Ask Annie

Making the case for better business writing

October 14, 2011: 11:52 AM ET

Texting and tweeting haven't rendered clear, complete sentences (and paragraphs) obsolete. It just seems that way sometimes.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I couldn't agree more with your column about the inappropriateness of "Valley Girl" speech habits in the office. I have a related question. How would you suggest that I communicate to people (especially young people who haven't been in the business world very long) that a memo to one's boss, or a proposal that may be read by people even higher up, should not be written as if it were a text message to a friend?

We have a few very bright management trainees here who have some truly fresh, interesting ideas and suggestions. The trouble is, when they put them in an email, the abbreviations and sloppy sentence structure make me cringe. These are college graduates, so I assume they learned how to write decent English somewhere along the way, but how do I encourage them to do so without coming across as the Grammar Police? — Old Fogey at 32

Dear O.F.: Young employees aren't the only ones dropping the ball in this regard. I've heard similar laments from readers about colleagues of all ages. So has Sandra Lamb, a longtime writing coach and author of a useful new book called How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You'll Ever Write.

"Texting and tweeting have affected the way people write, but it's only partly because of the habit of using abbreviations and sentence fragments," Lamb observes. "The far bigger, although more subtle, impact of technology has been the way it speeds everything up."

In order to write well, she says, "you have to give yourself the time to stop and think about what you want to say before you say it, and it's that time for reflection that we often feel we just don't have anymore."

In her book, Lamb spells out a straightforward approach to business writing. It starts with understanding one's audience, taking into account both what they already know about the topic at hand and what they want or need to know. The next step is to develop a message, which should be clear enough that, if necessary, it could be boiled down to one sentence.

It's helpful that the employees whose writing you'd like to fix are college graduates, because the process Lamb prescribes is not all that different from the steps required to turn out a passable term paper -- a task with which they are probably familiar.

In a nutshell, the steps involve the following: Organize your thoughts into a logical progression (making an outline if necessary, even if only in your head). Marshal any supporting data or other evidence for your point of view, write a draft, and then revise it, cutting out any distracting or irrelevant information.

"It may take a few minutes or an hour to do this," Lamb acknowledges. "But for an important memo or proposal, it's worth taking the time, because it will be so much more persuasive than just dashing something off quickly.

"Besides, the more you practice writing well, the more it becomes second nature and the faster you can do it."

When it comes to encouraging your bright subordinates to make the extra effort, Lamb has two suggestions. First, she notes, "Most people do know how to write in complete words and sentences, but they may simply be forgetting to switch gears between texting their friends and writing a report to a boss. As their boss, why not just remind them?"

And second, it can't hurt to appeal to your employees' self-interest. Point out that, for anyone who wants to get ahead and be recognized for his or her ideas, effective communication skills are paramount. Says Lamb, "Explain that, no matter how great your ideas are, if you don't express them in a cogent fashion, your career will suffer."

Good luck.

On an entirely different subject, a request: September's dreary jobless statistics included a reported increase of 444,000 in the number of people working part-time who would rather be working full-time. Some estimates put the total number of "underemployed" Americans -- including those who are doing jobs for which they are overqualified -- at about 9 million.

It's grim, but is underemployment always a permanent setback? For a future column, I'd like to hear from anyone who has successfully turned a part-time job into a full-time one, or who has found a way to turn a "step down" into a steppingstone to a better position. Please email me at anne.fisher@turner.com.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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