Business Writing For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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Finding the right rhythm for your business writing can make a huge difference. You may wonder whether basing your writing on short simple sentences produces choppy and boring material reminiscent of a grade school textbook. Aiming for clear and simple definitely should not mean dull reading.

Become aware of rhythm in what you read and what you write, and you will improve your writing dramatically. Like all language, English was used to communicate orally about 100,000 years before writing was invented, so sound and rhythm patterns are critical to how written forms as well as spoken ones are received.

Think of the worst public speakers you know. They probably present in a series of long, complex sentences in an even tone that quickly numbs the ear. Good speakers, by contrast, hold your attention by varying the length of sentences, inflection, and intonation. As a writer, you want to do the same.

In everything you write, aim to build in a natural cadence. Rhythm is one of the main tools for cajoling people to stay with you and find what you write more interesting. Just begin each sentence differently from the previous one and try alternating short, plain sentences with longer ones that have two or three clauses, usually marked by commas. Like good public speakers, you can also inject short punchy words and phrases, but dole them out carefully.

Fix the short and choppy in your business writing

Even a short message benefits from attention to sentence rhythm. Consider this brief message:

Kim: The video crew didn’t show up again yesterday. We waited all morning. They never came. we just sat there twiddling our thumbs. What a waste of time. It’s just unacceptWble. Please advise. —Ted

And an alternate version:

Kim: The video crew let us down again yesterday. Waiting all morning cost us a lot of time, and as a result, we are at risk of missing the target deadline. Do you have a suggestion on how to move ahead? Thanks. —Ted

Notice how the tone shifts in the more readable message. The writer sounds more professional and focuses on the challenge rather than his personal resentment. The same information is delivered, and paying attention to sentence structure makes all the difference. For long documents, varying your sentence length and structure is even more critical. Few people will stay with multiple pages of stilted, mind-numbing prose.

Notice, too, that when you combine some short sentences to alternate the rhythm, easy ways to improve the wording and content emerge. Ted may be inspired to go a step further and write a third version of the same message:

Kim: I’m sorry to report that the video crew failed to show up again yesterday. Losing a whole morning makes it hard to meet our deadline, August 14th, which keys off the annual meeting. I’ve looked into some alternative resources — the shortlist is attached. Do you have a few minutes to talk about how to move ahead? Thanks. —Ted.

Notice how much more connected the thoughts seem, and how much more authoritative the overall message feels. Yes, the content shifted — but this happens when you write thoughtfully! In everything you write, what you say and how you say it are inextricable.

Figuring out how to express something well in words often pushes your thinking to higher levels. In the first message, Ted comes across as a complainer who can’t solve a problem. The second moves him up to at least sound more articulate and on point. The third message communicates that he is a take charge, efficient professional — someone reliable, someone who cares about the whole operation and takes initiative, rather than a cog who goes through the motions and waits for direction.

This is the magic of good writing. It clarifies problems. It enables you to discover solutions that didn’t occur to you at first thought. It equips you to look more effective and to be more effective. Good writing is always worth the time it takes, and once you adopt this belief, you can become an efficient writer as well as a powerful one.

Fix the long and complicated in your business writing

Many people have a problem opposite to creating short, disconnected sentences. Maybe you tend to write lengthy complicated sentences that end up with the same result: dead writing.

The solution to never-ending strings of words is the same — alternate sentence structures. But in this case, break up the long ones. Doing this produces punchier, more enticing copy.

A number of potentially good writers don’t succeed as well as they might because they fall into a pattern that repeats the same rhythm, over and over again. Here’s an example taken from an opinion piece written for a workshop:

I strongly support efforts to improve the global economy, and naturally may be biased toward the author’s position. While this bias may be the reason I responded well to the piece in the first place, it is not the reason why I consider it an exceptional piece of writing. Not only is this article extremely well researched, its use of cost-benefit analysis is an effective way to think about the challenges.

The monotonous pattern and unending sentences serve the ideas poorly. One way to rewrite the material:

I strongly support efforts to improve the global economy and this probably inclined me to a positive response. But it’s not why I see it as an exceptional piece of writing. The article is extremely well researched. Further, its cost-benefit analysis is an effective way to think about the challenge.

Again, simply varying the sentence length and structure quickly improves the overall wording and flow. Notice that you can take liberties with the recommended short-long-short sentence pattern and use two short sentences, then two more complex ones, for example.

Everyone has particular habits of writing that leave room for improvement. Strive to recognize your own weaknesses, because then you can counter them with practical-fix techniques.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Natalie Canavor's career spans national magazine editing, journalism, corporate communications and public relations. Her writing for business media, professional audiences and The New York Times have won dozens of national and international awards. She has taught advanced writing seminars for NYU and conducts frequent workshops.

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