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Jewish World Review April 2, 2001 / 9 Nissan, 5761

Joyce Gannon

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Consumer Reports

Better writing means better business -- STILL peppering your memos with words like "prioritize" and "facilitate"? Or inserting phrases such as "per your request" and "the undersigned" in your business proposals?

Perhaps they sound like classic, professional terms to you, but formality doesn't necessarily cut it in today's world of electronic mail and casual Friday.

That's the word from business writing experts such as Paula B. Hill, a Pittsburgh consultant who helps business people churn out better letters, memos and reports.

"We don't wear three-piece suits ... We wear sweaters and pants to work. So why not have more casual writing?" said Hill, a former English professor at the University of Kentucky whose clients include Banc One, GTE, Federated Investors and the American Red Cross.

Hill, 57, authored a manual, "Give It To Me Straight: New Age Business Writing" that she uses in training seminars to help clients eliminate wordy language and refresh their grammar, spelling and punctuation skills.

While the plethora of e-mail used in business has made communication speedier and more efficient, it's also brought writing skills - or the lack of good writing - under wider scrutiny.

"These days, everybody fancies himself or herself a writer because they have to write e-mails," Hill said.

But the ability to compose a message quickly and hit the "send" key doesn't always equate to good communication, Hill and other writing consultants say.

"The days of (executives) dictating their letters have gone by the wayside," said Yvonne Alexander, a writing consultant based in Sonoma County, Calif. "So we don't have that buffer of a good administrative assistant who knows grammar, punctuation and spelling. It's harder to hide behind the lack of knowledge of language rules and convention."

Like Hill, Alexander is a former college teacher who works full time as a writing consultant for The Gap, Pacific Gas & Electric and other companies.

The biggest problem permeating corporate communications, these experts say, is a lack of clarity.

"A lot of people in business equate professionalism with highfalutin phrases - like 'per' or 'enclosed please find' - and they're afraid to write just plain English," said Gary Blake, director of The Communication Workshop, a consulting business in Port Washington, N.Y.

Blake, who's been conducting seminars for businesses for 20 years for clients that include Allstate Insurance, Merrill Lynch and the American Stock Exchange, said he was "astounded" at the number of mistakes that he finds in corporate memos and reports.

Among the biggest problems: wordiness, lack of organization, poor punctuation, bad grammar, failure to come to the point and inappropriate tone.

Hill says that good writing skills are critical to climbing the corporate ladder and that the higher you climb in your organization, the more writing you'll likely have to do.

As a consultant, Hill typically talks first to middle managers who want her to work with sales or administrative staffs on basic writing skills. Sometimes, the managers enlist her to help them brush up their own writing and editing skills. She designs courses for the Internet. She charges about $2,500 per course.

Some of her topics: "Business Writing for Techies," "Managers as Writing Mentors," "Writing Better Performance Evaluations" and "E-Writing," a full-morning seminar devoted to composing e-mail and using the proper e-mail etiquette.

While e-mail has been a driving factor in the trend toward more casual business writing, Hill recommends those who correspond on the computer follow some basic standards. For instance, include a greeting such as "Dear Joe" or "Hi Joe" and a closing before your name such as "Thanks" or "Cheers."

Because e-mail is generally less formal than a written letter, Hill doesn't mind incomplete sentences such as "See you for breakfast" or "Got your letter."

In fact, she prefers clear, direct phrases to what she calls the "inflated language" that you probably wouldn't use in a conversation - such as "in accordance with your request" or "facilitate dialogue."

Among her other tips for composing more effective e-mails:

- State your main idea in the opening sentence.

- Be brief.

- Avoid slang, buzz words, jargon, legalese and stuffy language such as "I shall."

- Skip the jokes, clever remarks and cliches.

- Be factual rather than emotional.

- Use strong active verbs instead of passive verbs. For example, "We decided to change the policy," not "It has been decided that the policy be changed."

Joyce Gannon is a writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS