Posted by: wordsmithsuk | October 16, 2013

Writing concisely

However accurate, relevant and timely the information in your business document, it will not create the desired impact if Woman-at-laptopit is not also concise. Nowadays people don’t have time to read long-winded pieces of text, so you must try get to the heart of the matter quickly with the minimum of words.

Tips for editing

When editing your draft you can apply a number of techniques to make your writing shorter.

  • Take out the padding
  • Reword ‘it is’, ‘there are’ sentences
  • Cut redundant pairs
  • Delete unnecessary qualifiers
  • Reduce prepositions
  • Replace whole phrases with single words

Take out the padding

Some writers get into the habit of padding their sentences with unnecessary preamble. In most cases the first few words can be deleted from sentences such as the following.

  • It goes without saying that most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans.
  • Please note that most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans.
  • As a matter of fact, most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans.
  • It seems that most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans.
  • Having said that, most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans.
  • In my opinion most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans.
  • In reality most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans

All the above can be edited to ‘most landlords welcome tenancy reform plans’.

The result is a clearer, shorter statement that means the same as the original.

Reword ‘it is’, ‘there are’ sentences

Sentences can often be made shorter and stronger by changing their passive reliance on ‘it is’ or ‘there are’. The trick is to substitute these weak patterns with strong verbs in the active voice.

  • Not: There are many factors contributing to the obesity epidemic.
  • Rather: Many factors contribute to the obesity epidemic.
  • Not: It is not known whether the vaccine will be effective.
  • Rather: We do not know whether the vaccine is effective
  • Not: It is expensive to upgrade computer systems.
  • Rather: Upgrading computer systems costs a great deal.
  • Not: There is a prize in every packet of cereal.
  • Rather: Every packet of cereal contains a prize

Look out for ‘there is/are’ or ‘it is’ and check whether you can re-write the sentence with a strong verb.

Cut redundant pairs

When the first word in a pair has roughly the same meaning as the second, choose one. Examples of redundant pairs include: full and complete, each and every, hopes and dreams, first and foremost, true and accurate, always and forever.

  • Not: Each and every attendee will receive a free bookmark.
  • Rather: Every attendee will receive a free bookmark.

Delete unnecessary qualifiers

Often we use unnecessary qualifiers to express our meaning. Common qualifiers include: actually, really, basically, probably, very, definitely, somewhat, kind of, extremely, practically.

Such qualifiers dilute your message and give the reader extra words to deal with. You can choose whether to delete the qualifier or to replace the qualified adjective with a single word that better captures what you want to say.

  • Not: December is Moscow is really cold.
  • Better: December is Moscow is freezing.
  • Not: The theme of community is very important in Russian literature.
  • Better: The theme of community is predominant in Russian literature.
  • Not: In recent years the Electoral College has become very controversial
  • Better: Recently the Electoral College has become controversial.
  • Not: The majority of children think that many puppies are generally quite cute.
  • Better: Children think that puppies are cute.
  • Even better: Children like puppies

By deleting unnecessary qualifiers, you can often cut one or two words per sentence.

Reduce prepositions

Overuse of prepositions (words like ‘in, ‘for’, ‘at’, ‘on’, ‘up’, ‘down, ‘to’ , with’ and so on) can make a sentence long and unclear. Try circling the prepositions in your draft and see whether you can eliminate or rewrite them without losing meaning.

  • You can substitute an adverb for a prepositional phrase: ‘The minister responded to the allegations with rapidity ‘ becomes ‘The minister responded rapidly to the allegations‘.
  • You can often delete a preposition from a verb with no loss of meaning: ‘He met with his solicitor last week‘ becomes ‘He met his solicitor last week‘.

Replace whole phrases with single words

Many commonly-used phrases can be replaced with single words. These phrases give the a formal tone and detract from the meaning.  You can replace the following common phrases with because, since, or why:

  • The reason for
  • Due to the fact that
  • In light of the fact that
  • Given the fact that
  • Considering the fact that

You can replace the following common phrases with  if:

  • In the event that
  • Under circumstances in which

You can replace the following common phrases with must or should:

  • It is necessary that
  • Cannot be avoided.

Writing discipline

When I have finished writing something I challenge myself to cut the number of words by at least 10 percent. For example, if the piece is 500 words, I aim to cut at least 50 words. I am always astonished by how easy it is to use fewer words.

Here’s an example:

  • Bob would really like to get his ideas across in writing in a lot fewer words.
  • Bob wants to write concisely.

In the example above, I reduced 13 words to 5.

Here’s another:

  • Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me by telephone or by email.
  • Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns.

In the example above, I reduced 22 words to 10.

For more tips on business writing, check our audio resource ‘Effective Business Writing for Success9780954886035

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | September 16, 2013

Writing informally

Many readers find an informal style in a business report easier to read than a more technical or bureaucratic approach. To achieve informality in your shutterstock_2241006writing, it’s useful to imagine that you are actually talking to your readers. This doesn’t mean that you can be sloppy or unstructured. Reports are most effective when they are personal, direct and friendly – but also well organised, concise and to the point.

The following rather longwinded extract is aimed at the sponsors of an international anti-poverty NGO.

The project’s impact continued to be monitored by the team. Of the 470 households surveyed, 77% had either improved their socio-economic position in comparison with the previous year or had remained the same; this was considered to be reasonably successful, especially given that the area had been hit by drought during the period. Overall, the evaluation has confirmed the success of the strategy for identifying appropriate sectors in which to address the needs of the poor.

There is nothing wrong with the content of the passage. But three main problems give it a stuffy, old-fashioned feel and make it a less than easy read for the target audience:

  • Use of passive: ‘The project’s impact continued to be monitored’, ‘This was considered’, ‘The area had been hit by drought’

Frequent use of the passive voice makes the tone rather stuffy and impersonal. It also makes sentences longer than they need to be.

  • Use of terms that may be unfamiliar to readers: ‘improved their socio-economic position’, ‘the evaluation has confirmed the success of the strategy’,’ identifying appropriate sectors’

It’s better to translate such words and phrases into more everyday language when writing for a general audience.

  • Long sentence: Of the 470 households surveyed, 77% had either improved their socio-economic position in comparison with the previous year or had remained the same; this was considered to be reasonably successful – especially given that the area had been hit by drought during the period. (44 words)

Readers find it hard to digest sentences which are more than 15 to 20 words long.

You might rewrite the extract as follows:

More than three quarters of the 470 households we monitored were either better off than the previous year or no worse off. This was not a bad outcome considering that there had been a drought during the period. Our evaluation shows that our approach of identifying the poorest people and communities is the right one.

I hope you can see how this plain English version of the same information is shorter, more direct, more informal and therefore much easier to read than the original.

By developing an informal, professional writing style, you will save your readers’ time and give your organisation a positive and contemporary image.

Do send me your questions about writing business documents, or send me samples of your writing for comments or help.

If you want to become a better writer, check my audio resource ‘Effective Business Writing for Success’.9780954886035

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | August 16, 2013

Why do we forget the shopping but remember our birthdays?

It’s no surprise that many of us get very worried about our minor or major memory lapses. How often have youYellow brain thought or said ‘I’ve a memory like a sieve’ or ‘I forget so many things these days – I must be getting old’.

But the truth is that that your memory, like that of every other human being, is truly magnificent. The tiny percentage of things that you might forget pales into insignificance compared to the hundreds of thousands of things that you do remember – without even thinking about it.

One model identifies four main reasons why we forget:

  • Repression
  • Mindset
  • Absentmindedness
  • Interference.

Repression is responsible for a small proportion of our forgetfulness. Sigmund Freud believed that we unconsciously repress memories that cause us pain or anxiety. We remember positive things much more easily than negative ones.

Mindset refers to your state of mind, your attitudes, your beliefs about yourself and about the world. If you truly want to have an excellent memory, you have to believe that your brain is magnificent.

Absentmindedness means that your mind is elsewhere when it should be concentrating on the here and now. So a lot of ‘forgetting’ is simply failing to lodge things properly in the brain in the first place. You will remember things much better if you train yourself to pay close attention to what you are doing and what is going on around you.

Interference is probably the most common reason for forgetting. This is because  large numbers of similar memories become so jumbled that they interfere with one another. It is impossible to remember what you had for lunch one  Friday ten years ago because the memories of many similar meals become mixed up. The problem is that you can’t distinguish one memory from all the others. But you will remember that particular lunch if  it was your birthday,  you just landed a new job or you won the lottery on that day. To remember things well, you have to make them stand out by associating them with something extraordinary and positive.

Why do we remember?

The trick is to take control, to ensure that important memories can be recalled when they are needed. In brief we remember:

  • When things are exaggerated, positive or fun
  • When we are interested and motivated
  • When we are really paying attention
  • When information stands out because it is unusual
  • When we can picture what we want to learn
  • When the information makes us feel something.

The brain is a ‘sleeping giant’ and we can all do a lot more to harness its power. Scientists think that most of us use less than 1% of its full capacity. So we’ve all got a huge amount of potential there, just waiting to be tapped!

If you want to realise more of your potential for remembering all kinds of facts and ideas you may like to consider arranging a Making the Most of your Memory one-day in-house training workshop. This is currently available as a cost and time-effective in-house event (ie run your organisation’s premises) for groups of between 6 and 14 people. Contact us for costs and availability.

If you can’t make a workshop, have a look at our fantastic audio book Memory and Learning for Success which Memory-Learning-for-Success-200px-9780954886028talks you through everything you have to do to train your memory, no matter what your age or circumstances.

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | August 5, 2013

Confidence tricks

Here are a few thoughts about how to become more confident, inspired by discussions in the many assertiveness workshops that I have led over the years.Woman on steps

Confidence is an emotional state of ease and well-being. You are confident if you feel you will be OK in any situation and you don’t have any doubts about your ability to achieve what you want. But is confidence a mysterious gift that is granted to the elite few who are lucky enough to receive a certain kind of parenting or education? Actually, no. Confidence is a mixture of skills, behaviours and attitudes that we can all develop and put into any situation. The trick is to become more aware of our natural strengths and qualities and how we can apply them in the face of life’s challenges. Remember – we are often our own worst enemy, putting artificial restrictions on ourselves and on our ability to succeed.

Courage or confidence?

In seeking to develop self-assurance and self-belief, it’s useful to distinguish between courage and confidence. Courage is the ability to take on difficult tasks and challenges, to act in the face of fear or risk. It seems to develop like a muscle in the body – the more you use it the stronger it gets. Many people argue that the way to develop courage is to ‘step outside the comfort zone’. This means gently pushing back the boundaries of what you feel you can do, stepping into the unfamiliar territory and staying there for a while till you feel comfortable again. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish when you make yourself do something which has always terrified you in the past. While it is possible to demonstrate courage without ever feeling very confident, confidence tends to generate courage. In that sense it is a bit of a ‘trick’ – a way of making yourself perform beyond your current boundaries.

How to develop more confidence

Confident people don’t feel negative, critical or guilty about who they are. Their self-esteem does not depend on others’ opinions of them. It helps to identify all your good points and all the things you have done that you are proud of. Read through your list and recognise it to be true. Developing your confidence involves building on all these positive achievements in everything that you undertake. You can try one or more of a number of ways of developing this elusive quality:

  • Act as if: one of the easiest tricks is simply to ‘fake it till you make it’. If you can convince yourself that you are self-assured, if you say it often enough and banish any negative thoughts, you will soon adopt the behaviours and skills of a confident person. Before you know it, your self image will catch up with your actions, and you will no longer have to pretend.
  • Relax: perhaps the single most important ingredient ofuccess is to stay physically relaxed. This means taking steps to release tension from your body. In the long term you may find it useful to take up a hobby like yoga or pilates. In the short term it’s worth experimenting to find a breathing exercise, an affirmation or a visualisation that will help you to remain relaxed and in control.
  • Give yourself a makeover: there is a very strong link between feeling confident and looking good, but nobody is quite sure which comes first. You can transform your image and build your confidence by consciously planning how you would like to appear to others and how you would like them to respond to you. Ask a friend what impression you make with your appearance and then work to alter those outward signals until you become what you would like to be

Confidence is a vital ingredient of success and well-being. It will invariably enhance your your performance, no matter what your career or area of interest. Confident people see difficult tasks as challenges and persevere when things go wrong. If you project self-assurance, others will have confidence in you and their response will further increase your confidence in yourself.

What are your thoughts? What is your experience? I’d love to hear from you

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | July 22, 2013

Beyond the Call by Marc Woods and Steve Coomber

Gaining people’s commitment to improve their productivity and performance has always been a vital function of managers. But to achieve business success in today’s complex and Woods_Beyond_pbk.pdfcompetitive environments, organisations need their people to go beyond the call of duty. This might involve anything from putting in extra time, going out of one’s way to help a customer or using personal initiative to solve a problem.

This book sets out to describe why some people are more than happy to go the extra mile at work, while others do the minimum required and go home on the dot of 5pm. The authors suggest that most employees are capable of doing much more than they are doing. What stops them is the working culture and the nature of their relationship with their managers and colleagues. To change things, organisations must create conditions in which people want to do more than they are asked to, of their own volition.

The authors coin a specific term to describe the idea of additional employee input; they call it ‘discretionary effort’. This is different from ‘employee engagement‘. An employee could be fully engaged in the decisions and activities that affect their jobs, without doing any more than what is strictly required of them.

The book starts with a lengthy description of what discretionary effort is and why it is important. It then explains in detail how a research team identified and tested their model of this concept. The six following chapters describe the things that organisations can do to maximise their employees’ ability and desire to go beyond the call. I like the way that these chapters are structured; each one ends with a list of action points which summarise the main issues described in the preceding pages. The final chapter – Next Steps – is a call to action and an opportunity for the reader to create an implementation plan for improving discretionary effort within her/his own team, department or organisation.

It’s true that many of the points included here have been chewed over many times during the past 30 or so years. For example: ‘Walking the floor is an essential tool for leaders to help them get to know their people.’ Really? And: ‘Teams are an essential part of organisational life’. Hold the front page!

But such timeworn leadership guidance is here set in the context of technology advances, global markets, outsourcing, social media marketing and people power. There are many new ideas. I liked the section on how managers working at a distance can meet the communication challenge. I enjoyed the material on how to create an atmosphere of fairness, while not necessarily treating everyone the same. And, even though I have designed many workshops on the themes of leadership and teamwork, the book deepened my understanding of how to build winning teams in this brave new business world.

I loved this book: it is well written, well structured and contains much that will interest both newly appointed managers and those who have been in the role for some time.

Have you read it? What do you think?

PS For more information on how to engage and inspire people with coaching and mentoring look at our publication ‘Coaching and Mentoring for Success’51X8MPCP42L._SL500_AA300_

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | May 3, 2013

Writing effective sentences

woman-keyboard-shutterstock_12392455Research into reading and comprehension tells us that sentences should be, on average, 20 words long. However, it’s also important to vary sentence length, as this adds impact to your writing. Short sentences punch your message home. However, too many simple sentences sound choppy and immature.

You can make your writing more powerful and engaging by using a mixture of simple, compound and complex sentences.

Simple sentences

These contain a subject and a verb. They express a complete thought.

For example:

  • This section discusses the main research findings.
  • Climate change affects us all.
  • The problem is growing.

Compound sentences

These contain two simple sentences joined by a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). It often helps to put a comma in front of the conjunction, like this:

  • This section discusses the main research findings, and also offers recommendations.
  • Climate change affects us all, yet many people fail to take responsibility.
  • The problem is growing, but there are some signs that people are taking it more seriously.

Complex sentences

These have one main statement and at least one dependent clause introduced by the words when, although, while, after, because and so on.

For example:

  • Although climate change affects us all, many people fail to take responsibility.
  • When he had finished the report, he sent it to the team.
  • Because none of our ingredients derive from animals, all our foodstuffs are suitable for vegetarians.

You know that a clause is dependent because it does not make sense on its own. You can always take it out and the remaining sentence makes complete sense.

Some complex sentences use a simple statement and a dependent clause starting with that, who or which. For example:

  • The project, which is funded by sponsors in America, started in March 2013.
  • They read the newspapers that were piled on the table in the corner.

Again you can remove the dependent clauses ‘which is funded by sponsors in America and that were piled on the table in the corner’ and the remaining simple sentences make sense.

Compound-complex sentences

These contain two simple sentences and at least one dependent clause.

  • This section, which was written by John Parks, discusses the main research findings, and it also offers recommendations.
  • Climate change affects us all, yet people who don’t understand it properly fail to take responsibility.
  • The problem that has been identified is growing, but there are some signs that people are taking it more seriously.

As before, you can remove the dependent clauses and remaining simple sentences stand alone.

If you want to know more about business writing, have a look at our website for details of our audio book9780954886035 ‘Effective Business Writing for Success’.

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | April 9, 2013

Add power to your writing by avoiding dummy subjects

You can improve your style by avoiding starting sentences with ‘there is’, ‘there are’, ‘there was’, ‘there will be’, ‘it is’, ‘it was’ and so on. Starting sentences with a dummy subject (there, it) and the verb ‘to be’ weakens your message and makes your sentence longer than necessary. ‘There is/are’ are empty phrases that do not add anything to the meaning of the orignal sentence.

Look at these examples.

Don’t write:

  • There are two reasons why we have changed the system.

Write instead:

  • We have changed the system for two reasons.

Don’t write:

  • There was a riot in London in which several shops were burned

Write instead:

  • Rioters burned several London shops.

Don’t write:

  • There are three things that you need to remember: close the window, lock the door, and set the alarm.

Write instead:

  • Remember these three things: close the window, lock the door, and set the alarm.

Don’t write:

  • It is sunny today.

Write instead:

  • The sun is shining today.

Removing ‘There is’, “There are’ and ‘It is’ places more emphasis on the subject of the sentence and gives you an opportunity to use a strong verb. Furthermore, every word in the sentence now serves a purpose in conveying your message.

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | March 22, 2013

Business writing – the good, the bad and the ugly

Professional business writers read a lot, and they read reports, emails and even posters or notices actively. This means that they look at anything with a IMG_0443critical eye and decide whether it is good or bad.  If they decide a piece of writing is good, they anlyse what is it that makes it good (or effective or successful or enjoyable to read). If they decide a piece of writing is bad, they analyse what is it that makes it bad (or unsuccessful or boring or irritating to read). If something fails as a document, I will often try to work out how it could
be improved.

The picture above shows a notice that appears in the bathrooms of a leading hotel chain. What a mouth full! I think it would be much quicker and simpler to say something like:

This bath has been treated with a non-slip surface. But please ask for a bath mat if you need extra comfort and safety while you are taking a shower

A key step in developing your own abilities as a writer is to train yourself to identify the good features (which you will try to copy) and the bad features (which you will try to avoid) of any business document.

The points that you identify may be concerned with style, tone, content, user-friendliness, layout, design and language. By changing all the negatives to positives, you can come up with a list of quality criteria which you will try to meet in your own writing. For example, if ‘too many words on the page’ is a negative, then ‘page not overloaded with words’ is your standard style.

A group of writers who took part in this activity during a recent training workshop came up with the following list:


  • Page not overloaded with words
  • Appropriate use of colour in text
  • Plenty of white space
  • Looks appealing
  • Material split into paragraphs and topics

  • Jargon avoided
  • User friendly language
  • 1 idea per sentence
  • 1 topic per paragraph
  • Maximum of 5 sentences per paragraph.

  • Clear, logical layout
  • Fonts used are easy to read
  • Text highlighted using ‘icons’/boxes etc

  • Graphics such as pictures, photographs, diagrams, forms, tables help to break up the text and make it more ‘user- friendly’
  • Graphics are appropriate and

  • Purpose of the document clear
  • Logical structure
  • Contents listed to ease navigation
  • Additional material in appendices

  • Consistent use of capitalisation and hyphenation throughout
  • Correct grammar and spelling
  • Document written in plain English

You can use your own list in a number of ways:

  • Refer to it while you are writing to make sure that you are continuing to meet your own standards
  • Use it to review your first draft and to decide what changes need to be made
  • Refer to it when evaluating materials that you are editing or rewriting.
  • Use it as the basis for a personal or team style guide which you and your whole team will use to ensure accuracy and consistency in anything that you write.

Our lovely audio book Effective Business Writing for Success is packed with techniques and tips for becoming a better business writer. Find out more about this on our website.

What do you like or dislike about the reports, emails and business papers that you read? I’d love to hear about your pet loves and hates!


Posted by: wordsmithsuk | February 26, 2013

Cliches to avoid like the plague

Every year, the Buzzword report compiles a list of the overused and meaningless terms that PR people like to use in the hope of attracting journalists’ harassed-manattention and interest. But cliches and jargon usually have the opposite effect. In fact, they drive journalists crazy.  Earlier this year the report author, Hamish Thompson, asked 500 reporters and editors at national and regional newspapers, TV and radio for their examples of infuriating practice. Responses came from senior journalists at the BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sun, The Scotsman, The Financial Times, The Daily Mail and many more. Thompson concludes that a press release or email containing tired and meaningless terms like ‘awesome’, ‘going forward’, ‘reaching out’ or ‘heads up’ is more likely to end up in the waste bin rather than on the pages of the targeted newspaper or magazine.

Business writers can learn much from Thompson’s research. This is because readers will pay more attention to what we write if we avoid phrases like those in the following list:

  • Dynamic (likely not to be)
  • Paradigm (most people do not know what this means)
  • Elite (don’t use when referring to the best thing in Scunthorpe on a Thursday at 3pm)
  • Hotly anticipated (if reader is likely not to have heard of it)
  • End-user (use ‘customer’ instead)
  • Influencer (the person referred to is probably not)
  • Deliverables (use ‘products’ instead)
  • Icon/iconic (dated term – use before 01.01.01 or never)
  • Rocketed (don’t use  if the person or thing only made modest progress)
  • An astonishing x per cent (it rarely is astonishing)
  • Going forward (terrible cliche – use ‘in the future’)
  • Ongoing (‘a bit behind schedule’)
  • Optimised (use ‘enhanced’ or ‘improved’).

Words which are unnecessarily complex or fashionable do not make your text seem more important or impressive – they merely form a barrier between you and your readers. Wherever possible, stick to simple and familiar words. This does not mean patronising the reader by using words of one syllable, but using the most common and straightforward language to express what you want to say.

For more business writing tips check the Word Smiths’ website for details of our audio book Effective Business Writing for Success9780954886035

Posted by: wordsmithsuk | January 21, 2013

Revealing hidden verbs

A common problem in English is to use nouns instead of verbs in business writing. Sentences are much longer and harder to understand when actions Jigsaw iStock_000000136707are described with a noun and a verb instead of just a verb.

For example:

  • Give advice instead of advise.
  • Hold a discussion instead of discuss.
  • Give attention to instead of attend to.

Here are some examples of sentences with hidden verbs, and how they would look if they were rewritten with just verbs:

Not Instead
They took the decision to spend approximately £350,000. They decided to spend approximately £350,000.
Copies of this letter have been sent by post to Mr Edwards. I posted copies of this letter to Mr Edwards.
I have been in contact with the company I contacted the company
The association has expressed an intention that the accommodation will be improved. The association intends to improve the accommodation.
We have promised to effect improvements in the security system. We have promised to improve the security system.
We carried out a review of the project last week. We reviewed the project last week.
He carried out an appraisal of her work. He appraised her work.
The manager conducted an analysis of clients’ complaints. The manager analysed clients’ complaints.

There are a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to avoid such ‘hidden verbs:

  • They make the text sound dull, pompous and uninteresting
  • They conceal the action and make it seem as if nothing is happening in the sentence
  • Sentences with hidden verbs are much longer than those with pure verbs – so it takes longer to read them.

For more tips on business writing have a look at our high-praised audio book ‘Effective Business Writing for Success’. This book is great value. What’s more it comes with online exercises, document samples and a pdf of the text (for those who don’t enjoy listening to audio books).

Look for the details on our website

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