"Writing well for business is a skill that we all possess, as long as we shake loose old habits," says instructor and workshop leader Kevin Ryan, PhD. Ryan is the president of The Executive Writer, and clients such as American Express, Dial Corp., Motorola, Proctor & Gamble and the United Way have benefited from his writing and training. He is also a college instructor and author of Write Up the Corporate Ladder.
LoveToKnow Business consulted Ryan on how professionals can improve their writing ability.
Interview with Kevin Ryan
Have we lost our ability to write well?
I don't think so, because now, people are writing more. However, it's very hard to become a good proofreader. Grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage are like a foreign language: if you don't use them all the time, you lose the skills.
There are two parts to writing; the mechanical side and message side. But too much emphasis is placed on mechanics and the content gets lost.
Many state they hardly have time to read anymore. How does this affect business communications?
The average business person gets 133 e-mails a day, and many don't even answer them. That's just e-mail. People have too much to read and too much to write at work. Then you throw in the "confidence killers," such as worrying about the mechanics.
My best advise in business communications is to write what you need to write, then stop.
How can we better communicate a relationship through writing?
I think it's the same way as if you meet someone for the first time - you need to know your audience. If you're at a business meeting, you act differently than you do at a party. So before you start writing, know your audience, the purpose and the situation.
When people take your workshops or seek advice, what type of concerns do they have?
I ask them to list their three writing strengths and three writing weaknesses. Few people know what their strengths are, but they'll list a number of weakness and those are often the mechanics of the writing - punctuation, grammar and so on. Mechanics are the biggest confidence killer of writing. People feel that if they don't know mechanics, they won't be a good writer. Their confidence is shot.
Many of my workshop attendees have graduate and medical degrees with decent writing backgrounds but their last real writing direct experience was in high school and or college freshman composition. So they do a lot of writing, but they don't get a lot of feedback on that writing.
Many college business classes look for content with regard to the points covered, but otherwise don't evaluate the writing because the instructors are business professors, not writing professors.
How do these attitudes affect our business writing?
In business, managers remember five or six things from high school and unfortunately, give negative feedback. When they find mechanical errors in their employees' writing, they focus on those bad things.
I'll share a resume story. One company reviewed the resume of an applicant that started a cover letter by saying "I've spent fourteen years in this industry…." The applicant was more than qualified, but the company refused to consider the resume because "fourteen" was spelled out because of course, in most cases, any number over 10 should be numerical.
It's assumed there's only one style out there, and many job applicants have been turned away because the reviewer remembers only one or two rules out of hundreds. In my consulting, I tell businesses that if this really matters, they should send out the style guide they want applicants to use.
So what remedies do you suggest for centering on writing content?
- Focus first on what you're trying to say.
- Just write. Certain problems often take care of themselves as you write. You'll know when a phrase needs to be separated by a comma, for example, as you reread the work.
- Incorporate the mechanics to strengthen content in later drafts.
- Realize you'll make mistakes.
Your first draft should have everything in your head. Then, as you tighten your message, the mechanics will start to take care of themselves.
The carryover we all have from high school is that if the writing is mechanically correct, it's got to be good. Part of the problem in school is that there has to be a grade, and mechanics are easier to test. But again, writing and proofreading are separate skills.
Where do these writing style "rules" come from anyway?
In 1762, Bishop Robert Lowth wrote the first grammar guide. The problem is, he put that guide together because the language was changing too much, and he thought in 200 years, no one would know what anyone said. He based his rules on the ancient Latin and Greek rules and we don't even follow those languages any longer. Most of the "dumb" rules come from this.
What key points do you outline in your book, Write Up the Corporate Ladder?
How professional writers write - it's not the way you were taught in school. They do not write with the rules in mind. They just concentrate on audience and main message. So read it with the audience's eyes.
The tool professional writers use is the one we should all use: they "write into problems." Meaning, they write into the problem and then write out of it. Nothing miraculous about the process.
Remember, the bottom line to writing is know your audience and what do they expect to read.
If you were a superhero, and could stop the entire world from doing one really bad thing in writing, what would it be?
Reading Lynn Truss. She perpetuates the myth that mechanics are everything. She even tells the story of when she was a little girl, she started a fairy tale with a great first line: "So your a witch." She showed it to her sister and the sister pointed out the mistake in the spelling of "your." Truss says that 42 years later, she never wrote another line of that fairy tale, but she memorized the difference between you're and your.
So people lose the content when they get hung up on the mechanics. Mechanical style is hard - you will forget "the rules" over and over, but you have resources for that and it shouldn't stop you from writing.
Anything else you'd like to add?
A pilot shared with me the biggest problem he has with new mechanics: when they run into a problem, they look for the most complicated thing first. He said, "I tell them to tighten the screws and change a gasket, because most of the time, that's all the problem really is." The same thing applies to any writer: make the simplest fix first, and then apply the rules.