"I'd be thrilled if you would consider me for the position," gushed the cover letter, heaping praise on the business, the department and the job description.
The mistake? She sent it to the wrong person.
I've been writing professionally for more than a dozen years, and I think at this point I've seen every business writing mistake it's possible to make in the English language.
I still think that the biggest business writing mistake you could possibly make is still not writing — however, this is too rich an area of content not to mine.
Are these a matter of life and death? Assuredly not. But the goal of writing is communication, and if you're making these mistakes, you might as well not be attempting to communicate at all.
Failure to launch
There are writing mistakes you can make before you even start to write.
Don't panic. You aren't doing everything wrong. But if you're neglecting one of these areas, then your writing isn't nearly as effective as it could be — and you're probably confusing people to boot. You don't want to confuse people.
1. Know your audience
Consider your personal relationships. Do you speak to your best friend the same way you speak to your spouse, and do you speak to your mother that way, too?
You can probably acknowledge that you don't share the same information or perhaps even use the same tone depending on your audience. You probably also consider what your audience most wants to hear and organize your thoughts accordingly.
Picture the person who's receiving your message. How would you talk to them if they were standing in front of you? What tone would you strive to hit — intimate, professional, serious?
And I am not entirely sure it goes without saying that you should ensure you're sending your message to the right person. If it's been a while since you reached out, check to confirm your recipient is still the right point of contact.
2. Writing an inadvertent novel? Pick up the phone instead
Why do we write instruction booklets via email? What is it about us as humans that inspires us to explain everything?
Emails probably should not be several paragraphs long unless you are catching up with a friend à la pen pals.
If you catch yourself starting to write a novel, do one of two things:
- Put what you've written into an instruction manual of some sort so that you don't need to repeat the information you're delivering over and over again, and then direct your recipient to the instruction manual.
- Pick up the phone and call instead of email.
3. Don't ask your recipient to read your mind
Before you deploy your business missive, ask yourself if these two things will be clear to your audience:
- The information you want them to receive
- The action you want them to take
If you're asking someone to share their opinion about a business plan, for example, then make sure they have access to the plan (attachment, Google Drive link, whatever you can provide) and clearly communicate your desire for feedback and a deadline.
Like the "failure to launch" areas, these can cause significant communication difficulties — though you are at less of a risk for that, depending on your audience's reading comprehension and understanding of how your brain works.
Consider this a second-level exercise if you think you've got your basic audience and message down.
4. Get the hook
The "hook" might also be called your "lead." It's what will get your audience interested in what you have to say.
Nobody wants to think about making a mistake in a cover letter, for example — it's a nightmare scenario. Would you read this far down a blog post to avoid making that mistake? My job is done!
5. Stick to one idea per sentence
Every writer has penned a flowery metaphor that died on the vine (or made it to print and frustrated readers) because it was too twisted to decipher.
The easiest way to keep your writing from becoming overly convoluted and difficult to decipher is to limit yourself to one idea per sentence.
6. Don't repeat yourself
Repetition is a waste of your audience's time — so if you're doing it for emphasis, it really should be the exception and not the rule.
When you're proofreading your work (you are proofreading your work ... right?), check to ensure you're not stating the same point several ways. If you are, pick your favorite and cull the rest.
Although I've placed this entry arbitrarily under "structural problems," it is equally a technical difficulty. If you're beginning a sentence with "In addition to ..." then you probably don't need to tack on "as well" at the end — do you?
7. When in doubt, go short
There are exceptions: long-form articles, graduate theses and novels come to mind.
But if you aren't sure how long your piece of writing should be, opt for the short side. The average reader's attention span doesn't stretch much beyond about 600 words (if that), and if you're writing an email that's longer, then you should consider putting what you're typing into a blog post or employee handbook instead.
These are what most readers would define as "piddly," but if you feel like you've got the other two danger zones pretty well navigated, this should be where you focus your writerly attention
8. Strengthen your verbs (and eschew adverbs)
One easy way to make your sentences stronger is to select stronger verbs.
What's "stronger"? Well, one way you can identify a weak verb is to look for adverbs.
An adverb is a word that describes a verb — it's the verb's version of an adjective. The adverbs in the phrases below are italicized.
- He ran quickly.
- She spoke quietly.
- They laughed loudly.
But why qualify a verb with an adverb when a better option exists? Consider the alternatives:
- He sprinted.
- She whispered.
- They guffawed.
Find those adverbs, decide on a stronger/clearer verb and then eliminate the adverb.
9. Know the difference between "who" and "that" (and "it" and "they")
When to use which?
People — humans — are "who," and things are "that."
So instead of writing "the applicant that completes the task," write "the applicant who completes the task."
On a similar note, a company is not a collective group of individuals (although a collective group of individuals probably works at a company ... nonetheless!).
Don't refer to a company as "they" — a company is properly an "it."
So instead of writing "Facebook said they would crack down on fake news," write "Facebook said it would crack down on fake news."
10. Know when to use "number" and "amount"
A "number" should be used when you are measuring units in question that can be individually counted. An "amount" should be used when the method of measurement is something other than individual units.
For example: You can count the number of homes in a neighborhood. But if you're trying to figure out how much those homes are worth, instead of counting them individually, you would assign a dollar amount.
So instead of writing "the amount of homes" or "the amount of clients" or "the amount of pets," you would replace those "amounts" with "numbers."
And instead of writing "the number of money" or "the number of weight" or "the number of equity," you would replace those "numbers" with "amounts."
11. Stop with the qualifiers
Do you think or believe something?
What is stopping you from simply stating that thing as fact in your writing?
One tip I often give to writers who want to improve their copy is, "read it out loud." It sounds trite, but even if you're only whispering under your breath, there's nothing like hearing your words spoken to help alert you to awkward turns of phrase.
- "I believe that the world is round."
- "I think that the financial crisis shook millennials' faith in the American Dream."
- "It is widely acknowledged that mishandled mortgage-backed securities contributed to the Great Recession."
- "It's obvious that they should never have moved in together."
- "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Are any of those sentences stronger or better for the added qualifiers? (No offense meant to Ms. Austen — because after all, rules, even grammatical ones, were all made to be occasionally broken.)
No, they are not. (Or, if you prefer: "I would argue that they are not." See what I mean, though?)
These are just a few of my least favorite mistakes. (Favorite mistakes?)
What are yours?