Business Writing Workarounds

Pen and Paper“Workarounds,” a word borrowed from the techie community, has become an interesting part of our business vocabulary, generally meaning if the way you usually do it, or are supposed to do it, doesn’t work, or if you’re not sure how to do it, here’s how to work around it to get the job done.

Many of us were taught – or at least thought we were taught – that there is only one correct way to write. Certainly when you are talking about a prescribed type of writing, say a thesis or a dissertation, that is true.

But in business writing, workarounds can get that piece of writing done both quickly and correctly, and can be useful when we’re not certain of the grammatical correctness of what we have written. There are many correct ways to get the job done, and in the typical business situation we do not have time to spend figuring out how to fix a particular phrase or sentence exactly as written. Business writing is not, and should not, be an English class exercise. Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. And the writing itself should be correctly done to enhance your professionalism and credibility.

So let’s talk about a couple of quick, correct workarounds.


Published in: on March 24, 2014 at 11:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Before You Hit “Send”: Final Email Checkpoints

WomanatComputer175Unless it’s an attachment, odds are that in most cases your email will be fairly short – a screen to a screen-and-a-half maximum. And because we write so many of them, we need to write them quickly. The shorter, the better – and out of here!

Business writing is a tool to get a job done. To make it easier for your email to do its job and avoid snags along the way, here are ten quick things to check before you send it.

  1. First of all, ask yourself, “Should this information be passed along at all?” If not, don’t.

If Yes,


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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coaching,consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email

Published in: on March 3, 2014 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ten Tested “How To’s” for Clearer Writing

womanTyping250How frustrating! You put a great deal of thought into that last memo or instruction, and your co-worker doesn’t get it. You thought you had a good plan for this piece. So what happened? Let’s take a look at our “how to” checklist – 10 quick and easy things you can do to help your writing communicate clearly; to help your reader “get it” at a glance.


Published in: on February 24, 2014 at 3:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

How to Write Instructions that Work!

Remember the last time you started to install, or assemble, or repair something, following the appropriate set of manufacturer’s instructions – only to find that, while they included steps 2, 5, 6-8, 10, and 12 – they had forgotten to include steps 1, 3-4, 9, and 11?

How did you feel about the person who wrote those instructions and what about the company the instructions came from?

The instructions you and I write on the job are usually somewhat simpler, and certainly different from the late Christmas Eve “special gift” assembly guidelines described above. But the writing process for creating a clear, effective instruction that allows your reader to get the job done is very similar.

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Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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More About the Business Writing Trend: Short!

Last week, we said that “short” is not what we really want, when we are looking for clearer, faster communication; when we want the reader to “get it” and to act on it now.TwoBusinessPeople175

What we are looking for is “concise.” “Short” can cause you a lot of problems, cost you more time, and result in lost productivity. You need to anticipate the questions you must answer for your reader before he or she can do what you are asking him or her to do. “Concise” – providing the information your reader needs, in as short a space as possible – greatly increases the odds that you will get what you need at all, and probably much sooner.

The second part of this is to make your writing faster and easier to read.

We already talked about alternate formats, cover letters, and whether to pass along this information at all. See last week’s post here.

Here are three more things you can do:

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Proofreading Quick Check

It seems like most of us are in a constant rush: the perfect environment for email errors that seem so determined to happen. Errors that make meaning unclear, and – worst case – result in time-consuming additional explanation, and “fixing.”

What’s needed is a fast mental checklist of some of the unexpected, but potentially lethal things you can look for quickly before hitting the send button.LoupeProofreading200

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Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Business Writing Tip of the Week: Writing a Successful Instruction

I remember all those Christmas eves, and maybe you do too, spent trying to assemble kids’ toys: “tab A in slot B” – that sort of thing, the evening too soon blending into morning, leaving us feeling incompetent, frustrated, and not anything at all like Merry Old St. Nick!ConfusedMan175

It was enough to give you mental whiplash!                   

Perhaps you are not “instruction challenged,” and perhaps we were not, either! I am totally convinced that our instructions included steps two, three, four, six, eight, nine, 11 and 13.

Remember the last time you tried to put something together – maybe to put in a new sink faucet, for example (“they gave me instructions, how hard could it be?”) To install new software? Or to change the cartridge on your printer the first time?

What’s the difference between instruction and obstruction? Why do we feel, and why might our readers feel the same frustration we have known? And how can we make it easier for our readers to succeed with our instructions?

There is the oft-told story of the professor who was teaching his students to write an instruction. The subject: how to shuffle a deck of cards. Not one of his students, we are told, thought to start with either (1) secure a deck of cards, or (2) open the box and remove the cards, preferring to start with “divide the deck of cards into two parts…” And thereby missing steps one and two.

Why? Because the writer assumed that of course the readers would know they had to secure a deck of cards, and that the box the cards were in would need to be opened, and the cards removed before the reader could begin to shuttle. This often happens when the writer knows so very much about his or her topic, forgetting that the reader may not know as much.

And how about instructions for the non-technical reader on a technical subject? We’re not talking about technical instructions or technical writing for technical people – there are specific rules and formats for doing this. What we’re talking about here is how do you instruct someone inexperienced in your discipline, and unfamiliar with your “language,” so they can succeed?

Well, in addition to making sure you have included every step of the process, you must also “translate” the words and phrases for your readers, into words or phrases they will understand.

So where to begin?

1. First of all, consider what you are writing, and your probable reader. Most of the instructions we will be writing on the job will be simple, uncomplicated guidelines for getting a job done, and frequently will be presented in 1-2-3 list form.

2. What do you want your readers to be able to do as a result of reading your instructions? What do they already know, and what will be new information to them? Even though they may already know some of the information you are presenting, do not assume that you can leave any information, or any steps out, and still have every reader fully able to accomplish the necessary results.

3. How will your reader feel about doing what your instructions tell him or her to do? Will there be an element of resistance?

Here are the three sections of a simple instruction:

The Beginning

a. You will begin with a who-what-when-where-why-how “lead paragraph,” of not more than five lines, providing a broad, but brief overview of the entire process, why it is necessary, and the desired outcome. If you expect any sort of resistance, it’s probably best to begin with the “why.”

b. If tools, parts, or supplies of any sort will be needed, list them.

The Middle

 If you have not already done so in the first section, describe the results to be achieved by the step-by-step instructions to follow. One sentence is usually adequate.

Now list, in 1-2-3 form, in detail, every single step that must be performed, in correct order. It also helps to start every step with an action word.

Tip: For a detailed, or complex instruction, ask a co-worker to help you test the instruction by performing every single step – exactly as you have written it, and nothing more – as you read each step to him or to her. This will help you to pick up anything you may have left out, or anything that may be confusing.

Tip: Again, for a detailed, or complex instruction, you might find it helpful to include some sort of graphic element, such as a labeled diagram, or numbered drawings of each step.

The End

 Using a confident and positive tone, describe what the reader has accomplished, and its benefits.

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 We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.

Published in: on May 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Do You Write the Way You Want to Write – Or the Way They Want to Read?

Last week’s release of the Intel study – what happens on the internet in one minute – has left many shaking their heads, and wondering how in the world it could be possible to break through all this internet “noise” to Internet Noisecommunicate anything to anyone.

In a worldwide culture where today and every day 204 million emails are sent, 6 million Facebook pages are viewed, and 1.3 million YouTube clips are downloaded – to say nothing of 20 million photos seen, the 61,000 hours of music played, and the 20 stolen identities plus the 47,000 apps downloaded – every 60 seconds, this is indeed a good question.

And, the study projects, by 2015 the number of networked devices on the earth will be double the number of people on earth. By that time it would take five years to view all the video content crossing IP networks each and every second.

A good question indeed.

Decide on your purpose. Why are you writing? Do you want a specific reader, or readers to read what you have written? Or is just writing it enough? Who are you writing it for?

While it seems obvious, your best chance of getting your writing read is to write about something your reader wants to read. Second-best is to write something he or she has to read. In the second case, don’t count on that much of it getting through.

Now that you have decided what to write about, ask yourself how your reader prefers to read: Online – in a letter, memo, instructions, report? Or in a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn? On paper? Where are you most likely to find your reader?

Next step: assuming you want your writing read, what is the appropriate tone to use? What is the tone your reader will expect? What is the tone that will best connect with your reader? Should you use a formal, or academic tone? Will your reader be more likely to read and comprehend a less formal tone? Is that appropriate? Does your reader speak a specialized language – “legalese,” “medicalese,” “computerese”?

Much of the business writing done for higher-level co-workers tends to sound almost like a vocabulary test, as staff tends to “write up” for the higher-level reader. And yet, if that higher echelon reader were asked, he or she most likely would prefer to spend less time with a more comfortable, more readable, more easily-understood writing style. After all, that reader probably prefers having a family dinner, and maybe watching a little football, to staying late at work, trying to figure out what that piece of business writing says.

So if you want your writing to be read, write about something your reader wants to read – or present the information in such a way that he or she will want to read it. Use the writing medium your reader prefers, when you can appropriately do so. Write with a comfortable style, and an appropriate tone and language. And by all means, if you do nothing else, make it easy for the reader to get your point quickly, clearly, and concisely.

That last guideline is, and will continue to be, your most essential, most critical tool for cutting through all the “noise” your reader deals with on a day-to-day basis. The one tool you can totally control: Make your point quickly, clearly, and concisely.

We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

Published in: on March 25, 2013 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eight Critical Checkpoints for Successful Business Writing

We’ve hit grammar and usage – the mechanical aspects of business writing – pretty hard over the last few weeks. This week, let’s talk about eight critical checkpoints to increase the effectiveness of your writing:

1. Even before you begin to write, ask yourself, “Should this information be passed along at all?” And if so, should it be passed along in writing?womanChecklist180

2. When? And who should sign it?

3. Should I use a straightforward, to-the-point-immediately approach? Are emotions involved? Should I build in reading time?

4. Considering the reader from demographic, psychographic, and “problem” points of view, what approach should be most effective?

5. Using this approach, do the thoughts flow smoothly from one to the next – all the while building the point I intended to make? What content can be eliminated? What holes need to be filled in?

6. Are my lead paragraph, and my final paragraph (if I used one) consistent with each other? Do they support the content in between? Should my reader reasonably be expected to take the meaning I intended?

7. How hard will my reader have to work to understand what I have written? Is that appropriate?

8. Have I given this piece both a spellchecker and an eyes-on visual check before it goes out, to find those old goblins – grammar, punctuation, and spelling problems?

Let’s talk a bit more about some of these checkpoints:

Probably the number one rule of communication is whether or not a specific piece of information should be passed along at all. Some of the participants in my workshops tell me that this can save up to 50% of their writing activity!

Should this information be passed along in writing? While there are many reasons you might want to write, the most common reasons for writing are to create some sort of record or proof, such as documenting an agreement; to provide a reference – instructions are one good example; because there is a mandate to put this information in writing; or to get the same information to a large number of people at relatively the same time.

Timing is always a critical strategic element, as is the decision as to who should sign the piece. Tone, the relationship the writer establishes or reinforces with the reader, is also critical, and may well tie in with the signer decision. The writer has the opportunity to set the tone with the reader to be what he or she wants that relationship to be. For example, it could be friendly, professional, authoritarian, technical, collegial, helpful – or even warm and fuzzy! What is the word you choose to describe that relationship?

The purpose of most of these posts is to talk about clear, concise, easily-understood business writing.  Business writing that can be read and the meaning grasped at a glance. One thing we have not yet discussed is when you might want to build in time for the reader. This does not mean to make the writing confusing, or your content hard to follow. You need to be clear at all times in the business writing situation.

There are times you will want to include more information, and times you will want to keep it as brief as appropriate. The effect of providing more information is that it takes the reader longer to read. Sometimes you can assume the reader has the background and the information to understand a brief message on the topic. At other times that’s just not the case. On rare occasions you might be writing about a serious emotional issue, and you might want to provide a bit of additional background or information to the reader, which will give him or her a bit of extra reading time to come to grips with his or her emotions.

Now, considering the reader from the demographic (what are the facts I know about, or can find out about this reader); the psychographic (what drives this reader, how he or she sees himself or herself, how the reader wants you to see him or her); and the “problem” (what is the issue you can solve for your reader) points of view, what tone will be most effective? What content will best serve your purpose?

From this perspective, do your thoughts flow smoothly from one to the next, building to the point you need to make? What information needs to be added? What information could result in “overload,” and could be easily deleted?

How hard are you making the reader work to “get it”? Can you reasonably expect that the reader will understand your intended meaning?

Finally, of course you will use the spellchecker and the grammar checker, but have you also put your own eyes on that piece of writing to give it a final proofing? Watch for words that are correctly spelled, but are in the wrong place, e.g., to-two-too; or there-they’re-their. Also look for words that are correctly spelled, but not the words you meant, e.g., “an” when you mean “at,” “on” for “of,” and so on.

At the very end, look for consistency, particularly in issues of style; then check, and revise as necessary, your word choice and syntax.

Published in: on March 19, 2013 at 1:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Gotta Dash – or Split? – Dashes and Hyphens

Yep. It’s true. Writers may, unfortunately, use a dash when they are in a rush, and don’t have, or don’t take, the time to complete a thought. In fact, one dictionary definition for “dash” is “move with haste; rush….” While the writer may suppose that the reader will complete his or her thought, or will “know what I mean,” this supposition can be dangerous territory.

The reader may very well complete the writer’s thought – with thoughts of his or her own – and totally negate whatever point the writer had hoped to make. Or maybe, and probably more likely, skip along, giving that incomplete or unsupported nascent idea no recognition or thought at all.

The dash is an interruption of your sentence’s smooth flow. That’s why it’s often used for emphasis – because its interruption causes your reader to stop and think, even for that split millisecond. But use dashes economically; too many interruptions can be confusing, and defeat your purpose for using them.

The dash can work in two areas: clarity, and style. As you saw above, not all sources agree on what the dash should look like, and not all keyboards are the same. Writing is a visual art. I prefer the space-hyphen-space (the final one above), but you may choose whichever “looks right” to you. Just remember (1) to be consistent; and (2) to avoid over-use in your writing – more like pepper than salt!

Now: As for the hyphen. Here’s where we have some definite grammar rules, along with some indefinite authoritative differences of opinion.

The dash and the hyphen each have a different job. The dash is often used to “split” or separate, or to emphasize large pieces of a sentence. The hyphen is more of a connector, or disconnector of individual words, or word parts.

Most students learn that when a word must be broken at the end of a line, a hyphen goes at the end of the nearest syllable, or “word bit.” We probably learned that some words are always hyphenated, some never, and with some, it depends. “Look it up,” we may have been told. Here are a few guidelines to make it a bit easier, and if you’re not sure… Well, you know: “Look it up!”

You will want to use hyphens:

• When two words come before the word they are describing, and one or the other is not a stand-alone word, e.g.,

My red-haired sister and I went swimming.

Don’t miss this last-chance opportunity.

• But generally not when those words come after, e.g.,

My sister has red hair.

This opportunity provides your last chance.

• And not when each of the two words is a stand-alone word, e.g.

Augusta was a cranky old lady.

He is a pleasant young man.

• For some terms describing members of a family, e.g.,

mother-in-law; son-in-law

• For fractions, e.g.,

two-thirds; three-quarters

• When the dictionary always spells it with a hyphen

• When using self or quasi, e.g.,

self-awareness; quasi-legal

You must use a hyphen:

• With ex (meaning former), e.g.,

ex-president; ex-representative

• When you add a beginning or an ending to a word that is capitalized, e.g.,

Whitman-like; anti-American

All in the family:

• Use hyphens for ex-spouse; sister-in-law; and great-uncle.

• Do not use a hyphen for stepdaughter; half sister; or grandfather

These are the most common hyphenated and non-hyphenated words. But then there are those other, less-common words, the exceptions, and the surprises, where you cross your fingers, open the dictionary, and hope you get it right!

Bring Gail to your workplace for an onsite workshop, coaching, or consulting. Or to work with your team to complete a writing project.


Published in: on March 4, 2013 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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