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The Changing World of Business Writing
By Jane Watson   Printer Friendly Version

Typewriters. Personal secretaries knowledgeable in grammar. Shorthand. Dictionaries on desks. Photocopiers. Fax machines. Computers. Unit secretaries. Personal computers. Lap tops. Spell checkers. Grammar checkers. E-mails. Internet.

These are only a few of the changes in the resources available to the business world that have had a major impact on writing styles. From the early 1920s to the '70s, a manager would dictate a letter to his secretary who would type it and send it out. The letter would be written in a verbose style aimed at impressing the reader with the sender's education and literary style. And because a third party was involved-the secretary- it tended to be rather impersonal.

Then in the early '80s we were hit with a recession. North American business strategies changed and companies became leaner and stream-lined. In turn, readers wanted their correspondence to match. They no longer wanted to take the time to sort through wordy, stilted messages. They didn't want irrelevant details but were more focused on "the facts, just the facts."

This desire was further reinforced by the amount of paper crossing readers' desks. Between 1982 and 1992 the reading material of business people-letters, memos, reports, faxes-increased 600 per cent. Today's readers don't have the time to absorb convoluted messages. They want to read a message just once and know precisely what they should do next. Sentences such as "Kindly execute the attached documents and return them at your earliest convenience to the undersigned at the above address" are no longer appropriate. They are too vague and have the readers' eyes roving all over the page to pick up the details.

A key idea to remember is that in the '80s, a writer wrote about his interests or what he wanted the reader to know. However, an experienced communicator in the '90s should write about what the reader needs to know.


This brings us to tone or how the message is delivered. Whether you are communicating internally with staff or externally with customers, today's readers expect to be treated with courtesy and in a friendly fashion.

How can you do this? Write as though you were speaking to the reader. Explain what you can do, rather than what you can't. If you are listing features, include benefits. Use the active voice. Include the reader's name. And use words that would not used in normal conversation. For example, I doubt if any human resources person would ever say, "A prompt reply will expedite consideration of the student's application." Then why write it?

Write as though you're speaking-assuming you speak in a grammatically correct fashion.


Grammar is making a come-back. In the past, many managers depended on their secretaries to correct their spelling or punctuation errors. However, because of down sizing, right sizing or re-engineering personal secretaries are rare.

For the most part, white collar workers are now expected to use computers and input, revise and edit their own correspondence and reports.

Surprisingly, this hasn't meant that grammar rules are slipping. Individuals are now paying more attention to their own correspondence. And more and more executives are requesting grammar workshops, reference books or software programs to keep themselves accurate.

Computer Software Packages

Software packages have been a mixed blessing to business writing. Nowadays, you can check spelling, grammar and readability levels with your computer. However, you can't rely on them exclusively. Documents must still be proofread manually as well as electronically because spell checkers can't catch words that are spelled correctly but are misused, such as its versus it's and deer instead of dear.

In addition, grammar packages can indicate errors, and readability indexes can point out the ease or difficulty of the reading level, but for most people the packages don't provide enough information on how to solve the problem.

In Summary

Writing is not static. It constantly changes to match the changes in resources, society, technology and business. Smart communicators are the ones who recognize that keeping their language skills on the leading edge will mean success for themselves and their organizations.

*An excerpt from her book Write On! published by Self-Counsel Press.

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