TML Digest 

November 30 , 2023


The 10 Most Common Business Writing Mistakes

Trevor Marshall

There are some common mistakes that most writers of business correspondence make. These mistakes exist regardless of whether the written piece takes the form of a letter, report, email, memo or blog post, and can be discovered during the editing process. A good editing process should start by looking at the large picture in order to make “macro edits.” This has to do with the content of the writing, how it reads, its tone, coverage of relevant issues, and whether everything makes sense. After that, the editor should begin the micro-editing process.

This article examines some key issues of business writing and identifies the ten most common mistakes writers make:

1) The Intro Is Too Lengthy

In journalism, the introduction or intro is called the lede and it can be considered the most important section of the article, letter, report, blog post, email or memo. It will determine how much of the content the reader will go on to read. Get to the point quickly and remember that at that moment, the audience for whom you are writing becomes most important. Forget your preferences and focus on your audience. This may mean redrafting the opening several times until you get it right.

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2) Lack Of Clarity

Sometimes we make certain assumptions about our audience. For example, they are knowledgeable so they should be familiar with the terms being used or, they are stupid and ignorant and would not notice that key bits of information required to prove your point are missing. Never take your audience for granted. Also, anticipate that your primary audience may not be your only audience. Therefore, if you are going to use a lot of industry jargon, be sure to explain it to your readers. Also, always try to explain your point in simple straightforward language.

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3) Overuse Of The Passive Voice

The passive voice is the reversal of the normal flow of a sentence. A typical sentence should start with a subject, then a verb and an object. The subject is the person or thing responsible for the action described by the verb, and the object is the receiver of the action. Sentences written with the normal flow of subject, verb, and object, are said to be in the active voice. Those written in the reverse order, are said to contain the passive voice.  The following sentence provides an example of the passive voice: “The passive voice is used by writers too often.” In the active voice, the sentence becomes, “Writers use the passive voice too often.” The active voice is regarded as being more direct and engaging.  Many writers overuse the passive voice and this makes their writing dull and unnecessarily wordy. However, this does not mean that the passive voice should not be used. There are times when it makes more sense to use the passive as opposed to the active voice. One such instance is when the action taken is more important than the person responsible for the action. For example, “My bag was stolen yesterday” is more fitting than “Someone stole my bag yesterday,”

4) Too Many Words

Don’t take two paragraphs to say what can be said in one. Every word in your piece must add value or it should not be included. Good writing should be concise with no needless words.  The common culprits are overused adverbs and adjectives, such as “very” “actually” or “quite.” They are used just like many people use “uh” and “um” to fill space when they are not sure of what to say next. They are what are sometimes referred to as “grammar expletives.” Look for the words “here,” “there,” “just,” and “it” to spot them in your writing: “Common constructions include it is, it was, it won’t, it takes, here is, there is, there will be.” While you are at it, look for the word “that” which is often used for the same purpose and can be cut from most sentences without changing their meaning. For example, “I think that cupcakes are better than muffins” could be restated as “I think cupcakes are better than muffins” or even better: “Cupcakes are better than muffins.”  The key questions to ask as you’re writing or editing are: Does this word add anything to the meaning or the flow of the piece? Can you read the sentence without running out of breath?

5) Poor Conclusions

Whereas the intro sets the tone for your piece, the conclusion provides an opportunity to wrap up the entire article, letter, memo, email, blog or report in a few short sentences and to tell the reader what the takeaway should be or what the next steps are. Unfortunately, some writers miss this opportunity and either end abruptly or fail to leave the reader in the right place.

6) The Homophones

These are words that sound similar but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Some examples are “They’re,” “their,” and “there.” They sound the same but are different in spelling and meaning. Another common pair of homophones is “affect” and “effect.” The former is a verb that causes something to happen (“I hope this message affects people“), while the latter is a noun (“We tried to analyze the effects of this message on our readers.”). You need to develop a method of remembering how each homophone is used.

 

7) The Apostrophe

This often leads to confusion as many writers do not understand the underlying rules of its application. This issue can sometimes become confused with the use of homophones because ( to some writers) it is the same punctuation mark that turns “your” into “you’re” and “its” into “it’s.” You need to review the rules governing the use of the apostrophe and also understand how its use in contractions, changes the meaning of the word. In the case of “your” it means you own something. When the apostrophe is applied, it means you are doing something. In the latter case of “its” versus “it’s”, “its” means something is owned, while “it’s” is short for “it is.”

8) Semicolons and Commas

These cause writers the most confusion. In the case of the semicolon, the general rule is to use semicolons to connect two complete thoughts—more of a pause than using a comma but less of a hard stop than using a period. This means, that if you do use a semicolon, make sure the parts that come before and after the semicolon are both complete thoughts with both a subject and a verb. For example, “I love ice cream; but hate ice” is incorrect because the “but hate ice” part cannot stand on its own. However, “I love ice cream; but I hate ice” works. Alternatively, a comma could be used instead of a semicolon.

Commas cause even more confusion and are more difficult to apply. There are also different views about when it is suitable to do so. As a case in point, should you use the Oxford comma (a.k.a., serial comma) or not? The Oxford comma is the comma that is added before the last item in a list. So, for example: “X, Y, and Z” follows the Oxford comma rule, as opposed to “X, Y and Z” (missing that last comma). If you decide to follow the Oxford comma rule, you should stick with it and not switch back and forth. Also, you need to be mindful of how the absence of a comma can change the meaning of a sentence as the following two sentences illustrate: “Let’s eat Grandpa” as compared to, “Let’s eat, Grandpa.” The difference is clear. In the first sentence without the comma, it appears that someone is suggesting that Grandpa becomes a meal. In the second sentence, it is clear that Grandpa is being invited to the meal. This shows how a comma can make a big difference to a message.

Remember that as a general rule, before adding a comma: If you’re connecting two complete thoughts with a coordinating conjunction (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, or So), you should always use a comma before the coordinating conjunction. However, if only one part of that sentence is a complete thought, the comma is unnecessary. For example,

Incorrect: “I’ll order the pizza, but don’t want the onions.”

– “Don’t want the onions” would not be used, in most cases, as a standalone sentence, so we don’t need the comma. 

Correct: “I’ll order the pizza, but I don’t want the onions.” – “I don’t want the onions” is complete with subject and verb, so we add the comma.

Also, add a comma after “Also” at the beginning of a sentence, but don’t add a comma after “Or” unless it is followed by a parenthetical.

Incorrect: “Or, you could download this other antivirus app.” 

Correct: “Or, if you want more features, you could download this other antivirus app.”

9) Misused Words

Sometimes choosing the right words to use to convey our thoughts can be difficult. It is important to understand the context of our writing, the audience for whom we are writing, and the nuances of the words we choose to include in our piece. Our understanding of the meaning of some words may be different to our audience and this can lead to a difference in interpretation of the message being conveyed.

Some words may be used without a proper understanding of the context in which they should be used. For example, use of the words “less” and “fewer” in these sentences:

  • “There were less people in the Sunday church service than last week.”
  • “There were fewer people in the Sunday church service than last week.”

Use fewer when you can count whatever you are referring to. This means that the correct usage in the previous sentence was “fewer.” Similarly, you would say “less water” (not countable) but “fewer raindrops” (countable).

10) American versus UK English

There are differences in the way some words are spelt in American English as compared to the UK standard. Over several decades, American English has made inroads into the literature and correspondence of countries that were previously British colonies and followed the British standard. There were several reasons for this, but that is not the subject of our attention. Instead, there should be an awareness of the differences that exist, and the use of both standards in our business correspondence should be avoided. Organizations should develop a clear policy of which standard will be adhered to, and that policy should be followed. In the absence of this, switching from one form of spelling to another may be interpreted as a typographical error on the part of the reader.

 

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