The Byrne Blog

John Byrne Communicating About Communications

When it comes to writing about writing, especially on the Interwebs, there is this tendency to start giving advice, like some latter-day Dear Abby:  Do this, don’t do that.  You’ll look stupid if you don’t use “educated-sounding” words.  You’ll look dumb if you do.  Every time you use passive voice, a puppy dies.  And so on, and so on.  You’ve read those articles or blog posts, whether you stumbled upon them or went looking for them.  Of course, these dispatches wouldn’t be useful if they also weren’t distilled into 5 or 7 or 10 “tips” that you’ll always remember, and never forget.

Well, here’s my tip:  forget the tips.  Good writing is good writing, even in a business setting.  You know it when you read it.  It is sometimes flavored by passive voice.  Occasionally it doesn’t involve complete sentences.  Like this one.  And, it can include sentences that start with conjunctions (gasp!) and end with prepositions, depending on what you’re writing about.  Sparkling adjectives and really mundane adverbs are used.  To gratuitously split an infinitive is allowed.  There are other sacrifices made to the grammar gods; punctuation prima donnas are not invited.

Writing is not math, thank goodness.  There are no specific formulas to follow or equations to solve.  Yes, there are some rules, but slavish adherence to them does not produce the best results, similar to how some of the best musical performances don’t always follow the strictest confines of tempo or pitch.

Wait a sec, you say.  That’s all well and good for creative writing or fiction writing, but what if I need to communicate in the world of business?  Creativity is not welcome, or perhaps even desired, right?  Well, maybe yes.  Wild and crazy creativity is not something you probably want in a variety of business circumstances, especially when it comes to things like accounting or human resources policies.  Lord knows, getting creative with numbers has gotten a lot of people into a lot of trouble over the years.

So, because this is a blog post and I can’t help myself, here’s my tip: When it comes to writing — business or otherwise — you should start by asking these two questions: 

1. Who is your audience?
2. What do you want to tell them? 

Once you answer them, then communicate with your audience clearly and, usually, concisely. Yes, there are a lot more questions you could ask and answer before you’re done, but I’ve found that most people forget these two crucial points and launch right into a lot of profoundly bad writing.

If you really want some in-depth writing advice, rules and even a half-dozen tips, I suggest you read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which can be found here.  No surprise, I like Orwell’s last tip the best: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”  Truer words…

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