smoothly as the word.

Even writing on neutral topics can hit sensitive nerves if carelessly worded. “Politically correct” is itself a loaded term these days; to many people, it means “Be totally amoral, and take care to offend no one except conservatives, who are too narrow-minded and bigoted to count.” Still, the extremes to which some people have taken the “above all give no offense” principle are no excuse for saying anything blockheaded. Especially since written words come back to haunt you even more often than spoken ones.

This lesson will examine the best ways to deal with potential trouble spots.


Lesson Objectives: To learn to write effective letters for difficult situations ·To master the principles of persuasive writing ·To learn which terms are considered offensive

Lesson Resources: How to Write It · The Elements of Style

Suggested Preparation: Read How to Write It, Chapters 5, 15, 33, 42, and 55. ·Go over How to Write It, Appendix II.


Lesson 4: The Hard Cases: How Not to Rub People the Wrong Way

Writing Letters for Difficult Situations

The Apology. Whether you broke your neighbor’s heirloom vase, dented a client’s car, or just made a fool of yourself, a written apology makes the strongest impression. Send it immediately, before the offended party’s anger has a chance to build up.

Never make excuses for what happened. The more blame you’re willing to take, the more likely you are to be forgiven. (Even if you weren’t entirely to blame, accepting responsibility encourages others to do the same.) Offer restitution instead of excuses—offer to replace what you broke or to provide further services free of charge.

The Complaint. If you’re the offended party, approach with care. No matter how justified you feel in your anger, flinging accusations and insults guarantees you will be dismissed as a hothead. Even if you get your way, it bodes ill for future relationships.

The most effective letter of complaint is firm but dignified. Describe exactly what happened and what you believe should be done about it:

The clerk insisted my request was unreasonable.

NOT: I was never treated with such indignity.

I believe I am entitled to a refund.

NOT: I demand my money back.

The more reasonable you appear, the more reasonably you will be treated. See How to Write It, Chapter 33, for more on letters of complaint.

The Reprimand. If the unsatisfactory performance comes from someone below you, a written reprimand may be in order. Again, avoid insults and name-calling. Describe exactly what happened, what should be done to remedy it, and (if necessary) what disciplinary action will be taken. See also How to Write It, Chapter 15.

The Condolence. A letter of condolence for the death of a loved one may be the hardest letter in the world to write. It deals with an extremely sensitive topic, it is addressed to the most emotionally vulnerable of readers, and it is frequently written by someone who is also grieving. Yet this letter is also one of the most necessary to write, for it assures people they have not been left alone in the world.

Don’t try to cheer up your reader by minimizing the situation. Such statements as “It’s all for the best” or “You’ll have another child soon” cause more pain than they resolve. “I’m so sorry” and “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” (with specific suggestions if possible) are much better. If you knew the deceased personally, refer to a specific memory.

Letters of condolence are the most personal of letters, and must be written by hand.

The Thank-You-for-the-Condolence. If you’re the bereaved party, write a thank-you note for each letter of condolence. A simple “Thank you for your kindness in writing” will do; people know you aren’t up to cheerful or lengthy correspondence.


Lesson 4: The Hard Cases: How Not to Rub People the Wrong Way

Persuade, Don’t Pick Fights

The Perils of Insulting Your Opponents (Even Behind Their Backs). If you’re trying to win an individual, or the general public, to your side on some controversial matter, concentrate on the positive aspects of your point of view, not the negative aspects of your opponents’ point of view. Never mind what political ad writers do. If you use up your available space running down your opponents, readers may conclude that you have nothing good to say about yourself. At best, people will find you immature and petty. You want to convince your readers that your point of view is intelligent and reasonable, not simply that your opponents are wrong.

The Perils of Loaded Language. Have you ever received a letter with “THESE LIBERALS ARE DETERMINED TO DRAG OUR CHILDREN AND OUR COUNTRY INTO THE PIT OF HELL!!!” underlined in red? Don’t even think about using such tactics in your own letters of persuasion. Even readers who basically agree with your position may decide that you’re a dangerous extremist, or at least too immature to fight for the cause effectively. People leaning toward neutral or opposing positions will almost certainly conclude, “You can’t believe anything advocated by someone like that.”

Finding Points of Agreement. Whether or not you expect your readers to be favorably disposed to your position, start with something they’ll agree with. “Get the other person saying ‘Yes, yes,’ immediately,” wrote Dale Carnegie (Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success, p. 147). The attitude established at the beginning sets the tone for the entire communication.

Even diametrically opposite viewpoints have points of agreement. Can the abortion-rights activist and the pro-life activist agree on anything? Well, they agree that unwanted pregnancy is a problem. They agree that teen motherhood is a struggle. If they start from even a broad point of agreement, they have a harder time dismissing each other as monsters with nothing decent to contribute.

Edit This One Twice. The purpose of editing is to ensure that communication is as clear as it can be. Important in any communication, this principle is vital in persuasive writing. You don’t want to convince your readers of the wrong thing, or leave them wondering what you’re arguing for. Even if writing only two paragraphs, edit with exceptional care—allowing the full week’s cooling-off period if at all possible.

Knowing When to Shut Up. No matter how well-edited, your letter may not convince everyone. It’s easy to believe that your opinion is so obviously true that anyone who understood all the facts would be on your side. If you work from that premise, you may wind up including literally everything you know about the subject, intermingled with paragraphs of pure passion, making your letter far too long for the standard newspaper column or direct-mail piece, annoying opponents and supporters alike. State your position briefly, with two or three pieces of collaborative evidence, and stop.


Lesson 4: The Hard Cases: How Not to Rub People the Wrong Way

How to Be Politically Correct Without Simpering

Derogatory Racial and Religious Terms. Presumably you have the sense to avoid such blatantly offensive words as “nigger” or “gook,” but there are many other appellations that figuratively insult race, culture, or upbringing. American Indian, Eskimo, and Oriental are only a few of the terms taken for granted (at least in white society) twenty years ago, but out of favor today.

Derogatory Terms for Physical Conditions. Terms such as crippled, deaf and dumb, and even handicapped are likewise best avoided.

The Sexist Job Title. With the demise of single-sex careers, dozens of job titles ending in man had to be revised:

Policeman became police officer.

Fireman became firefighter.

Mailman became mail carrier.

Some changes are still evolving. The suffix -person can create some awkward words. Try substituting chair for chairperson, supervisor for foreperson, service technician for repairperson.

If you cringe at referring to female “actors” or “gods,” check the thesaurus and substitute performer or deity.

Ms., Mrs., Miss, or Madam? Choosing the correct title for a specific woman also has pitfalls. When in doubt, use “Ms.” When addressing a married couple (with the same last name) as a unit, “Mr. and Mrs.” is acceptable. Never use “Miss” for a woman past college age, unless you know she prefers it.

Madam is sometimes used as a salutation (refer to Lesson 2) and sometimes as a formal title: “Madam Mayor” (the equivalent of “Mr. Mayor”). Usually, though, you can substitute “Mayor Harrington.”

“He” Is In Mixed Company. Resentment of the generic he has created some unwieldy sentences: “If the teacher is himself or herself uncertain of his or her subject, he or she can expect little from his or her students.” Better to alternate a generic he with a generic she (every few paragraphs, not in the middle of a sentence). If you prefer the gender-neutral they, pluralize the whole sentence: “All students must bring their textbooks,” not “Everyone must bring their textbook.” (Everyone, someone, and anyone are singular.)

This is one of the few places where The Elements of Style has modified its position. The third edition stated: “The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances…. It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect” (p. 60). Compare with the present edition: “The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive” (p. 60).

Conventions do change. I don’t claim to have taught you everything you will ever need to know about writing. Indeed, I hope you will continue learning—and writing—throughout your lives.

Happy writing!


Lesson 4: The Hard Cases: How Not to Rub People the Wrong Way


Carnegie, Dale. Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success. New York: Galahad Books, 1998.

Lamb, Sandra E. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write. Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd Edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.


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