7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.3

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3)    Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

Bad writing lies at the heart of so much misunderstanding in the business world. It could be you choose an ambiguous word, or even the wrong word, and then wonder why the person who works for you doesn’t do what you want them to.

It could be imprecise grammar that means a prospective customer misses the key point of your sales pitch. Or it could be an ill-considered structure that means your boss never gets to the end of your report and so fails to notice the good work you’ve done.

There are so many ways that bad writing can damage not only your business relationships, but also your business revenues. I firmly believe that good business writing is all about clarity of communication. It is about avoiding ambiguity.

The fundamental point is that good business writing is all about good business. Be clear, be accurate, be direct and you will reap the benefits.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.2

1)    Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2)    Bad writing makes you look bad

Not everyone, when presented with poor writing, takes the time and trouble to wade through it. Many just conclude that the author is either careless or stupid and don’t waste their time reading it.

Can you blame them? How much time do you spend in clothes shops where the material looks cheap and the products are badly displayed? How often do you go back to a restaurant where the staff were rude and the food under-cooked?

You could argue that those are fatal flaws because it was a problem with the basic product or service. You could argue that, unless you’re a professional writer, writing isn’t essential. Why should a clothes retailer, a restaurateur, or an accountant, recruitment consultant, or website designer for that matter waste time getting their writing spot on?

For the same reasons that they invest in branding, marketing, or for that matter for the same reasons that they bother dressing smartly for work and talking coherently when they’re there. Writing is one of the ways we present ourselves to the world, and if we take no care of it, if we pay no attention to it, people will think less of us.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.1

In the last few blog posts I’ve explained to you why I’m writing this book on business writing. I’m now turning my attention to why you should be interested in it. Why exactly does writing well matter?

Some wonder why this question needs to be answered. “Rules are rules,” they tell us – “They’re meant to be obeyed”. I don’t subscribe to this view. Just because rules exist it doesn’t mean we have to follow them.  Personally I always need to see a clear, logical reason why I should do something, and I’m assuming you’re the same.

If you’re not, if you prefer to keep your life simple and follow rules just because they’re there, then you can skip this chapter. Lucky you -you can spend more time focusing on how to get it right.  If though you are like me and need first to understand why you should get it right, here are seven reasons why I believe good business writing matters.

1)    Bad writing is rude to your readers

I might not believe in rules but I do believe in good manners, and asking someone to read badly written text is just plain rude.

If you fail to use the correct punctuation you make it hard for the reader to know when sentences end and finish, what is speech and what not, where one idea ends and another begins, and so on. It’s the equivalent of someone asking you directions and you mumbling something about it being “up there, somewhere a bit further on”. It’s not very helpful.

Poor structure and clunky flow means the reader has to stop, re-read, and try to put your thoughts into a logical order. You shouldn’t be asking them to do that; you should be polite enough to do it for them.

Perhaps the worst of all is forcing your readers to wade through a morass of jargon, management-speak, vague words and generic phrases. We all know how that feels: it’s mind-numbingly dull. Your mind wanders, you have to fight to pay attention, and you constantly feel that perhaps it’s you, the reader, who is just too stupid to understand this complex, dense text.

If they have the option they’ll probably stop reading, but if they don’t then you’ve condemned them to spend time being bored. What could be ruder than that?

Number two follows tomorrow….

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The five types of non-writer

This post is part of my series on business writing. In the last post I concluded by saying that over the 15 or so years I’ve been in the business world I’ve identified five types of non-writer.  Of course everyone has  their own personal view on writing, on how relevant it is to them and their work, but these five types seem to crop up very frequently, and be responsible for a lot of the bad  writing out there. Here then are those five types:

1) The busy executive

Most likely to say: “I would love to have the time to write – in fact when I was younger I used to want to be a journalist – but now I’m too busy with proper work to focus on writing well.”

The busy executive type sees writing as subordinate to proper work. They tell themselves that it would be lovely to have the luxury of time to express themselves well in writing, but the simple fact is that they live in the real world. And the real world is about making money.

What these busy executives fail to recognise is that writing well isn’t just something that it’s nice to do, but is an essential part of business success. Perhaps they imagine we business writers are some kind of romantic Byron-esque characters too caught up in musing on a fey phrase to sully our minds with commerce. They’re wrong. Business writing is writing with the goal of doing business more effectively – business writing is about making more money.

2) The meetings specialist

Most likely to say: “I’m more of a people kind of person”

We’ve all met people like this. People who are fluent and articulate in person, but seem unable to translate that into their written communications. Often you wonder if it was really them who wrote the document.

Very often these people are quite capable writers, but they either freeze up when presented with a blank page and feel that they would rather just have another meeting, or they don’t have enough time to dedicate to writing well because they’re rushing off to their next meeting.

Good writing can never replace face-to-face communications, but it is an essential complement.

3) The corporate waffler

Most likely to say: “I prefer to see writing as a way of empowering my stakeholders in a synergistic progression towards the organisational achievement of strategised goals across territories.”

How did the business world start to speak and write like that? Who knows? Who cares – the more pressing point is that it needs to stop. Right here, right now, we need to get hold of these people and shake this virus out of them. We need to make it crystal clear that speaking in incomprehensible jargon and management speak is neither clever nor acceptable.

We need to see through it, to realise that very often people use it as a way of covering up the fact that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, and we need to challenge them on it. Ask them exactly what a strategised goal is and how it differs from a normal goal.

More than anything else we need to save these people from themselves. After all, it can’t be any sort of fun having to speak and write like that day in, day out.

4) The zeitgeisty tweeter

Most likely to say: “Chill out dude. It’s like 2010 now.”

In some quarters concern over writing is seen as almost quaint. To some people the idea of planning a written communication, taking care over its production and then rigorously editing it reeks of dusty libraries and tweed jackets with patches at the elbows. To these people punctuation and spelling are about as relevant as the Corn Laws.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for 21st Century communication and I can blog, tweet and post with the best of them, but I see no reason why living in this super-fast, always-on world should in any way be incompatible with writing well. Indeed I believe it makes it all the more important. We have so little time to make our point that we need to marshal our words as well as we possibly can.

5) The deliberate obscurantist

Most likely to say: “My style just isn’t that simplistic”

This is the only type of non-writer who really gets on my nerves. The others I can understand, even empathise with to some extent, but the deliberate obscurantist – those people who consciously try to confuse readers, who purposefully hide meaning behind mangled language – I have very little time for.

Thankfully they are few and far between, but sadly they do exist. They know what they’re doing and they know that it’s wrong. It’s time we all recognised what they’re doing and stopped them getting away with it.

So those are the five types of non-writer. Which one are you? Post a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know. Have I missed any? Do you know of any particularly good examples of any of those types?

Over these last four posts I hope I have made it clear why business writing matters so much to me. I’ll now move on to explain why I believe it ought to matter to you.

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Improving business writing skills

I am not one of those writers who sits in his garret grumbling to himself about the shoddy writing skills of those around him. Far from it – I’m actively out there in the business world, grumbling to people’s faces about their writing skills.

Well, I prefer to call it “training courses” and “coaching sessions” rather than “grumbling”, but whatever we choose to call it, the fact is that over the years I have trained hundreds of people on business writing skills, and I have coached many more on a one-to-one basis.

These have tended to be people who work in public relations, and so they are better at writing than most businesspeople. But still a surprising number of them write poorly. All too often they produce e-mails, letters, briefing documents, memos, meeting notes, proposals, press releases, marketing copy and so on that is lifeless, dull and hard to read. In my courses I show them where this is happening, I explain why it’s happening and I give them practical techniques for putting it right.

It’s a part of my work that I enjoy – it’s a lot of fun to spend time working with bright people who are experts at what they do and are keen to sharpen their writing styles – but it’s also given me a really good understanding of the common mistakes that people make and the opportunities they tend to miss.

It’s remarkable how often the same ones are repeated. The English language is a vast and complex thing, and there are many thousands of errors that can be made with it, but in the world of business we all tend to make more or less the same ones.

The first mistake that many make is simply approaching writing in the wrong way. All too often businesspeople don’t see writing as relevant to them. They see  it as an activity apart from what they do or who they are.

Over the past 15 years I’ve worked with thousands of businesspeople. I’ve worked with marketers, salespeople, recruiters, public relations experts, training consultants, and some truly brilliant entrepreneurs. I’ve dealt with people who are good at what they do, but struggle to explain themselves because they can’t write. In that  time I’ve identified five very common types of non-writer. Of course everyone has  their own personal view on writing, on how relevant it is to them and their work, but these five types seem to crop up very frequently, and be responsible for a lot of the bad  writing out there. In my next post I’ll tell you what they are….

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Why me?

In my last post I began my long-term series on business writing. I began by outlining my thoughts on why I’m writing this series. Here I move on to outline why I believe I’m qualified to offer this advice…

Why me?

There are two reasons why I feel qualified to write this blog/book, and to give you advice on how you can improve your business, your career and your life through better writing.

Firstly, it’s because I’m a good writer. I have spent the last decade earning a living as a freelance journalist for the trade and business press. In that time I have written about almost every subject you can imagine for the A to Z of business and trade publications: Accountancy, B2B Marketing, Call Centre Focus, Director, Ethical Performance, First Voice, Growing Business, Hourglass, The Independent, ……ok, I struggle with “J”, but no doubt there is one, and anyway I’m sure you get the point.

I have also written three books. The first “How to Grow Your Business for Entrepreneurs” was published by Pearson in July 2009 and in its first six months sold more than 3,000 copies worldwide. It was soon followed by “365 Ways to Cut Costs” published by the Director of Social Change. Towards the end of 2010 Pearson will publish my latest book “Brilliant Online Marketing”.

So, writing is what I do. Even before I became a writer I relied heavily on writing to succeed at anything. My only “proper” job was at an agency that found new business for marketing agencies. I joined as a graduate trainee and within three and a half years I was the Client Services Director, recruiting, training and managing a team of 20, and responsible for a client base of £1.5 million.

I knew very little about marketing, and I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted salesman, but I was able to achieve this fairly rapid success because I could express myself both on paper and in person. Similarly, all the way through school and university, the ability to write well has covered up a whole host of other shortcomings.

I was lucky that my parents taught me the basics of the English language at a young age, and that I had teachers who encouraged me to write (I had a great A-level history teacher who didn’t worry too much about details like dates and names, so long as I told a good story with my essays!), but the point is that writing is very much a skill that can be learnt. Just as I can learn to play a better cover drive, so we can all become better writers.

Sure, I will never be Brian Lara, but to be entirely frank nor will I ever be Scott Fitzgerald. It doesn’t matter. I only need to last a few overs against a village team a dozen Sundays a year, not score multiple centuries against the world’s best bowlers week in, week out, and none of us need to describe the glittering parties and glacial cruelty of the Jazz Age with the exquisite beauty that Fitzgerald managed – we just need to be better able to organise and our thoughts in writing so that our colleagues, clients, suppliers and so on can better understand us.

That level of writing ability can be learnt. I have learnt it and I believe that in this book I can teach it to you. Partly because I know how to do it, and partly because I know how to teach it….

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Why I’m writing this

Last year something happened that made me realise the urgency and importance of raising the standard of writing in UK business. I was speaking to someone I’ve known for many years. He’s a quite brilliant entrepreneur who has built and successfully sold a series of businesses. On this day, however, he was angry.

He was furious at the work a design agency had done for him. “It’s nothing like I wanted,” he raged at me. The design work was for a website that needed to launch the following week. He’d been relying on this agency to produce the design he wanted, and in his eyes they’d let him down. This was a significant problem for him.

“How could they get it so badly wrong?” he continued. “It’s all in black and white in my briefing document. I explained exactly what I wanted, and they’ve completely ignored me! Tell you what, Alex, you take a look at the briefing document and then see what they’ve sent me. You’ll see what I mean, you’ll agree with me. Idiots!”

I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d got myself embroiled in this dispute. I’m no expert on design. (Far from it in fact – everything I draw looks weirdly like a pig.) What’s more this was nothing to do with me. But he’s a friend, and it sounded like he needed someone to agree with him. And he was pretty angry. So I told him I’d take a look.

One glance at the briefing document and it was immediately obvious what had gone wrong. My friend might have spent a long time putting it together, but what he had produced was about as clear as mud. It was long-winded, repetitive, padded with empty jargon and words that sounded impressive but actually meant very little. In several thousand words he’d managed to explain almost nothing. He’d produced something that looked like a briefing document but which was so badly written it gave the agency no brief whatsoever.

Sure, the agency should have gone back to him to clarify the brief, but they were probably too scared. I’d already discovered earlier that day just how intimidating he could be when he’s angry. I discovered again later that day that he can get even more terrifying when someone tells him he’s done something badly. He wasn’t at all happy when I told him the project had failed largely because his briefing document was badly written.

The experience might not have helped my friend, but it was a revelation for me. It struck me at that moment just what a problem the lack of writing skills in business is. It is widespread: my friend is not the only businessperson in the UK to lack sufficient writing skills to express himself successfully. In every industry, at every level, up and down the country, I believe that people are struggling with this.

They might not know they’re struggling with it. They probably ascribe the occasional frustration, the less than exceptional outcomes, the failure to engage and inspire colleagues, clients and suppliers, to something else. After all writing ability isn’t something that we tend to pay much attention to in business.

I strongly believe that by paying more attention to it, by improving their writing skills, businesspeople could improve their day-to-day performance, their working relationships, and ultimately their outcomes.

I’m not talking about people who’ve never learnt the basics – this isn’t a remedial book. I’m not talking about people who need to write for a living – this isn’t a specialist manual for journalists, copywriters and the like. I’m talking about normal businesspeople, who are very good at what they do, who can write adequately, but who could be even more successful if they were able to use the written word to explain, to persuade, to inspire.

So, what makes me think I can help in this area? After all, as we’ve already seen I can’t draw (even my pigs don’t look much like pigs), and I’m a profoundly unsympathetic friend. Why should you believe I’ll be any more use on the subject of business writing?

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Breaking the silence

Sorry about that.

The silence I mean.

I’ve been away, I’ve been busy, all that, but the real reason I’ve been silent is that I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I should be writing about in this blog, and I’ve been planning what I’m going to write about. It should come as little surprise then that what with all this thinking about writing and planning writing that I’ve decided I’m going to write about writing.

It is after all one of the few subjects I really know anything about.

Over the next year I’ll be using this blog to write my next book – Good Business Writing – and this broadly is what I’ll be covering:

1. Why I’m writing this
2. Why writing matters in business
3. No one writes in the same way
4. The process
5. The fundamentals of the English language
6. What to include and what to leave out
7. Writing clearly
8. Bring your ideas to life
9. Making your writing flow
10. Inspiring your readers
11. Common errors to avoid
12. Putting this theory into practice

I’ll cover a chapter every month with 4-8 posts. Each chapter will be around 3000 words and will contain theory, examples, and real-life case studies of people who’ve succeeded in business by doing this well.

And lucky blog readers you’re going to get all this free! All I ask in return is that you give me feedback – tell me what works, what doesn’t, what you agree with, what you disagree with, what I’m missing out and what I’m covering in too much detail.

So, let’s begin….What do you think to this idea? Will you read it? Will you tell others about it? Is there a need for a book on business writing? Has someone already written one that you can’t see me bettering? What do you think to my content? Anything I’ve missed? What would you find useful in a book like this?

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How to get a non-fiction book published: Q3

Q: How can I get my publisher interested in my idea for a book?

A: The simple answer is to give them exactly what they ask for. This is detailed in the author’s guidelines I mentioned in my last post: authors’ guidelines. However, if the publisher you’re dealing with doesn’t produce these you need to decide yourself what to include in your pitch.

The first thing to prepare yourself for is the length of this pitch document. The one I sent for “How to Grow Your Business for Entrepreneurs” was ten pages and more than 3,000 words long. You’ve got a lot of material to prepare, but look on the bright side: if this was a work of fiction you’d have to write it in full before anyone would even look at it.

I believe that the proposal you send to your prospective publisher should give them confidence in three areas:

1) That people will want to buy it.

You need to detail exactly who will buy it. So, for my first book I was targeting owner-managers of small companies, those that have got off the ground but are struggling to grow for one reason or another. I found some research from BERR which suggested that there are 1.2 million UK companies with between 5 and 30 employees and turnover between £500,000 and £5 million. It was clear evidence that there was a market for this book.

However you need to make your pitch more than the old “if we get just 1% of this billion pound market” theory. You need to provide a compelling argument as to why they will buy your book. What are the problems they face that your book will help them solve? What evidence is there that these people actually do have those problems? How bad a problem is it?

Finally, you need to demonstrate that this fills a gap in the market. Outline its nearest competitors and describe how your book will be better than them.

2) That you can write this book.

First and foremost this is about your ability to write the book, and that involves knowledge of the subject and writing ability. So, let the publisher know about all your relevant experience of the subject in question, and about your credentials as a writer.

You can do even more than describe past experience: you can provide a detailed contents list (don’t worry, about them holding you to it; you can change this as you get into the writing part – this just shows that there’s enough to cover and that youve got to grips with the scope of your topic). Finally, you can include a sample chapter so they can see exactly how well you write.

3) That you will be a useful promotional partner

Sadly, authorship is not simply about writing a book. We writers have to get involved in the murky world of book promotion. Terrible I know – we’re artists after all – but your publisher will want to know what you can contribute to the promotions activity. Will you be able to get media reviews, speak at events to promote the book, or push it out through existing channels such as your own website, training courses, or blog? Your publisher is going into business with you, so wants to see that you are dynamic, innovative, and avbove all else committed to making the book a success.

There is then a great deal to cover. Spend time putting it all together. Make sure you get it right. Then, once your document is ready, attach it to your email, make sure you’ve spelt the publisher’s name right and have made no glaring spelling or grammar errors in your covering email, take a deep breath and fire it off…..

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How to get a non-fiction book published: Q2

Q: Do you need an agent?

A: No.

I’ve never used one. I approached publishers directly. I did this by going onto Amazon and into my local bookshop and looking at books on similar topics to mine. I made a note of the publishers of those books. Then I cross-referenced it with a free online directory of non-fiction publishers and I came out with a list of about six publishers that I felt would be interested in my book.

Next I looked on their websites for authors’ guidelines and contact details of commissioning editors.

I then sent one of those commissioning editors a brief email. I didn’t pick the one I thought I’d have the best chance with – I wanted to try out my pitch before approaching that top target. My email was brief and to the point. It outlined who I am, my idea for a book, my credentials for writing it, why people might buy it, and it concluded with asking for initial expression of interest before I sent a full proposal.

The first publisher I sent it to said it was a good idea, but not quite right for them. I was encouraged and sent it to my top target. The commissioning editor there came back to me in 15 minutes saying it was a good idea but a little somiilar to something else they’re working on – could I give it a slightly different focus and present a full proposal?

I set to work immediately and within a month I had my first commission to write a book.

So, no it’s not necessary to use an agent.

That said, it might be a good idea to use one. It is quite possible that an agent would help you secure a better deal (in a later post I’ll go into more detail about the advance and royalties deals I’ve done – believe me, they could be better!). Since getting my first book into print I’ve spoken to several other people who are writing non-fiction books and who have secured deals with agents. None of them are able to comment on whether the agent has secured them a better deal smiply because none of them have yet got deals. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions from that….

If you do want to use an agent then there is a free online directory you can use to find one, but from my own experience all I can say is that if your objective is to get your non-fiction book published you don’t need one. You do though need to present your book idea in a way that will appeal to your publisher. In my next post in this series I’ll offer some advice on how to do that.

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