Last year, Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire ordered all state agencies to adopt what she called “plain talk” principles. Since then, more than 2,000 state employees have attended training to help them write in clear, everyday language. And they’re seeing results in more than just concise memos.
For example, by revising one letter based on clear Persuasive Writing principles, the Department of Revenue tripled the number of businesses paying the sales tax on products they purchased out of state. As a result, the department collected over $800,000 extra in tax revenue.
“Simple changes can have profound results,” said Janet Shimabukuro, manager of the department’s taxpayer services program. “Plain talk isn’t only rewriting, it’s rethinking your approach and really personalizing your message to the audience and to the reader.”
That’s sweet music here at John Sturtevant Business Writing Training. Over the years we’ve been teaching Persuasive Writing that helps business learn to think clearly and write what they mean. We encourage people to answer three fundamental questions before they actually start writing.
1. Why am I writing?
2. Who is my reader?
3. What do I expect to accomplish?
Answering those simple questions will make a dramatic difference in what you say and how you say it. Here are seven more Clear Writing Principles for you.
Change is the only constant. Accept it.
The fact is, written and spoken language evolves over time. What used to be acceptable is now often confusing or archaic. In fact, some “rules” were never rules at all, but rather more like urbane legends (pun intended). For more enlightenment on real grammar rules, get the book at the top of this reading list.
I know some of you are about to cringe when you read the next sentence. But that’s something I’ll have to put up with. (See, I knew you’d cringe.)
In The Elements of Style, my pals Mr. Strunk and Mr. White tell me that it’s true, once upon a time, crusty old teachers told their students never to end a sentence with a preposition. Yet Strunk & White go on to say, “Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end … it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.”
That preposition rule your eighth-grade teacher drilled into your head, like many so-called grammar rules, is a remnant of Latin grammar. It’s not a rule. And it doesn’t apply to modern American English.
What’s more, the experts don’t always agree on the rules – literally.
Take that word for example. Literally. You know when your co-worker Amanda says, “I, like, literally died when my boss caught me playing online poker.”
You roll your eyes say, “No, Amanda, you didn’t literally die. You’re literally alive, standing here telling me this.”
Well, turns out, Amanda may be more literal than you might think.
Take a look.
The Chicago Manual of Style says:
“Literally means ‘actually; without exaggeration.’ It should not
be used oxymoronically in the figurative sense…”
The Associate Press Stylebook agrees:
“Figuratively means in an analogous sense, but not
in the exact sense. Literally means in an exact sense.”
Two old reliable reference sources must be right, right?
Webster’s New World College Dictionary contradicts them:
“Literally is often used as an intensive to modify a word
or phrase that is being used figuratively.”
My preference is to use literally when I mean actually not sort of. But that’s not based on a rule. It’s based on my desire to be clear to my reader above all else.
How do you handle business writing if the rules are elusive and evolving? Heed John Sturtevant's Golden Rule of Business Writing: Be Clear. Above all else.
If you get mired in the muck of rules you’ll only confuse and annoy your readers.
Here’s a great example of confusing and annoying business jargon:
The Department of Labor and Industries has been notified that you did not receive the State of Washington warrant listed on the attached Affidavit of Lost or Destroyed Warrant Request for Replacement, form F242.
Here’s an example of clear writing:
Have you cashed your Department of Labor and Industries check yet? The state Treasurer's Office informed us that a check we sent you has not been cashed.
To read the full story I mentioned earlier about the State of Washington’s “plain talk” mandate, and see more examples, here’s an article by Rachel La Corte of the Associated Press.
My goodness, will you look at the time? I’m going to take my wife to the movies. So that’s all for now.
Over the next few days, think about the people in your company who churn out confusing writing all day long. And imagine the negative effect those bewildering reports and proposals and emails have on your clients and business partners.
Then, when you’re good and frustrated, click here to learn more about John Sturtevant's Persuasive Business Writing Training. We’ll turn your annoying co-workers into articulate communicators. Guaranteed.
Be clear. It pays!