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How to Write Clearly

How to Write Clearly

ADVICE TO HELP YOU WRITE CLEARLY AND CONCISELY

BLOG BY NICK WRIGHT of EDITORSOFTWARE.COM

 

StyleWriter 4 can transform your business letters into perfect plain English

Friday, July 29, 2011 - Page 3 of 5

How to write a concise business letter

Writing your business letter in plain English

Good writing is effortless reading that makes you want to read more. It is clear and concise, uses short sentences and simple words. It keeps to the facts and is easy to read and to understand.

Plain English is clear English. It is simple and direct but not simplistic or patronising. Using plain English doesn’t mean everyone's writing must sound the same. There is no one ‘right’ way to express an idea. There's plenty of room for your own style—but it will only blossom once you have got rid of the poor writing habits that are typical of most business writing.

Here are some of the key techniques to help you write in plain English:

Use active verbs rather than passive verbs

Using active verbs rather than passive verbs is the key to good writing. Why? Because passive verbs are longwinded, ambiguous, impersonal and dull. Active verbs make your writing simpler, less formal, clearer and more precise. Here's an example:

Passive: It was agreed by the committee...
Active: The committee agreed...

Passive: At the last meeting a report was made by the Secretary...
Active: At the last meeting the Secretary reported...

Passive: This form should be signed and should be returned to me.
Active: You should sign the form and return it to me.

In switching your style from passive verbs to active verbs throughout your writing, you face several problems.

You must accurately spot them. Often writers miss passive verbs or try to change verbs that are already active.

You need to measure your use of passive verbs. One or two passive verbs a page will not ruin your style, nine or ten will.

You need to know how to turn passive verbs to active verbs and StyleWriter software is a great tool for spotting and measuring passive verbs in your writing accurately.

Keep your sentence average length low

Sentence length is crucial to good writing. Almost everything written by good writers has an average sentence length of between 15 and 20 words. This doesn’t mean writing every sentence the same length. Good writers naturally vary the length and rhythm of their sentences—longer sentences balanced with shorter ones—but they keep their average sentence length well below 20 words.

Compare these examples:

LONG SENTENCE EXAMPLE

I refer to my letter of 13th June and am writing to advise you that if we do not receive your completed application form within the next fourteen days, I shall have no alternative but to arrange property insurance on the bank's block policy.
(One sentence 45 words)


SHORT SENTENCE EXAMPLE

I have not yet received your reply to my letter of 13th June. If we do not receive your completed application form within fourteen days, I shall have to arrange property insurance on the bank's block policy.
(Two sentences—13 words and 24 words)

Use simple words rather than complex ones

Many writers have difficulty keeping their message simple and clear. Instead of using everyday words they use complex or unfamiliar words. Simple, everday words will help you get your message across. Too often we use words such as additional, indicate, initiate and proliferate for extra, show, start and spread.

Compare these examples:

COMPLEX WORDS EXAMPLE

As we noted in the preceding section, if you purchased additional printer options, such as a second printer tray, it is a requirement you verify its correct installation.


SIMPLE WORDS EXAMPLE

As we noted in the previous section, if you bought extra printer equipment, such as a second printer tray, you must check you install it correctly.

Edit wordy phrases

Padding is the enemy of good writing. Unnecessary words and phrases clutter up sentences and obscure meaning. By comparison, economy of words is the mark of good writing. You have to learn to make every word count in technical documents. You must edit ruthlessly, cutting any word. Set yourself a target of cutting 10 to 20 percent of the words in your document.

Look for wordy phrases such as these in your writing and replace them with a single word or cut them out completely:

Wordy Concise
at a later date later
at the present time now
for the purpose of for
have no alternative but must
in addition to besides, as well as, also
in relation to about, in, with, towards, to
on a regular basis regularly
 

StyleWriter helps you learn to write concisely by checking your writing for over 10,000 wordy phrases. Once you start using the program, you’ll soon find you can run an editorial pen through any draft, tightening the prose and writing in a clear and concise style.

Avoid jargon and technical terms

It’s up to you to judge how much you need to explain your industry jargon and specialist terms by putting yourself in your readers’ shoes. Don’t overestimate your readers’ understanding of terms because they may have a hazy idea of the true definition.

It doesn’t insult the intelligence of your readers to explain terms clearly. Imagine a customer was sitting with you when you mentioned a technical term and asked ‘What’s that?’ You would explain in everyday language. Do the same when you write.

Avoid abbreviations

The most common and irritating form of jargon is overuse of abbreviations. Here are some abbreviations. How many do you know?

Acronym Meaning
CRA Camera-ready Artwork
DPI Dots Per Inch
DTP Desktop Publishing
PMS Pantone Matching System
SC Spot Color
UGD User Guide Documentation

 

 

 

 

How many did you get right? Two out of six? Probably DPI for dots per inch and DTP for desktop publishing as these are industry terms. Many people would not recognize these two. As for CRA, camera-ready artwork would be better. SC for spot color is an unnecessary shortened form and UGD for User Guide Documentation is jargon for a manual.

Avoid abstract words and phrases

One habit you should avoid, common to many writers, is overusing abstract words. Here's a list of the most common ones to avoid in your writing.

Abstract words to avoid in business letters
activities devices inputs sectors
amenities elements operations structures
amenity facilities outputs systems
aspects factors processes variables
concepts functions resources  

For example, what is a device, output or facility. Such words are so abstract they become meaningless to the reader. String them together, such as output device and you have instant jargon for the word printer. Add them to acronyms and you can produce CAS Facility which in turn means Civic Amenity Site Facility, pure jargon for Council Recycling Site.

StyleWriter highlights these abstract words in your writing to stop you falling into the jargon trap and help you make your information more specific.

 

 

     

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