Effective Business writing – Common mistakes part 1

Greetings. I have been offline for a while working on other projects and now I’m back. I have become more enamoured with video for educational and promotional purposes. Here is a short clip I made from some software. It outlines one common mistake that many of my students make when doing business writing. The link in the video is another about writing I am working on. Enjoy.

This video is being brought to you by http://how-to-write-that.net

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Effective business writing – more on analyzing your audience

Now here’s a big question if you are analyzing your audience. How old is your reader?  Different age groups have different perspectives.Baby boomer Here are three major demographic groups to keep in mind when analyzing your audience.

Baby boomer – (1943-1963) –  This group is success-oriented, team-oriented, anti authoritarian (remember these are the former flower children). Don’t ever call a 60-year-old baby boomer “old”. Boomers love possibilities and constant change but invented the term ‘workaholic’, and set high standards for themselves and others. They like to ‘climb the ladder of success’, and you’ll find many of them in executive positions in organizations at the moment. They like open direct and detailed communication.


Gen X – These people were born about 1965 or so to around 1980 – Scarred with a touch of cynicism from having parents who may have suffered from the recessions of the 70s and 80s, this group is conservative but entrepreneurial. They understand that a job is not for life. They don’t anticipate companies will be loyal to them, and conversely, they will not be loyal to them either. (“If you want loyalty, get a dog” this group has been known to say.)

They value independence, creativity, work-life balance, flexibility, and invest in their own development.

This group prefers email. Keep your message short, sweet and informal. Ask them for feedback and give them regular feedback.

Gen Y –  These are teenagers  to  early 30 somethings, children of boomers, also known as echo boomers.

They grew up during the high tech revolution and couldn’t imagine a world without ATMs and cell phones. They prefer positive real-time feedback, autonomy, value input, and tend to be positive.  They also value technology,  making and spending money, and have a healthy appreciation for diversity. It’s a given. Also never talk down to a Gen Y or use an overbearing tone in any written communication.


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Effective Business writing- analyzing your audience

In business writing, analyzing audience is a crucial step in the writing process, as I said in the last post. In fact, all business writing is reader-centred. Whether you are writing a novel or a technical report, you’re always writing for the reader. In business writing, there are some key questions you can ask about your audience.

What is the position of the reader? Is the reader your manager or your employee. The power relationship matters very much when you are writing a business document. No doubt, any correspondence with your manager will have a tone of formality and careful thought about what you put and what you leave out.

How much does the person know about the subject? Is this a technical reader, an expert in the subject, or is this person less technical than yourself? I worked for someone once in a wireless company who did not much about the technology he was promoting, but had product specialists who helped with the technical details. To him, my correspondence did not need to be full of jargon.

When you are considering how much a person knows, also consider what he/he knows about the actual situation. A sales manager may not know as much about what is going on the front lines as a sales person. Also, ask yourself, what that person needs to know about the situation.

What is the mindset of your reader? Is he/she open or close-minded? Traditional or unconventional? All these factors will affect how you shape your message for a good piece of business writing.

What education does your reader have? Most people read at a high school level. Consider whether your reader has been university educated or even has advanced degrees. This is a person who may not be accepting of awkwardly written correspondence.

Is your business reader in North America or outside North America? This matters. North Americans prefer a more direct style of communicating.


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Five Business report writing tips

report writing tips

Reports seemed to have challenged my students this term; indeed, they challenge many people, so here are five  business report writing tips for you in case you have to write one soon.


1.  Plan your report. We spend a lot of time on planning, yet it is something people are reluctant to do. How do you plan? Understand that  what ever you are writing about can be broken down into sections and segments. Ask yourself, what is this report about, and what do I want to accomplish. Most reports are highly informational. There is a fair bit of detailed information you are going to provide to your reader, usually, so he or she can make an informed decision.

2. Brainstorm. Once you are clear what your main topic and purpose are for your report, a good idea is to brainstorm. I like to use good old fashioned pen and paper. Very quickly, jot down all the different subtopics associated with your area. Try not to think too hard about it. These eventually will form the headings or subheadings in your report.  Brainstorming is a key business report writing step that will help you direct your research.

3. Think about your audience. All business report writing is about audience. We focus a lot on assessing the audience , your readers–on who they are, what the mindset is, the language level and the business concerns that the reader(s) have. This will help you carve out the right information. A big mistake my students make is they create “writer-focused” documents instead of reader-focused documents. Remember this well. It’s about the reader, always.

4. Sort and select your information appropriately. The biggest decision you will have to make as a writer is answering the questions: “Does my reader need to know this”. If they don’t, leave it out. So often I get assignments with “information dumps”.  It’s not about how much information you supply the reader, but how appropriate it is .

5. Be sure to edit your work. This is standard advice I give to everyone. We always miss things. In business report writing, you need to proofread, that is edit for spelling, grammar and punctuation. And you also need to edit for tone and style, that is for conciseness, and a reader-friendly tone, one that speaks directly to  him or her without using the dreaded passive voice,  ‘deadwood’  or ‘obfuscated verbiage’ (translation: bloated language).


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Writing an effective letter of complaint


How to write an effective letter of complaint

Writing an effective letter of complaint is something we all need to know how to do. Why would you want to do this? You bought something, it didn’t work properly, you were overcharged on your credit card, you want the charge to be reversed, a delivery shipment arrived with the wrong items, or the product or service that you ordered is not performing as expected. You are disappointed, you are angry and you want your money back (or at the very least an exchange). Here then, is effective complaint letter format (I’m going to assume that you already  know about how to set up the basic parts of the letter including your vendor’s contact information. your own, the date, the salutation and the complimentary close).

Letter of complaint structure

Opening (direct approach- ask for what you want) – When starting your letter of complaint, simply summarize your request because the product or service did not perform as promised.(e.g.) “Please refund me $218 (plus shipping) for the digital voice recorder I bought, since the file format of the recordings is not compatible with my software. You could soften this with a compliment, and a bit of background, but be sure to ask for what you want in the first paragraph. (“I have been a long time member of your fitness club. In recent months I have been impressed with the renovations, the new exercise equipment and the fitness classes you have added. But I was shocked to see that without warning you raised my membership fees by 50% and proceeded to withdraw this from my account. Thus, I request that my membership be cancelled immediately”).


Tell the story of your claim – In your effective letter of complaint, go into detail about what happened when. Mention any dealings that you had with members of their organization, and give the names of these people, and ideally the dates of your dealings and any documentation such as receipt numbers etc. There’s always a part where things went well, and there is a part where things didn’t, where you became disappointed (“but I tried to play the files on my computer, and my software could not read these mp5 format…”)

Reiterate your request – End the letter of complaint by asking for what you want again (give numbers, and amounts. If you want the refund posted to your credit card, say so, if you want a cheque sent to you say so. If you are doing e-commerce, it could mean a deposit in your paypal account).

Wind down on a positive note, expecting the matter to be resolved. In writing and effective letters of complaint, it’s not OK to yell at, berate, or get angry at the recipient in print. That won’t help your cause. I do recommend a little bit of guilt inducing such as telling the reader how disappointed you were (no organization likes to disappoint) and that you will think twice about doing business with them again. Disappointed customers are bad for business.




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Four ‘sound-alike’ spelling errors writers make

If you want ensure that your writing credibility remains intact, whether you are blogging, writing for work or creating student papers, then it’s important to watch for these  four common ‘sound alike’ spelling errors writers make.  “sound-alike” words are pronounced the same, but have different meanings.

Your and you’re –  ‘Your’ is strictly a possessive pronoun, whereas ‘you’re’ is just a contraction of ‘you are.’   So often, I’ll see students write something like ‘Your a beautiful person,’ or ‘I want to see you’re pet.’ Your teacher will take off marks. Your readers will think you are sloppy.

It’s and its – I’ve seen all levels of writers confuse this one. ‘To avoid this common spelling error think carefully about your message. Also, understand the meaning and use of each word.  ‘It’s’ is a strict contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ so use it as such. On the other hand, ‘its’ is a mere possessive pronoun (third person).

‘There’  and  ‘their ‘ Both are pronouns, but they  have different uses.  ‘There can also answer the question “where?” (indeed sometimes it also functions as an adverb) as in ‘Put the book there.’ There can also be used as  a pronoun (as in ‘There is the object of your desire.’)

‘Their’ is the plural form of possessive pronoun (third person). For example:  ‘Their class was suspended,’ instead of ‘There class was suspended.’ This could be very simple, but amazingly, many blogs frequently commit the same mistake.

‘Affect’ and ‘effect.’  I see this one a lot. Both can be used as nouns and verbs. But it’s important to be clear on the meaning of each; otherwise, it could be a bit confusing. ly. ‘Affect’ is used as  mostly as a verb, while ‘effect’ is used mostly as a noun. To illustrate: ‘The power interruption would affect the flow of the meeting.’ ‘The possible effect of the power interruption is not known to many’.

These are four very common sound alike spelling errors. To avoid these errors, be sure you are clear about the meaning of each word. Also, edit your work scrupulously. Read your sentence aloud and you could catch nasty embarrassing mistakes that will cost your marks or credibility.

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Is the letter dead?

Is the  letter dead? I posed this question to my students on a discussion forum last term, and the consensus was that we still write them from time to time, but most people use email.

Letters are still around because

  • We may need a paper copy on file for legal purposes
  • That paper copy of the letter can come in handy if your computer or storage disk crashes (trust me, it’s happened, and the fact that I had hard copies saved me).
  • Letters look serious and important and can convey branding through a logo

The letter is not dead, but we definitely write fewer of them:


  • We can use fax through  the computer
  • It’s too much work to print it, and put it in the envelope
  • It’s too inconvenient to walk to the post office, buy a stamp and mail it

Letters have also definitely changed

We can write a soft copy and send it as an attachment to an email. We can also embed the letter in an email. This is probably the most common way of writing a letter. In fact, when I tell people  that I have written a letter, I really mean that I have sent an “email-letter”.

The email letter is a lot like its paper counterpart, but it’s shorter, sweeter, punchier and to the point, and is only a screenful of type. It uses main of the same techniques, forms and templates as the paper kind, but the writer needs to think visual.

So, is the letter dead? No, but it has changed because of the availability of electronic channels. That doesn’t mean you can get away with lower quality piece of writing. More on this later!

For more on letters and letter templates see how-to-write-that.net

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What my students learned about writing


I had a good group of students this term  in my night class,  and many of them shook my hand after the exam when they said goodbye. They told me they learned something this term. That is always gratifying to an insturctor, but as I talked to some of them, I realized that what my students learned about writing, went beyond the technical skills. The learning, in fact, was emotional.

They learned that writing wasn’t hard

Most people have emotional blocks around writing and they come into the class with a lot of baggage. I wrote about this earlier in overcoming the writing jitters. They learned they didn’t have to stare at the page, and write what ever came into their minds, that there was certain techniques of pre-planning and clarifyingi their thoughts that could cut through the chatter.

My students learned to save time when writing.

Some of them even finished the exam early. If people know what they wanted to say, how to sequence it logically, and not  let their emotions freeze them up they can write effectively and quickly.

Most of all, my students developed self confidence about writing

Sometimes our effectiveness in mastering a skill has to do with our belief about ourselves and our competency. As I mentioned before, when it comes to writing, many of us have baggage (me included).  We set impossibly high standards, and imagine some ancient teacher with a red pen, ready to circle every last error. Then we freeze up. Or we try to write it over and over until it’s perfect. But there’s never a perfect ending, just the next draft.

In the learning and practice of writing,  my students shifted their views of themselves, and to just get on with the task. That to me is the most important part of learning writing.

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Four vocabulary building tips

A powerful vocabulary will make you a powerful writer, so here are four vocabulary building tips.

1.  Create a special vocabulary blog or buy a small notebook.

2.  Whenever you encounter a word you don’t understand, record it.

3. Look it up in the dictionary. Be clear of the meaning and usages. Then try and write a sentence with that word. This part requires physical effort, but this physical act of doing will enhance your learning. You will remember the word much better, than if you just used an electronic translator, or a spell checker.

4. Continue to read. You will develop your vocabulary muscle that way and you can start to figure out the meaning of words from the context of the writing. This means you can take an educated guess at the meaning of the word based on the other information in the passage.

I have students sabotage themselves many times because of incorrectly comprehending simple assignment instructions or course content. The inability to use the correct words also affects their written work.

Learning a second language will be a life long process and there are no short cuts. So, start with following these four vocabulary building tips.

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The person shift – watch out for it in your writing

As I review student assignments, I’m noticing  one of the most common errors is the person shift.  For example,  in a report on business etiquette in other countries, a student writes, “In Sauda Arabia, men wear dark conservative suits. Avoid wearing short skirts if your a woman.” There! The writing just shifted voice from “third” detached voice to the “you” voice.

What’s the big deal here? Why does that matter? Well, in English we usually write in one of three “persons”  : The first person is the “I” or “we” voice, the second person is the “you” voice, and the third, is from the point of view of someone else  “he”, “she”,”it”,  “they” to name a few pronouns.  It’s important to keep the voice consistent; otherwise,  the writing starts becoming more informal.

But since we often write the way we speak, we import some of the bad habits we get away with in the spoken form of the language. We shift voices and points of view without even thinking. Here’s an example of the “person shift”:  you’re talking to your friend and start off by saying “if people work hard, then you’ll get an ‘A’ in the course”.

In conversation,  that goes by you quickly. But in written English, it’s incorrect. You’ve shifted voice from third to second person in the same sentence. This is a very common error. To correct the above error, keep the whole phrase in one voice.

Correction: “If you work hard, you will get an A in the course.”

Here is another example of the person shift. In this one, the writer uses “you” instead of “I”.

Incorrect: I used to think my folks were eccentric, but as you get older you become more accepting.
Correct: I used to think my folks  were eccentric, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more accepting.

See what I mean?  Here’s another one.

Incorrect: You often get cold waiting for a bus in winter.
Correct: I often get cold waiting for a bus in Winter.

Again, it is better to use “I” instead of “you”.

Incorrect: You know how it feels to have the flu.
Correct: My recent episode of the flu was awful

So  keep your point view consistent by watching out for the  person shift. Writing needs to be conversational, but watching  out for shifting voices or points of view in a sentence or a paragraph will improve your writing.

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