# Professional and Technical Writing

## 3.1 Style in Written Communication

Category: Tone & Style in PTC
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Learning Objectives

1. Describe and identify three styles of writing.
2. Demonstrate the appropriate use of colloquial, casual, and formal writing in at least one document of each style.

One way to examine written communication is from a structural perspective. Words are a series of symbols that communicate meaning, strung together in specific patterns that are combined to communicate complex and compound meanings. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and articles are the building blocks you will use when composing written documents. Misspellings of individual words or grammatical errors involving misplacement or incorrect word choices in a sentence, can create confusion, lose meaning, and have a negative impact on the reception of your document. Errors themselves are not inherently bad, but failure to recognize and fix them will reflect on you, your company, and limit your success. Self-correction is part of the writing process.

Another way to examine written communication is from a goals perspective, where specific documents address stated (or unstated) goals and have rules, customs, and formats that are anticipated and expected. Violations of these rules, customs, or formats—whether intentional or unintentional—can also have a negative impact on the way your document is received.

Colloquial, casual, and formal writing are three common styles that carry their own particular sets of expectations. Which style you use will depend on your audience, and often whether your communication is going to be read only by those in your company (internal communications) or by those outside the organization, such as vendors, customers or clients (external communications). As a general rule, external communications tend to be more formal, just as corporate letterhead and business cards—designed for presentation to the “outside world”—are more formal than the e-mail and text messages that are used for everyday writing within the organization.

Style also depends on the purpose of the document and its audience. If your writing assignment is for Web page content, clear and concise use of the written word is essential. If your writing assignment is a feature interest article for an online magazine, you may have the luxury of additional space and word count combined with graphics, pictures, embedded video or audio clips, and links to related topics. If your writing assignment involves an introductory letter represented on a printed page delivered in an envelope to a potential customer, you won’t have the interactivity to enhance your writing, placing an additional burden on your writing and how you represent it.

#### Colloquial

Colloquial language is an informal, conversational style of writing. It differs from standard business English in that it often makes use of colorful expressions, slang, and regional phrases. As a result, it can be difficult to understand for an English learner or a person from a different region of the country. Sometimes colloquialism takes the form of a word difference; for example, the difference between a “Coke,” a “tonic,” a “pop, and a “soda pop” primarily depends on where you live. It can also take the form of a saying, as Roy Wilder Jr. discusses in his book You All Spoken Here: Southern Talk at Its Down-Home Best. [1] Colloquial sayings like “He could mess up a rainstorm” or “He couldn’t hit the ground if he fell” communicate the person is inept in a colorful, but not universal way. In the Pacific Northwest someone might “mosey,” or walk slowly, over to the “café,” or bakery, to pick up a “maple bar”—a confection known as a “Long John doughnut” to people in other parts of the United States.

Colloquial language can be reflected in texting:

“ok fwiw i did my part n put it in where you asked but my ? is if the group does not participate do i still get credit for my part of what i did n also how much do we all have to do i mean i put in my opinion of the items in order do i also have to reply to the other team members or what? Thxs”

We may be able to grasp the meaning of the message, and understand some of the abbreviations and codes, but when it comes to business, this style of colloquial text writing is generally suitable only for one-on-one internal communications between coworkers who know each other well (and those who do not judge each other on spelling or grammar). For external communications, and even for group communications within the organization, it is not normally suitable, as some of the codes are not standard, and may even be unfamiliar to the larger audience.

Colloquial writing may be permissible, and even preferable, in some business contexts. For example, a marketing letter describing a folksy product such as a wood stove or an old-fashioned popcorn popper might use a colloquial style to create a feeling of relaxing at home with loved ones. Still, it is important to consider how colloquial language will appear to the audience. Will the meaning of your chosen words be clear to a reader who is from a different part of the country? Will a folksy tone sound like you are “talking down” to your audience, assuming that they are not intelligent or educated enough to appreciate standard English? A final point to remember is that colloquial style is not an excuse for using expressions that are sexist, racist, profane, or otherwise offensive.

#### Casual

Casual language involves everyday words and expressions in a familiar group context, such as conversations with family or close friends. The emphasis is on the communication interaction itself, and less about the hierarchy, power, control, or social rank of the individuals communicating. When you are at home, at times you probably dress in casual clothing that you wouldn’t wear in public—pajamas or underwear, for example. Casual communication is the written equivalent of this kind of casual attire. Have you ever had a family member say something to you that a stranger or coworker would never say? Or have you said something to a family member that you would never say in front of your boss? In both cases, casual language is being used. When you write for business, a casual style is usually out of place. Instead, a respectful, professional tone represents you well in your absence.

#### Formal

In business writing, the appropriate style will have a degree of formality. Formal language is communication that focuses on professional expression with attention to roles, protocol, and appearance. It is characterized by its vocabulary and syntax, or the grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence. That is, writers using a formal style tend to use a more sophisticated vocabulary—a greater variety of words, and more words with multiple syllables—not for the purpose of throwing big words around, but to enhance the formal mood of the document. They also tend to use more complex syntax, resulting in sentences that are longer and contain more subordinate clauses.

The appropriate style for a particular business document may be very formal, or less so. If your supervisor writes you an e-mail and you reply, the exchange may be informal in that it is fluid and relaxed, without much forethought or fanfare, but it will still reflect the formality of the business environment. Chances are you will be careful to use an informative subject line, a salutation (“Hi [supervisor’s name]” is typical in e-mails), a word of thanks for whatever information or suggestion she provided you, and an indication that you stand ready to help further if need be. You will probably also check your grammar and spelling before you click “send.”

A formal document such as a proposal or an annual report will involve a great deal of planning and preparation, and its style may not be fluid or relaxed. Instead, it may use distinct language to emphasize the prestige and professionalism of your company. Let’s say you are going to write a marketing letter that will be printed on company letterhead and mailed to a hundred sales prospects. Naturally you want to represent your company in a positive light. In a letter of this nature you might write a sentence like “The Widget 300 is our premium offering in the line; we have designed it for ease of movement and efficiency of use, with your success foremost in our mind.” But in an e-mail or a tweet, you might use an informal sentence instead, reading “W300—good stapler.”

Writing for business often involves choosing the appropriate level of formality for the company and industry, the particular document and situation, and the audience.

#### Key Takeaway

The best style for a document may be colloquial, casual, informal, or formal, depending on the audience and the situation.

Exercises

1. Refer back to the e-mail or text message example in this section. Would you send that message to your professor? Why or why not? What normative expectations concerning professor-student communication are there and where did you learn them? Discuss your thoughts with your classmates.
2. Select a business document and describe its style. Is it formal, informal, or colloquial? Can you rewrite it in a different style? Share your results with a classmate.
3. List three words or phrases that you would say to your friends. List three words or phrases that communicate similar meanings that you would say to an authority figure. Share and compare with classmates.
4. When is it appropriate to write in a casual tone? In a formal tone? Write a one- to two-page essay on this topic and discuss it with a classmate.
5. How does the intended audience influence the choice of words and use of language in a document? Think of a specific topic and two specific kinds of audiences. Then write a short example (250–500 words) of how this topic might be presented to each of the two audiences.

[1] Wilde, J., Jr. (2003). You all spoken here: Southern talk at its down-home best. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

## 3.2 Diplomacy, Tone, and Emphasis in Business Writing

Category: Tone & Style in PTC
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Learning Objectives

• Understand the purpose and importance of diplomacy, emphasis, and tone in business communication
• Gain the ability to write difficult professional emails without offending, frustrating, or confusing your reader
• Learn to use strategies in written communication to make your own work clearer to get the response you need

#### Name that Tone

Consider the following lines from business emails. How would you describe the tone of each entry? What words, phrases, or other elements suggest that tone?
here)

• “Maybe if the project leader had set a reasonable schedule from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.”
• “Whatever they’re paying you, it isn’t enough. Thanks for working so hard on this.”
• “I’m not sure what else is on your plate right now, but I need these numbers by this afternoon—actually in the next two hours.”
• “I cant remember when u said this was due.”
• “While I appreciate that your team is being pulled in a number of different directions right now, this project is my department’s main priority for the semester. What can we do from our end to set your group up to complete this by June?

Whether in a workplace or in our personal lives, most of us have received emails that we’ve found off-putting, inappropriate, or, at a minimum, curt. Striking the right tone and being diplomatic, particularly in business communication, can mean the difference between offending your reader and building important professional relationships. And more immediately, it can mean the difference between getting what you want and being ignored.

As with any piece of writing, considering audiencepurpose, and type of information is key to constructing business communication. Truly finessing your writing so that it works for you, rather than against you, is key to forming strong professional relationships and being effective in your own position.

The following tactics and examples outline the small revisions in your writing that can go a long way in building diplomacy and not only keeping your tone appropriate, but also using it to your advantage.

First, prior to writing, consider the following questions:

• Who is my audience? What does the audience need to know, and what do they already know?
• Why does this email feel tricky or difficult in terms of getting the tone just right?
• Why am I writing? Am I informing my audience? Asking for help? Delivering bad news?
• Do I have strong feelings about the subject or situation that might get in the way of writing effectively and appropriately?
• Are there specific elements (anything from highlighting big problems to reminding the reader about an important due date) that I want to emphasize?

Once you have answered these questions, consider the strategies below as you begin to compose your communication. Certain tactics will likely be more relevant than others, depending on the type of communication, but each of these tips can help you get into the habit of more diplomatic writing as you move through college and into your career.

Services like this “ToneCheck” software, which bills itself as “Emotional Spellcheck for Email” are one option. But, really, can a computer program consider the intricate dynamics of workplace relationships more effectively than you?

#### Strategies for Getting Diplomacy, Emphasis, and Tone Right

Rather than:
I’m bringing in a new analyst to work with you on this because the rest of the group is swamped. You’ll have to take the extra time to fill her in.

Write:
You’ll have a new analyst to work with on this, and, luckily, you will be able to train her on the way you'd like things to be done.

2. Acknowledge the Work of Others as Often as You Can

Rather than:
I need this by 5pm tomorrow.

Write:
I imagine you’re just as swamped as we are, but in order to move forward, we really need this by 5pm tomorrow.

Rather than:
You need to stay until the meeting ends, which will likely be around 7:00 p.m.

Write:
Would it be possible for you to stick around until this meeting ends, which will likely be around 7:00 p.m.? I’d really appreciate it.

4. Avoid Passive Aggressiveness at all Times

Rather than:
It seems that reading the document I sent that outlined the instructions wasn’t a priority amidst all of the other very important work you had to do, so please let me explain it here, for the second time: The steps include…

Write:
The steps include…

Active voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence performs the action. (John washes the car.) Passive voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence has an action performed upon it, him, or her. (The car is washed by John.)

Want to emphasize accomplishments or work completed? Use active voice.

My department completed the project on time.
George, who works on my team, developed an incredible system to track users.

Want to deemphasize the person or the team? Use passive voice.

The project was not completed on time.
A system to track users was not developed, unfortunately.

6. If You’re Pointing out Mistakes of Flaws, Be Sure to Explain Why Behaviors, Actions, or other Issues are Problematic—It’s Often More Effective (and having it in writing might be valuable down the line)

Rather than:
You’ve arrived late to our one-on-one meetings the past three weeks, which is unacceptable.

Write:
You’ve arrived late to our one-on-one meetings the past three weeks, which is unacceptable.As you know, I often have meetings scheduled throughout the day, and so this throws my schedule off. Further, while I’m sure you don’t intend this, arriving late shows a lack of professionalism, which will undoubtedly hurt your career in the long run.

7. Talk to those Who Frustrate You by Using “I” Statements

Rather than:
Your inability to show any enthusiasm about these projects is driving me crazy.

Write:
It’s difficult for me to maintain momentum and rally support here for projects when others show a blatant lack of interest.

8. Depending on Your Audience, and How Much Information They Need, Cut Extranous Information and Use Short Sentences for Emphasis

Rather than:
Considering the breadth and depth of this project, as well as our desire to complete it in a way that is most useful for you and practical for our own schedules, we’ve decided that extending the deadline would be an important next step.

Write:
We need more time to do this well.

Note: It's crucial to consider your audience when deciding how much background information they will need.

9. Directly State What’s Important

Another primary concern is…

10. STOP YELLING AT ME (Avoid Caps Lock)

Rather than:
It’s very important that you COME PREPARED TO THE MEETING.

Write:
It’s very important that you come prepared to the meeting.

But do consider other ways to emphasize importance.

Use these strategies as you work to develop more effective, appropriate business communication, and, eventually, they will become second nature in your writing. In the meantime, this printable checklist can be tacked up by your desk as a guide and a reminder of these strategies. Any time you’re unsure of your tone, compare your draft to this list!

Your emails should make people feel like this:

Not like this:

#### Exercises

Considering the tactics above, write one-paragraph emails in response to the following scenarios.

1. Your colleague Tina promised to send you a spreadsheet full of data that is central to a report you’re writing. She said she’d have it to you by Thursday, and today is Friday. Your own report is due Monday. Write Tina a brief email about this situation.
2. You are interested in taking a week-long training class that you believe will help you perform your job more effectively. There is a small training budget within your company, but the only class being offered is on the other side of the country and would require flight and hotel costs in addition to the substantial tuition. Make the case for the money to your boss in an email.
3. You were the hiring manager for a new position that opened up at your organization. After sifting through nearly fifty resumes, you chose to interview one outside candidate and one internal candidate named Joe. Both had similar experience and educational backgrounds, but you ultimately made a job offer to the external candidate due to the fact that she seemed to have more creative ideas about how the department could handle current issues, whereas Joe seemed to have little to offer. Email Joe explaining that he did not get the job, and offer him constructive criticism.

Each interaction in the business world is unique and nuanced. While the strategies above are not a one-size-fits-all solution, learning to ask questions about audience, purpose, and the emotions attached to a particular communication is key to diplomacy and striking the right tone over email. From there, the tips and strategies above will help you craft careful, effective communications as you increase your writing skills—and your credibility in the workplace.

## 3.3 VIDEO: TONE IN PROFESSIONAL WRITING

### LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

• Understand how and why organizational techniques help writers and readers stay focused.
• Assess how and when to use chronological order to organize an essay.
• Recognize how and when to use order of importance to organize an essay.
• Determine how and when to use spatial order to organize an essay.

The method of organization you choose for your essay is just as important as its content. Without a clear organizational pattern, your reader could become confused and lose interest. The way you structure your essay helps your readers draw connections between the body and the thesis, and the structure also keeps you focused as you plan and write the essay. Choosing your organizational pattern before you outline ensures that each body paragraph works to support and develop your thesis.

This section covers three ways to organize body paragraphs:

1. Chronological order
2. Order of importance
3. Spatial order

When you begin to draft your essay, your ideas may seem to flow from your mind in a seemingly random manner. Your readers, who bring to the table different backgrounds, viewpoints, and ideas, need you to clearly organize these ideas in order to help process and accept them.

A solid organizational pattern gives your ideas a path that you can follow as you develop your draft. Knowing how you will organize your paragraphs allows you to better express and analyze your thoughts. Planning the structure of your essay before you choose supporting evidence helps you conduct more effective and targeted research.

## CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER

In “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, you learned that chronological arrangement has the following purposes:

• To explain the history of an event or a topic
• To tell a story or relate an experience
• To explain how to do or to make something
• To explain the steps in a process

Chronological order is mostly used in expository writing, which is a form of writing that narrates, describes, informs, or explains a process. When using chronological order, arrange the events in the order that they actually happened, or will happen if you are giving instructions. This method requires you to use words such as firstsecondthenafter thatlater, and finally. These transition words guide you and your reader through the paper as you expand your thesis.

For example, if you are writing an essay about the history of the airline industry, you would begin with its conception and detail the essential timeline events up until present day. You would follow the chain of events using words such as firstthennext, and so on.

### WRITING AT WORK

At some point in your career you may have to file a complaint with your human resources department. Using chronological order is a useful tool in describing the events that led up to your filing the grievance. You would logically lay out the events in the order that they occurred using the key transition words. The more logical your complaint, the more likely you will be well received and helped.

### TIP

When using chronological order, your introduction should indicate the information you will cover and in what order, and the introduction should also establish the relevance of the information. Your body paragraphs should then provide clear divisions or steps in chronology. You can divide your paragraphs by time (such as decades, wars, or other historical events) or by the same structure of the work you are examining (such as a line-by-line explication of a poem).

## ORDER OF IMPORTANCE

Recall from “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” that order of importance is best used for the following purposes:

• Ranking items by their importance, benefit, or significance
• Illustrating a situation, problem, or solution

Most essays move from the least to the most important point, and the paragraphs are arranged in an effort to build the essay’s strength. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to begin with your most important supporting point, such as in an essay that contains a thesis that is highly debatable. When writing a persuasive essay, it is best to begin with the most important point because it immediately captivates your readers and compels them to continue reading.

For example, if you were supporting your thesis that homework is detrimental to the education of high school students, you would want to present your most convincing argument first, and then move on to the less important points for your case.

Some key transitional words you should use with this method of organization are most importantlyalmost as importantlyjust as importantly, and finally.

### WRITING AT WORK

During your career, you may be required to work on a team that devises a strategy for a specific goal of your company, such as increasing profits. When planning your strategy you should organize your steps in order of importance. This demonstrates the ability to prioritize and plan. Using the order of importance technique also shows that you can create a resolution with logical steps for accomplishing a common goal.

## SPATIAL ORDER

As stated in “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, spatial order is best used for the following purposes:

• Helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it
• Evoking a scene using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
• Writing a descriptive essay

Spatial order means that you explain or describe objects as they are arranged around you in your space, for example in a bedroom. As the writer, you create a picture for your reader, and their perspective is the viewpoint from which you describe what is around you.

The view must move in an orderly, logical progression, giving the reader clear directional signals to follow from place to place. The key to using this method is to choose a specific starting point and then guide the reader to follow your eye as it moves in an orderly trajectory from your starting point.

Pay attention to the following student’s description of her bedroom and how she guides the reader through the viewing process, foot by foot.

Attached to my bedroom wall is a small wooden rack dangling with red and turquoise necklaces that shimmer as you enter. Just to the right of the rack is my window, framed by billowy white curtains. The peace of such an image is a stark contrast to my desk, which sits to the right of the window, layered in textbooks, crumpled papers, coffee cups, and an overflowing ashtray. Turning my head to the right, I see a set of two bare windows that frame the trees outside the glass like a 3D painting. Below the windows is an oak chest from which blankets and scarves are protruding. Against the wall opposite the billowy curtains is an antique dresser, on top of which sits a jewelry box and a few picture frames. A tall mirror attached to the dresser takes up most of the wall, which is the color of lavender.

The paragraph incorporates two objectives you have learned in this chapter: using an implied topic sentence and applying spatial order. Often in a descriptive essay, the two work together.

The following are possible transition words to include when using spatial order:

• Just to the left or just to the right
• Behind
• Between
• On the left or on the right
• Across from
• A little further down
• To the south, to the east, and so on
• A few yards away
• Turning left or turning right

### KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The way you organize your body paragraphs ensures you and your readers stay focused on and draw connections to, your thesis statement.
• A strong organizational pattern allows you to articulate, analyze, and clarify your thoughts.
• Planning the organizational structure for your essay before you begin to search for supporting evidence helps you conduct more effective and directed research.
• Chronological order is most commonly used in expository writing. It is useful for explaining the history of your subject, for telling a story, or for explaining a process.
• Order of importance is most appropriate in a persuasion paper as well as for essays in which you rank things, people, or events by their significance.
• Spatial order describes things as they are arranged in space and is best for helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it; it creates a dominant impression.

### EXERCISES

1. Choose an accomplishment you have achieved in your life. The important moment could be in sports, schooling, or extracurricular activities. On your own sheet of paper, list the steps you took to reach your goal. Try to be as specific as possible with the steps you took. Pay attention to using transition words to focus your writing.

Keep in mind that chronological order is most appropriate for the following purposes:

• Writing essays containing heavy research
• Writing essays with the aim of listing, explaining, or narrating
• Writing essays that analyze literary works such as poems, plays, or books

2. On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that describes a process you are familiar with and can do well. Assume that your reader is unfamiliar with the procedure. Remember to use the chronological key words, such as firstsecondthen, and finally.

3. On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that discusses a passion of yours. Your passion could be music, a particular sport, filmmaking, and so on. Your paragraph should be built upon the reasons why you feel so strongly. Briefly discuss your reasons in the order of least to greatest importance.

4. On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph using spatial order that describes your commute to work, school, or another location you visit often. Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.

## 3.5 PRINCIPLES OF WRITTEN COMMUNICATION

### LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

• Understand the rules that govern written language.
• Understand the legal implications of business writing.

You may not recall when or where you learned all about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles, and phrases, but if you understand this sentence we’ll take for granted that you have a firm grasp of the basics. But even professional writers and editors, who have spent a lifetime navigating the ins and outs of crafting correct sentences, have to use reference books to look up answers to questions of grammar and usage that arise in the course of their work. Let’s examine how the simple collection of symbols called a word can be such a puzzle.

## WORDS ARE INHERENTLY ABSTRACT

There is no universally accepted definition for love, there are many ways to describe desire, and there are countless ways to draw patience. Each of these terms is a noun, but it’s an abstract noun, referring to an intangible concept.

While there are many ways to define a chair, describe a table, or draw a window, they each have a few common characteristics. A chair may be made from wood, crafted in a Mission style, or made from plastic resin in one solid piece in nondescript style, but each has four legs and serves a common function. A table and a window also have common characteristics that in themselves form a basis for understanding between source and receiver. The words “chair,” “table,” and “window” are concrete terms, as they describe something we can see and touch.

Concrete terms are often easier to agree on, understand, or at least define the common characteristics of. Abstract terms can easily become even more abstract with extended discussions, and the conversational partners may never agree on a common definition or even a range of understanding.

In business communication, where the goal is to be clear and concise, limiting the range of misinterpretation, which type of word do you think is preferred? Concrete terms serve to clarify your writing and more accurately communicate your intended meaning to the receiver. While all words are abstractions, some are more so than others. To promote effective communication, choose words that can be easily referenced and understood.

## WORDS ARE GOVERNED BY RULES

Perhaps you like to think of yourself as a free spirit, but did you know that all your communication is governed by rules? You weren’t born knowing how to talk, but learned to form words and sentences as you developed from infancy. As you learned language, you learned rules. You learned not only what a word means in a given context, and how to pronounce it; you also learned the social protocol of when to use it and when not to. When you write, your words represent you in your absence. The context may change from reader to reader, and your goal as an effective business communicator is to get your message across (and some feedback) regardless of the situation.

The better you know your audience and context, the better you can anticipate and incorporate the rules of how, what, and when to use specific words and terms. And here lies a paradox. You may think that, ideally, the best writing is writing that is universally appealing and understood. Yet the more you design a specific message to a specific audience or context, the less universal the message becomes. Actually, this is neither a good or bad thing in itself. In fact, if you didn’t target your messages, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective. By understanding this relationship of a universal or specific appeal to an audience or context, you can look beyond vocabulary and syntax and focus on the reader. When considering a communication assignment like a sales letter, knowing the intended audience gives you insight to the explicit and implicit rules.

All words are governed by rules, and the rules are vastly different from one language and culture to another. A famous example is the decision by Chevrolet to give the name “Nova” to one of its cars. In English, nova is recognized as coming from Latin meaning “new”; for those who have studied astronomy, it also refers to a type of star. When the Chevy Nova was introduced in Latin America, however, it was immediately ridiculed as the “car that doesn’t go.” Why? Because “no va” literally means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.

By investigating sample names in a range of markets, you can quickly learn the rules surrounding words and their multiple meaning, much as you learned about subjects and objects, verbs and nouns, adjectives and adverbs when you were learning language. Long before you knew formal grammar terms, you observed how others communicate and learned by trial and error. In business, error equals inefficiency, loss of resources, and is to be avoided. For Chevrolet, a little market research in Latin America would have gone a long way.

## WORDS SHAPE OUR REALITY

Aristotle is famous for many things, including his questioning of whether the table you can see, feel, or use is real (in McKeon, 1941). This may strike you as strange, but imagine that we are looking at a collection of antique hand tools. What are they? They are made of metal and wood, but what are they used for? The words we use help us to make sense of our reality, and we often use what we know to figure out what we don’t know. Perhaps we have a hard time describing the color of the tool, or the table, as we walk around it. The light itself may influence our perception of its color. We may lack the vocabulary to accurately describe to the color, and instead say it is “like a” color, but not directly describe the color itself (Russell, 1962). The color, or use of the tool, or style of the table are all independent of the person perceiving them, but also a reflection of the person perceiving the object.

In business communication, our goal of clear and concise communication involves anticipation of this inability to label a color or describe the function of an antique tool by constructing meaning. Anticipating the language that the reader may reasonably be expected to know, as well as unfamiliar terms, enables the writer to communicate in a way that describes with common reference points while illustrating the new, interesting, or unusual. Promoting understanding and limiting misinterpretations are key goals of the effective business communicator.

Your letter introducing a new product or service relies, to an extent, on your preconceived notions of the intended audience and their preconceived notions of your organization and its products or services. By referencing common ground, you form a connection between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the new. People are more likely to be open to a new product or service if they can reasonably relate it to one they are familiar with, or with which they have had good experience in the past. Your initial measure of success is effective communication, and your long term success may be measured in the sale or new contract for services.

## WORDS AND YOUR LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY

Your writing in a business context means that you represent yourself and your company. What you write and how you write it can be part of your company’s success, but can also expose it to unintended consequences and legal responsibility. When you write, keep in mind that your words will keep on existing long after you have moved on to other projects. They can become an issue if they exaggerate, state false claims, or defame a person or legal entity such as a competing company. Another issue is plagiarism, using someone else’s writing without giving credit to the source. Whether the “cribbed” material is taken from a printed book, a Web site, or a blog, plagiarism is a violation of copyright law and may also violate your company policies. Industry standards often have legal aspects that must be respected and cannot be ignored. For the writer this can be a challenge, but it can be a fun challenge with rewarding results.

The rapid pace of technology means that the law cannot always stay current with the realities of business communication. Computers had been in use for more than twenty years before Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the first federal legislation to “move the nation’s copyright law into the digital age” (United States Copyright Office, 1998).  Think for a moment about the changes in computer use that have taken place since 1998, and you will realize how many new laws are needed to clarify what is fair and ethical, what should be prohibited, and who owns the rights to what.

“Our product is better than X company’s product. Their product is dangerous and you would be a wise customer to choose us for your product solutions.”

What’s wrong with these two sentences? They may land you and your company in court. You made a generalized claim of one product being better than another, and you stated it as if it were a fact. The next sentence claims that your competitor’s product is dangerous. Even if this is true, your ability to prove your claim beyond a reasonable doubt may be limited. Your claim is stated as fact again, and from the other company’s perspective, your sentences may be considered libel or defamation.

Libel is the written form of defamation, or a false statement that damages a reputation. If a false statement of fact that concerns and harms the person defamed is published—including publication in a digital or online environment—the author of that statement may be sued for libel. If the person defamed is a public figure, they must prove malice or the intention to do harm, but if the victim is a private person, libel applies even if the offense cannot be proven to be malicious. Under the First Amendment you have a right to express your opinion, but the words you use and how you use them, including the context, are relevant to their interpretation as opinion versus fact. Always be careful to qualify what you write and to do no harm.

### KEY TAKEAWAY

Words are governed by rules and shape our reality. Writers have a legal responsibility to avoid plagiarism and libel.

### EXERCISES

1. Define the word “chair.” Describe what a table is. Draw a window. Share, compare, and contrast results with classmates

2. Define love. Describe desire. Draw patience.

3. Identify a target audience and indicate at least three words that you perceive would be appropriate and effective for that audience. Identify a second audience (distinct from the first) and indicate three words that you perceive would be appropriate and effective. How are the audiences and their words similar or different? Compare your results with those of your classmates.

4. Create a sales letter for an audience that comes from a culture other than your own. Identify the culture and articulate how your message is tailored to your perception of your intended audience. Share and compare with classmates.

5. Do an online search on “online libel cases” and see what you find. Discuss your results with your classmates.

6. In other examples beyond the grammar rules that guide our use of words, consider the online environment. Conduct a search on the word “netiquette” and share your findings.

## 3.6 GOOD WRITING

### LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

• Identify six basic qualities that characterize good business writing.
• Identify and explain the rhetorical elements and cognate strategies that contribute to good writing.

One common concern is to simply address the question, what is good writing? As we progress through our study of written business communication we’ll try to answer it. But recognize that while the question may be simple, the answer is complex. Edward P. Bailey (2008) offers several key points to remember.

• follows the rules,
• is easy to read, and

Let’s examine these qualities in more depth.

Bailey’s first point is one that generates a fair amount of debate. What are the rules? Do “the rules” depend on audience expectations or industry standards, what your English teacher taught you, or are they reflected in the amazing writing of authors you might point to as positive examples? The answer is “all of the above,” with a point of clarification. You may find it necessary to balance audience expectations with industry standards for a document, and may need to find a balance or compromise. Bailey (2008) points to common sense as one basic criterion of good writing, but common sense is a product of experience. When searching for balance, reader understanding is the deciding factor. The correct use of a semicolon may not be what is needed to make a sentence work. Your reading audience should carry extra attention in everything you write because, without them, you won’t have many more writing assignments.

When we say that good writing follows the rules, we don’t mean that a writer cannot be creative. Just as an art student needs to know how to draw a scene in correct perspective before he can “break the rules” by “bending” perspective, so a writer needs to know the rules of language. Being well versed in how to use words correctly, form sentences with proper grammar, and build logical paragraphs are skills the writer can use no matter what the assignment. Even though some business settings may call for conservative writing, there are other areas where creativity is not only allowed but mandated. Imagine working for an advertising agency or a software development firm; in such situations success comes from expressing new, untried ideas. By following the rules of language and correct writing, a writer can express those creative ideas in a form that comes through clearly and promotes understanding.

Similarly, writing that is easy to read is not the same as “dumbed down” or simplistic writing. What is easy to read? For a young audience, you may need to use straightforward, simple terms, but to ignore their use of the language is to create an artificial and unnecessary barrier. An example referring to Miley Cyrus may work with one reading audience and fall flat with another. Profession-specific terms can serve a valuable purpose as we write about precise concepts. Not everyone will understand all the terms in a profession, but if your audience is largely literate in the terms of the field, using industry terms will help you establish a relationship with your readers.

The truly excellent writer is one who can explain complex ideas in a way that the reader can understand. Sometimes ease of reading can come from the writer’s choice of a brilliant illustrative example to get a point across. In other situations, it can be the writer’s incorporation of definitions into the text so that the meaning of unfamiliar words is clear. It may also be a matter of choosing dynamic, specific verbs that make it clear what is happening and who is carrying out the action.

Bailey’s third point concerns the interest of the reader. Will they want to read it? This question should guide much of what you write. We increasingly gain information from our environment through visual, auditory, and multimedia channels, from YouTube to streaming audio, and to watching the news online. Some argue that this has led to a decreased attention span for reading, meaning that writers need to appeal to readers with short, punchy sentences and catchy phrases. However, there are still plenty of people who love to immerse themselves in reading an interesting article, proposal, or marketing piece.

Perhaps the most universally useful strategy in capturing your reader’s attention is to state how your writing can meet the reader’s needs. If your document provides information to answer a question, solve a problem, or explain how to increase profits or cut costs, you may want to state this in the beginning. By opening with a “what’s in it for me” strategy, you give your audience a reason to be interested in what you’ve written.

## MORE QUALITIES OF GOOD WRITING

To the above list from Bailey, let’s add some additional qualities that define good writing.

Good writing

• is clear and concise,
• is efficient and effective.

To meet the reader’s expectations, the writer needs to understand who the intended reader is. In some business situations, you are writing just to one person: your boss, a coworker in another department, or an individual customer or vendor. If you know the person well, it may be as easy for you to write to him or her as it is to write a note to your parent or roommate. If you don’t know the person, you can at least make some reasonable assumptions about his or her expectations, based on the position he or she holds and its relation to your job.

Our addition of the fifth point concerning clear and concise writing reflects the increasing tendency in business writing to eliminate error. Errors can include those associated with production, from writing to editing, and reader response. Your twin goals of clear and concise writing point to a central goal across communication: fidelity. This concept involves our goal of accurately communicating all the intended information with a minimum of signal or message breakdown or misinterpretation. Designing your documents, including writing and presentation, to reduce message breakdown is an important part of effective business communication.

This leads our discussion to efficiency. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and we are increasingly asked to do more with less, with shorter deadlines almost guaranteed. As a writer, how do you meet ever-increasing expectations? Each writing assignment requires a clear understanding of the goals and desired results, and when either of these two aspects is unclear, the efficiency of your writing can be compromised. Rewrites require time that you may not have, but will have to make if the assignment was not done correctly the first time.

As we have discussed previously, making a habit of reading similar documents prior to beginning your process of writing can help establish a mental template of your desired product. If you can see in your mind’s eye what you want to write, and have the perspective of similar documents combined with audience’s needs, you can write more efficiently. Your written documents are products and will be required on a schedule that impacts your coworkers and business. Your ability to produce effective documents efficiently is a skill set that will contribute to your success.

## RHETORICAL ELEMENTS AND COGNATE STRATEGIES

Another approach to defining good writing is to look at how it fulfills the goals of two well-known systems in communication. One of these systems comprises the three classical elements of rhetoric, or the art of presenting an argument. These elements are logos (logic), ethos (ethics and credibility), and pathos (emotional appeal), first proposed by the ancient Greek teacher Aristotle. Although rhetoric is often applied to oral communication, especially public speaking, it is also fundamental to good writing.

A second set of goals involves what are called cognate strategies, or ways of promoting understanding, developed in recent decades by Charles Kostelnick and David Rogers (1998). Like rhetorical elements, cognate strategies can be applied to public speaking, but they are also useful in developing good writing. Table 9.2 “Rhetorical Elements and Cognate Strategies” describes these goals, their purposes, and examples of how they may be carried out in business writing.

Table 9.2 Rhetorical Elements and Cognate Strategies

### KEY TAKEAWAY

Good writing is characterized by correctness, ease of reading, and attractiveness; it also meets reader expectations and is clear, concise, efficient, and effective. Rhetorical elements (logosethos, and pathos) and cognate strategies (clarity, conciseness, arrangement, credibility, expectation, reference, tone, emphasis, and engagement) are goals that are achieved in good business writing.