Language is the principal means of communication. In this chapter, we will be concerned with one aspect of Language - the written word - helping you develop Effective Business Writing Skills. This is a highly developed and very complicated aspect. To the manager it is very important, because there is no communication unless the receiver of the written communication understands the thoughts and ideas of the writer.
The basic purpose of any written communication is to convey a message to the reader. To serve this purpose well, the message must be easily understood and quickly read.
A well-written document approaches the subject logically and shows the writer has a thorough knowledge of the subject. The message is simple, clear, and direct.
The importance of Effective Business Writing Skills has been of concern to many people. Joan Griewank, former Director of CBS Records, reflecting on the written word says, "Many people who are good on their feet can't put together four good sentences in a row." Jack Shaw, partner in the accounting firm of Touche, Ross & Co:, is quoted as saying, "It's hard for me to believe grown men write the kinds of things I see in some client organizations." Many industrial firms are offering writing courses or seminars for managers, to overcome observed deficiencies.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Effective Business Writing Skills
The decision to use a written rather than oral communication often rests with the manager - the communicator. In such cases, the communicator must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each form of communication in order to make an intelligent decision.
The advantage of oral over written communications is that a complete interchange of thoughts and ideas can take place faster. The speaker is in direct contact with the listener (receiver) and is challenged to make himself understood. Too frequently the listener fails to ask the right questions, so he does not receive the message clearly. This, in turn, can result in wasted efforts and costly errors.
Written communications also have advantages. They are usually more carefully formulated than oral communications, so the message conveyed tends to be more clearly stated. Written messages also can be retained as references or legal records.
There are some disadvantages to written communications. First, the writer often fails to carefully compose his thoughts and ideas. When a poorly prepared message has to be followed by many written or oral communications to clarify the writer's original written word, the real message becomes garbled and the process becomes costly and time-consuming.
Second, people tend to retain voluminous written documentation for use as a means of defense or attack. A file of such documentation is often referred to as a "Pearl Harbor file." The advantages of written information for legal purposes are usually obvious; however there are occasions when such information is either duplicative or unnecessary. Effective managers recognize the importance of document retention and develop sensible procedures and practices for that purpose.
The most important question that you, as a manager-and writer-can ask yourself is, "Have I stated my message clearly?" If you are to be an effective writer, you must do a good job of informing the intended receiver of your message. There is nothing more important to you, if you wish to be an effective manager, than being informative and properly understood.
A message that is easy to understand is informative. This does not imply that it is "readable"; i.e., easy to read. In recent years there have been many presentations or articles on readability. These articles have offered some simple solutions to common writing problems, such as: use everyday words, short sentences, and brief paragraphs; keep the "fog content" down; don't use complicated or foreign expressions, overworked phrases, and unfamiliar jargon. Compliance with this advice may appear to be quite simple, but cannot be considered a panacea for all writing problems. Strict adherence to the advice in these articles does not ensure that your next staff paper or report will be informative. Informative writing involves paying proper attention to the choice of words, construction of sentences, and logical presentation of thoughts and ideas.
The meanings assigned to words have two characteristics - denotation and connotation. Denotation is the meaning or idea conveyed by the word through common usage; connotation is the thought (personal or emotional) attributed to the word. "Democracy," for example, generally has a denotative meaning. From a connotative aspect, its meaning is much broader. In trying to communicate effectively - in writing as well as speaking - we risk being misunderstood. We can only hope to know the common meanings (the denotative characteristics) of most frequently used words. Unfortunately this is not always a simple task. The uniqueness of a word should be known by the writer when he chooses it to convey an idea. The importance of selecting the right word has been recognized since biblical times. In Proverbs 25:11 we find the statement that words fitly spoken (or written) are like "apples of gold in pictures of silver."
Developing Effective Business Writing Skills
Effective writing, based on adequate preparation, involves analyzing, selecting, and organizing ideas. This process establishes the foundation for all work that follows. At the outset arrange the ideas in your mind. Then, follow the six basic steps indicated below in preparing a report, staff paper, or article for publication.
1. Determine the basic purpose of the message. Divide it into two elements: the general and specific purposes. The general purpose may be to direct, inform, question, or persuade. The specific purpose may be obvious or may require a great deal of thought. If you cannot define the specific purpose clearly, it will be difficult to transmit a clear message to the intended receiver. Always consider who will read, understand, and possibly respond to the message.
2. Collect and evaluate the facts and information needed. Formulate the conclusions and/or recommendations in your mind and check them against the facts.
3. Organize and divide the material into principal topics. Arrange the principal topics, with the subordinate topics, in a logical sequence. Examine the logic of the outline. Are closely associated topics properly grouped and sequenced? Should the outline be altered - simplified, reduced, extended?
4. Write the first draft of the message, preferably using a conversational style. Dictating the message may help to make the manuscript closely approximate a good conversation. Concentrate on one section of the message at a time; don't try to write the first draft and revise it at the same time. Set the draft aside for a while. Then, examine it from a fresh, critical point of view. Have you been objective and logical in your reasoning? Are there any possible fallacies in your reasoning? Have you said precisely what you intended? Does the draft include enough detail to satisfy the intended receiver? Does the text flow smoothly - in a clear, logical order?
5. Consider the intended receiver. Have you kept his background in mind? Have you made the message personal to him? Does the message cover all of the bases?
6. Review the text to ensure you have observed the commonly accepted practices for capitalizing, abbreviating, numbering, and punctuating. Have you carefully selected and used the right words?
Now, I would like to direct your attention to the preparation of one of the documents with which you, as a manager, must be concerned. That document is the report.
Writing a Report
A report is prepared to permanently record information or opinion on a given subject. It may be prepared periodically or to satisfy a specific requirement of higher management. It expresses the thoughts of the reporter and impresses the recipient.
The purpose of writing a report is to communicate results of an investigation or to identify progress made during a specific period of time. The report represents on paper some new knowledge gained. It conveys your accomplishments to the recipient. It should not be looked upon as simply a recording tool, but an action tool - a document frequently used by management in planning and decision-making. Do your reports usually have the impact they should? If not, to what do you attribute the problem? Is it the logic you used, or is it the report structure?
Let's examine the structure of a report. The conventional structure may be outlined as follows:
IV Observations, Conclusions, Recommendations
If you have been preparing reports in this manner, and they have not been receiving the attention they should, perhaps the use of a different format would be helpful in gaining the attention of the recipients. If ground rules for report structure have not been established, consider structuring the next report as follows:
II Conclusions and/or Recommendations
III Analysis of Details
The traditional "Summary" can be replaced with a single page behind the title page containing the report highlights. This page can address such items as the title, objective, a brief statement of the conclusions and recommendations, and, if applicable, advantages, disadvantages, and limitations. Such a highlights page forces you, the writer, to be concise in choice of words and discriminating in selection of ideas. If the highlights page is used, the "Introduction," which normally presents background or historical material, may be eliminated. If it must appear in the report, do not include it as a monolithic block. In the suggested change of format, the "Discussion" is eliminated and replaced by a detailed expansion of the conclusions and/or recommendations. Placing conclusions and recommendations at the beginning of the report will show the recipient at the outset whether the report contains information he wants.
Reports often go awry because they are prepared in the sequence followed in researching the subject matter. The traditional stepped sequence used in research is as follows:
The main ideas of the report - the "what" and "why" - are generally contained in the third and fourth steps. Therefore, as reports are traditionally written, the receiver does not have a full grasp of the "what" and "why" until he reads the final pages, since the writer has forced the recipient to go through all of the research detail.
When you prepare your next report, place the conclusions and recommendations at the beginning. Then follow with the analysis and details to reinforce your recommendations. The advantage is that the recipient learns what he wants to know immediately. The conclusions are more to the point. The advantage to you, as the writer, is that once the recipient has grasped the main ideas, and learned the reasons for them, he is forced to consider your point of view throughout the report. There is another advantage. When your conclusions are clearly drawn and stated at the outset, many of the traditional problems of report organization tend to disappear.
The Polishing Process
The principal difference between a well-prepared report, or paper, and a poorly prepared one may be the amount of effort spent "polishing" it. This is often a tedious process, but even the best writers admit it is important and endure it.
The polishing process begins with reading the text from beginning to end. The first time through, check for content; the second time, for overall organization; the third time, for appropriateness; and the fourth time, for correctness. These checks are inseparable. Although it may be possible to separate one for the purpose of analysis, each depends upon the others. All combine to produce an effective message.
Content is of primary importance. If the message is not complete, the receiver will not understand the purpose and will not respond as you wish.
Organization is a quality you should look for and strive for in appraising the results of your written report or paper. The reason is simply this: a clear, logical organization of the manuscript leads to a better understanding of your message. To ensure you have accomplished this objective, three basic questions should be answered affirmatively:
Directness is another quality for concern. You can achieve directness in your report or paper by using simple, uncomplicated sentences, and by selecting words the receiver will understand effortlessly. You can improve the quality by varying word arrangements and length of sentences. An example or two - even an illustration - might help to explain a difficult point. As implied earlier, good writing is little different from good conversation.
Write as you talk but tighten it up a bit when you edit the text. Appropriateness must also be considered. The general tone of your paper or report should suit the subject addressed. Consider the receiver in deciding on the tone, level, and style of your message.
Correctness is the final quality you should try to attain. This is probably the quality the reader will use most frequently to form his opinion of you. Although your message may possess the other qualities, the recipient will ignore your message if he believes it was prepared by an uneducated person.
To be successful in preparing reports and papers, you must abide by generally recognized standards - standards that determine correct usage of language. You must acquire a "feel for the language" just as a driver acquires a "feel for the road." To do so, you might read the text aloud. If you tend to stumble over a word or phrase, it could indicate the need for punctuation or rephrasing. Sometimes you will find that a sentence doesn't hang together and should be divided into two or more separate statements. Ask yourself these additional questions:
Testing the Business Writing effectiveness
The effectiveness of a report or paper you have prepared can be judged by the answers to these questions:
If you have met the quality criteria described in the polishing process, and can give an affirmative answer to each of these test questions, you have prepared a report or paper to successfully accomplish the intended purpose.
Speaking - not writing - is the natural act for all of us. Writing is hard work and, to be successful, it must be approached systematically. Remember,
When about to put your words in ink,
'Twill do no harm to stop and think.
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