I just read Bryan Garner’s new book on Better Business Writing, published by the Harvard Business Review.
Spoiler alert: it’s great.
Of course, I already considered Mr. Garner to be tops when it comes to explaining the eccentricities of the English language. His Garner’s Modern American Usage is a frequently thumbed-through volume on my shelf.
In this book, he teaches us how to craft our strange language into effective business communications. And he does it with his usual humor, brevity, and clarity.
In fact, Garner’s writing style stands as one giant example of what the book teaches: how to write clearly and convincingly. So even if you don’t retain all of the book’s content, it’ll do you good just to read it. Some of Garner’s wisdom is sure to sink in.
What to do and how to do it
The techniques Garner shares in this book get to the heart of creating readable, accessible text. Get to the point quickly. Keep your language simple. Show, don’t tell. Waste no words.
All good advice. And all illustrated with easy-to-understand examples.
But anyone who’s done a lick of writing knows that following simple rules like these can be dreadfully hard. Without meaning to, you find yourself writing 65-word-long sentences. Creating noun strings. Peppering your sentences with antecedent-less pronouns.
That’s why Garner’s inclusion of a step-by-step approach to writing is so helpful. He breaks the writing process into four stages: researching and brainstorming; organizing ideas; pouring your ideas onto paper quickly; and editing.
He says that separating writing from what should happen before (brainstorming and organizing) and what should happen after (judging and editing) makes the act itself much more productive. And what’s better, much less painful.
This advice is so important for budding writers, professional writers, and plain ol’ businessfolk who have to write stuff every day.
I’ve been writing this way for a couple of years, and it’s revolutionized the way I approach my work. I wish I knew about it years ago, when I first started out as a freelance writer. Heck, I wish I knew about it back in high school. It would have saved untold hours of sitting frozen at my IBM Selectric.
Please sir, can I have some more?
If I had to pick out one shortcoming in the book, it might be the section on common forms of business writing.
Only because the content is so good, and I’d like more of it.
Garner provides very specific tips for writing emails (“write a short but informative subject line”), letters (“use direct, personal language”), memos and reports (“summarize key specifics up front”), and performance evaluations (“pair general statements with examples that support them”).
I’d give my eyeteeth for similar tips on estimates, scopes of work, and proposals—business communications that I’m often stuck writing, and wondering if I’m doing right.
You are what you write
Garner opens his book with a strong statement about why writing well is important for businesspeople, whether or not they are “professional writers.”
“If [your writing] is sloppy, [others] may assume your thinking is the same. And if you fail to convince them that they should care about your message, they won’t care. They may even decide you’re not worth doing business with. The stakes are that high.”
As someone who’s a copywriter and responsible for growing our company, I take Garner’s words seriously. I’ve seen clients react well to thoughtfully written, clearly organized proposals. And I’ve seen their dismay at receiving work that’s shoddy or that doesn’t meet their needs.
Come to think of it, I’d better supplement my own copy of Better Business Writing with a few copies for my staff. Our writers know how to craft copy with kick—but a new voice in our lifelong affair with words always helps.
Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial.