by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Allow me to introduce myself. I am a writing machine. My first article
was published when I was 5 years old, 64 years ago; I’ve been a writing
machine ever since. I’ve made a fortune knowing how to manipulate the
incredible English language.
Sadly, I am in the minority. Having taught writing courses at many
institutions of higher learning, including Harvard, I long ago came to the conclusion
that most people would rather get a root canal than struggle with the dicey business
of writing so people will read, understand and respond to what they write. Needless
to say this costs them big bucks, since if you cannot use your own language, the
lingua franca of the world,as the essential tool it is for business and life success, you
lose much of the value of that language. And that is a crying shame.
I want to help you out, and I’ve therefore created the list below of key points
which when mastered dramatically improve the way you write and the results you
1) Just because you’re a native English speaker doesn’t mean you know anything
about writing our complicated, sophisticated, absolutely splendid language.
Speaking and writing are two separate, though related, things, and must be seen
Start from the proposition that you are, shall we say, “challenged” by writing in
English. There are many reasons why this could occur: you weren’t properly taught.
Although teachers unions may strongly disagree, the fact is most teachers are not
trained to write words that get results. Thus, they are unable to teach their students,
who thereby start off their life-long relationship with writing the right words on the
wrong foot. What’s more, most never manage to overcome this poor start; instead
of trying to overcome the problem, they find ways to minimize or even avoid writing
altogether. That is surely what throwing the baby out with the bath water means.
2) Admit you have a problem that’s not going to get better on its own.
As a business writer for my entire (now long in the tooth) adult life, one of the saddest
things I see is respected business leaders not only unable to write the Queen’s
English proficiently but proud of themselves because they mangle it in both its spoken
and written manifestations. Yes, proud of themselves… each embarrassing misusage
and mistake proving their warped satisfaction that they are therefore “people of the
people”, thereby immune from proper usage. Just to state this proposition is to prove
what a zany idea that is… yet it is common.
3) Force yourself to write more and better.
Like so many things in life, the more you write, the better you’ll get. Most business
people are poor writers because, being VIPs, they delegate such “minor” tasks to
others. What seems at first glance to be something rational and efficient, upon
second glance proves to be nothing more than a means to slough off something you
strongly dislike. Now hear this: even if you are the Chief Poobah of the world, indeed because
you are that self-same Poobah, you need the ability to write the right words to get the
results you must have to expand your clientele and business altogether.
This means no longer delegating all writing projects which ordinarily accrue to people
of your dignity and position, but accepting at least some of them, not least to give
yourself necessary practice… with the clear understanding that practice does most
assuredly make perfect.
4) Less is always more.
Brevity, it is said on the highest authority, is the soul of wit. It’s also the key to ensuring
that what you write will be carefully read and easily understood.
Poor writers are prolix writers; they write too much, edit too little, and manage to
kill any fruitful results that might come by burying the objective in verbosity thereby
suffocating the writing and ensuring its failure.
When you sit down to write any document whatsoever, your objective, 100% of the
time, is to
state what you aim to achieve
Then, succinctly, marshal your arguments, with the preeminent and clear focus
on what the recipient gets from you by taking the promptest possible action.
This means that if you want results, your invariable focus must be on the “you”
you are writing to; getting this person’s attention, interest, then action is what all
good business writing is about… such writing may never win the Nobel Prize for
Literature… but who cares? It can make you rich.
5) Use numbers to structure what you write.
Good writers, particularly good writers in a hurry (are there any others?) use numbers to
ensure readership and clarity. Thus,
“I have three reasons for contacting you today….”
“There are 6 major reasons why you must respond today….”
“Here are the 5 reasons you’ll want to take advantage of this offer now….”
Get the picture? Numbering provides structure, and it makes both writing and reading
of what you write easier. Remember, you do not need to win prizes for your prose;
it need only be good enough to get the results you desire.
6) Always write for the “you” receiving your writing.
Good writers, and by that I mean fast, efficient, easy to read writers, know a secret
which, until now, has been unknown by you: that English prose sings when you
make it “you” centered, the you in question being the person you are addressing your
All people are egotistically and I-centered. Don’t fight City Hall on this one; take advantage
of this fact, to your substantial advantage. The words you write should always be about,
for, directed at and done (whether explicitly or not) for “you”, the person you must never
forget you are writing for.
7) Read your words aloud… and save your breath!
Want to know whether what you’ve written will achieve your purpose? Read it aloud
to yourself. If you find yourself meandering through dense thickets of words and
punishing verbosity, difficult “show off” words and elusive meaning and directions,
you need re-write (as every Hollywood director knows).
Sentences should never be longer than you can comfortably read in a single
breath, no fudging either.
Key points should be made, emphasized, stressed… but always in short sentences.
Your writing should have a cadence which reading aloud will demonstrate. The best
writing is writing that moves you briskly through the subject at hand, without a single
As you implement these steps and begin to see tangible results which will only
improve, you will be glad, even blissful, that the bugaboo of being a poor writer
is now gone… never to return.
What will fill its place is one result after another achieved by deft use of the written word
you feared at the beginning of this article… and now rejoice as one of the absolutely
essential tools for enhanced business success. And that’s a fact you can write home