Let’s be clear: thoughts on writing and editing

Clear. Concise. Competent

Clear. Concise. Competent. Is this your writing style? Or is it the style you admire in other business writers, but don’t really feel is “you”?

As a business person, you frequently need to write some kind of document: letter, memo, report, discussion paper, reference. Even texts and emails can be viewed as business documents. There is always writing to be done!

Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!

Over the past couple of years I’ve written what I intend as helpful posts telling you what not to do as you write:

• Don’t make spelling mistakes
• Don’t use the wrong punctuation marks
• Don’t use the wrong word — a homophone for the word you intended
• Don’t use old-fashioned, stilted, overly formal language
• Don’t use gendered language.

To help you avoid these errors I’ve written useful reference posts on

• Punctuation
• Grammar
• Spelling, especially homophones
• Gender-neutral terms
• Plain English

I’m sorry if I sound like a teacher from your Fourth Grade class. I don’t mean to sound bossy or know-it-all. I’m a journalist, trained to write informative articles, and I’m an editor, trained to be infuriatingly picky about spelling, punctuation, grammar, and correct word use.

What does it matter?

You can say “but I’m not a journalist or an editor, so what does it matter if I use the wrong word or put a semicolon in the wrong place?”

It matters because you’re not writing just for yourself. Business writing is not private. It’s public, visible, and will be judged. Your writing represents not only yourself but your business. Any sloppiness or errors will be marked down against you as a professional and the business you represent.

Clear. Concise. Competent.

Any writing that seeks to inform, analyse, or persuade works best when it meets these three basic criteria:

1. Is it clear?
Is your language unambiguous, so your reader easily understands what you are communicating? Avoid vague terms that can be misunderstood or are confusing, like “several” (how many?), “in a few days” (when?), in the CBD (exactly where?)

2. Is it concise?
Conciseness isn’t restricted to texting; all writing benefits from being economical with words. Unless you’re writing Moby Dick, ensure every word is necessary, and make it work hard. Your reader is more likely to read and understand your communication if it’s short and to the point. But do avoid ‘text speak’. It has no place in business.

3. Is it competent?
Is it correct? Is it authoritative? Asking about competence is referring to you as the author. If your document reads as authoritative, informative, and factually correct, then you are perceived as authoritative, informative, and competent.
Just as errors are marked down and reflect badly against you and your business, the reverse is true. Clear, concise and competent writing reflects well.

Links to previous articles:

5 quantity-related word pairs that can trip you up

6 common grammar errors that can trip you up

6 more word groups that can easily trip you up

Get to the point: punctuation

Keeping your writing gender-neutral

Reasons not to trust your spellchecker

Smoke signals: what are you trying to say?

Weasel words, pompous phrases and jargon

Information on Plain English writing, including free grammar and writing tips at The Plain English Foundation

Until next time,



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