I’ve been thinking about updating my business writing guide, Write Like You Talk Only Better. In the past five years, mobile technologies and cultural changes have continued to reshape how we communicate at work.
I was inspired because writing is an increasingly important skill in the digital age, one that can be mastered by any intelligent person. You don’t have to be born a Dickens or Hemingway. However, you do have to be open to modifying some of the rules your high school English teachers drilled into you. Or learning a few tips if your teachers pushed creative expression at the expense of clarity.
With more than 30 years’ experience as a business communicator, I had figured out some of the gaps. Now, approaching 40 years with a broader perspective from teaching international students, I see new twists and even a few hair-raising turns.
For a long time, I’ve advocated a less formal, more conversational approach to communication. Recently, this point was reinforced by the success of the shoot-from-the-lip style of Donald Trump. You don’t have to like him to appreciate the impact of plain-talking populist politicians. They write like they talk.
1. Write like you talk.
This makes writing easier for anyone who enjoys talking, which includes most people. It’s more authentic. And it will help you avoid getting bogged down by the technical terms of your profession or jargon of your business sector when you’re communicating with people outside your bubble.
What’s more, it’s valuable advice for English learners from Asia and other places that stress rules and academic writing style. The result is a stiff formality that can make it difficult to fit in with international colleagues.
2. Beware of words that sound similar, but are spelled differently.
Confusing words like “accept” and “except” or “its” and “it’s” remains a problem for many native English speakers. Because we learned language by hearing words, we reach for what sounds right. But spoken and written English are often different and spell check and autocorrect can’t help.
In addition to risking misunderstanding or looking unprofessional, this common flub can result in people making fun of you. Witness the amusement over Donald Trump’s tweet about the “unpresidented,” instead of “unprecedented,” act of China seizing a U.S. navy drone.
3. Use commas and periods to guide your readers.
In the past I have railed against people who cluttered and confused their content with too much punctuation. Today I’m more concerned about those who don’t use enough. Periods and commas can be considered rude and are often unnecessary in texts and other bite-sized content. But they do help readers follow your thoughts and make you look professional, especially in longer-form content or traditional business environments. Generally speaking, a period (or full stop for you Brits) means you’ve finished your thought and a comma distinguishes different yet related ideas.
While we’re on punctuation, feel my cringe over the epidemic misuse of apostrophes, especially people who incorrectly use “your,” a possessive, to mean “you’re.” I fear this may be linguistically fatal. Let’s see what happens to apostrophes over the next five years.
4. “They” is becoming accepted as a singular pronoun. Hurray.
The Wall Street Journal and some style guides are now giving their blessing to people who write “they” instead of the awkward “he or she,” when gender is not fixed or if the singular subject implies a plural, as in “The team won the award because they had the highest sales.”
I’ll try to remember this relatively painless transition when I fret over the threat of apostrophe extinction.
5. Watch out for the ESL trap: uncountable nouns.
If English is not your first language, even if you’re at an advanced level, you sometimes conduct researches, check the price of a gold or buy breads. Wrong. Native speakers, even grammar klutzes who can’t use apostrophes, never ever stumble over countable versus uncountable nouns.
In fact, through this gaffe alone, I can spot something written by a second-language student without looking at their name. Even Melania Trump fell into the trap when she told a television interviewer that she gives her husband “an advice.” So check if you want to look smart and fit in.
Uncountables often involve ideas, metals or food. But not always. So use a good language app to check. Uncountables are marked with a “U.”
6. Use emoticons and abbreviations to clarify and warm up your writing.
In my book, I advised people to use these only when writing to young people who understood and liked them. Five years later, they’re widely accepted. LOL has saved my butt when I want to make sure readers understand I’m trying to be funny. The people who used to gag at smiley faces have accepted them or retired. So use them, but be cautious in stuffy business cultures or with boomers not as enlightened as me.
7. Be concise.
Because the digital age has exponentially increased the amount of writing—and reading—we do, we need to abandon lavish salutations from the age of formal letters and dense forests of academic prose. You also need to re-read what you’ve written and remove unnecessary words and ideas.
The best way to be courteous to colleagues and other readers is to show respect for their time. We’re all too busy, right?