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Effective Business Writing: Know how to self-edit

The BEHQ Guide to Business Writing covers 5 essential areas you must master to write clearly and effectively. In brief, The BEHQ Guide is a valuable resource that explains how to:

  1. understand your focus,
  2. plan properly,
  3. structure your document,
  4. use appropriate writing style, and
  5. self-edit your writing.

Suppose you are the head of the human resources department at a large company. You receive a résumé – I prefer to use the accents – which includes the following sentence:

Hi, I’m intrested to here more about your compangy right now.

I’m working today in a furniture busness as a drawer.

What would you do? You might laughYou might wince. But I doubt you would hire the person.  The writer obviously did not respect the final phase of the business writing process: self-edit your writing. And it cost that person dearly.

Kenneth Davis, author of Business Writing and Communication, says that a good writer could spend on average 54 minutes writing a business letter. Twenty minutes (40%) would go for pre-writing or planning the letter, 10 minutes (20%) for writing it, and another 20 minutes (40%) for rewriting the text. The other four minutes would be for breaks.

Let’s now focus on the self-editing process, a key step in getting your message right and having the biggest impact on the reader. There are three phases in this process: revisingediting, and proofreading.

Much of what you read online mixes up these three stages. Revising, editing and proofreading are distinct steps with different purposes in the self-editing process. Nevertheless, in my experience they do overlap.

Revising has to do first with looking at the big picture and second with improving each paragraph. Editing, on the other hand, helps you to sharpen up your choice of words and sentence variety. And proofreading fixes up the mechanics of the document: grammar, spelling, punctuation and capitalization.

Revising

So you have completed the first draft of the business document. What do you do next?

You put aside the text for an hour or two or even until the next day. You go back to the text with fresh eyes and you read it aloud. Ask yourself whether the text clearly states the message and supports it with the right content. Then you look at paragraph unity, development, and coherence.

Looking at the whole document

Ask yourself if you:

  • State your purpose clearly,
  • Use the right tone,
  • Give enough background information or historical context to the reader,
  • Answer possible questions the reader may have,
  • Provide enough details and examples,
  • Include any useless information,
  • Bore the reader,
  • Ask the reader to take action or made a recommendation.
  • Need to share the document with an outside trusted reader for honest feedback, if the document has high importance.

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to make changes to the first draft of the document. You can add to, delete or modify parts of the text to improve it.

Looking at each paragraph

Ask yourself if paragraphs:

  • Fit well together in the overall organization of the document,
  • Follow some organizational principle, such as chronology, order of importance or problem to solution,
  • Have sufficient unity that includes a good topic sentence expressing one main idea,
  • Show adequate development with appropriate supporting details,
  • Flow smoothly with enough transitional expressions to guide the reader.
  • Include overviews at strategic points to summarize topics,
  • Are not too long (three to five sentences – the shorter the better for online reading) and include lists or subheadings

The AMA Handbook of Business Writing is a good example of a well-written and attractively presented guide to writing.

Editing

You are now satisfied with the overall overall text organization and paragraph development. It’s time to pay attention to your choice of words and sentence variety.

Write Better Essays in just 20 minutes a day has some great advice about editing your document.  It recommends you:

  • Eliminate an unnecessary words or phrases that weigh down sentences,
  • Cut out repetitive words or phrases,
  • Get rid of clichés, “ten-dollar” words, and confusing jargon,
  • Use active verbs,
  • Avoid ambiguous words or phrases,
  • Be consistent in verb tenses,
  • Identify clearly the antecedents of pronouns,
  • Use precise adjectives and adverbs,
  • Vary sentence length and structure (don’t always start sentences with main subject followed a verb).

Proofreading

It is not easy checking for mechanical errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization for both native and non-NE speakers of English.  You can begin with spelling and  grammar checkers to help you initially. But they won’t necessarily do a thorough job.

This is such a technical topic you are best to go to a good reference. The two previous books I referred to are good sources of information. Use a dictionary to check spelling – we’re using American spelling for BEHQ. I like to use The Free Dictionary.

Proofreading Checklist

Learn more about the following points on your own. Check for:

  1. Confusing words, such as affect (vb. to influence) vs. effect (n. a result) or Its (pronoun, belonging to) vs. it’s ( a contraction, it is),
  2. Sentence errors
    a) agreement between subjects and verbs,
    b) incomplete sentences (not a complete thought),
    c) run-ons (go on too long without proper punctuation)
    d) parallel construction (using similar grammatical structures – for example, nouns to start a list)
    e) redundancy (“the manager, he…”)
    f) incorrect modifiers (“Arriving late, the desk was empty.”)
  3. Punctuation does make a difference: “Eats shoots and leaves” is very different in meaning from “Eats, shoots and leaves.” Type the expression into Google to find out why.
    Know when to use the comma [,], semi-colon [;], hyphen [-], dash [–], parenthesis [( )], brackets [  ], apostrophe [‘], quotation marks [“ ..”], ellipsis marks [. . .], exclamation point [!] and italics.

Capitalization – English has simple rules to capitalize:

  1. the initial word of a sentence or direct quotation and the pronoun “I”,
  2. names of people, places and things,
  3. certain abbreviations and titles, for example, Frank Bonkowski, Ph.D.,
  4. languages, religions, nationalities,
  5. historical periods, days, months and holidays
  6. words in the title of a book, film, and work of art, but not the articles, prepositions or conjunctions.

Self-editing does not have to be hard, but that does not mean it is not absolutely essential. Poorly written prose can be the difference between closing a deal and losing a deal, between getting a job and losing a job. In essence, if you cannot write excellent English, you will not advance in your career. It’s a multi-national world that requires strong business English skills. I hope this introduction course helped you with this understanding. It is essential that you learn English.

We are always here to help. Don’t hesitate to ask.

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