Business Writing Tip #51—Abbreviations

Recently a friend contacted me and asked, ‘Is it am and pm, or a.m. and p.m., or A.M. and P.M. or AM and PM?’

Turns out, it doesn’t really matter which set of abbreviations you choose when you’re talking about time. What matters is that you are consistent. So if you choose ‘am’, then you use ‘pm’. If you choose ‘A.M.’, then it’s also ‘P.M.’, and so it goes on …abbreviation wordle

But not all abbreviations come with this degree of flexibility. It’s not so much that there are ‘rules’. It’s more that people have agreed, over time, on some common usages.

Here are a few guidelines to help you out:

  • For job titles where the first few letters are written and the rest of the word omitted, we usually put a full stop at the end—Rev. for Reverend, Prof. for Professor
  • If an abbreviation uses the first and last letters of a word, we usually OMIT the full stop—Dr for Doctor, Ltd for Limited
  • Many abbreviations which used to take include full stops, have lost those in modern usage—UK for United Kingdom (not U.K.), USA for the United States of America (not U.S.A.), BBC for the British Broadcasting Corporation (not B.B.C.), NHS not N.H.S., CD not C.D., D J Trost not D.J. Trost, etc.
  • When you are using an abbreviation which is likely to be unfamiliar to your readers, spell out the full word or words first and include the abbreviation in brackets, then use the abbreviation for the rest of the document.

The important thing is to be consistent. I know I mentioned the idea of using a style guide in a previous blog post. If you are preparing a style guide for your organization, it’s important to include abbreviations in it.

Oh, and another thing. If your sentence ends with an abbreviation and you’ve decided to use full stops, only put one full stop, not two.

Hope this helps.

 

Business Writing Tip #50—Which or That?

witchI often get asked, “When should I use ‘which’ and when should I use ‘that’?”

To explain this, I need to describe the difference between restrictive clauses and non-restrictive clauses. If you’ve never heard of these, please don’t panic.

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses do what they say they do.

Restrictive

A restrictive clause restricts the noun. You can’t get rid of it. It gives vital information about what you’re talking about.

Restrictive clauses start with ‘that’. The word ‘that’, for those of you who like to name things, is a defining or restrictive pronoun.

Think about the following:

Staff that are designated First Aid Officers must attend the training.

If we take away the words ‘that are designated First Aid Officers’ we are left with all staff. The sentence has a completely different meaning. The sentence is no longer true. It becomes:

Staff must attend the training.

Here’s another example:

Dogs that bark at night drive me crazy.

What happens if I take away ‘that bark at night’? I’m left with a sentence which just isn’t true. I’m left with:

Dogs drive me crazy.

Non-restrictive

Non-restrictive clauses provide additional information about something, but can be left out without changing the sentence’s meaning.

The memo, which is on my desk, includes all the details of the training.

The non-restrictive clause gives you additional information about the memo, but it doesn’t define it. If I take it away the sentence is still true.

The memo includes all the details of the training.

What happens if we use ‘that’ in this sentence?

The memo that is on my desk includes all the details of the training.

This new sentence indicates exactly which memo I am referring to—it defines it.

Here’s another example.

The dog, which was barking, was in the backyard.

In this sentence, ‘which was barking’ adds a fact about the only dog we are talking about. If I take it away, I still have a true sentence.

The dog was in the backyard.

Try it again with ‘that’.

The dog that was in the backyard was barking.

This sentence tells you which dog was barking. It defines it.

Punctuation

If you’ve looked closely at the examples sentences you will have noticed that when we use ‘which’ we use commas. We don’t use commas with ‘that’.

Summary

Use ‘that’ when you can’t get rid of the information and ‘which’ when you can.

Business Writing Tip #49—Ensure your work is ‘typo-free’

It’s easy to make a mistake when you’re typing. Our fingers often struggle to keep up with our brains and, in their rush, miss out words or type the wrong words. Some of the typos can be quite funny. But in business writing, being funny is not your aim.

Business writing errors can be embarrassing and they can be expensive. A typing error in a contract could mean a lost lawsuit.

A country pumpkin!

A country pumpkin!

Here are a few tips to help you make sure your writing is ‘typo-free’.

  1. Ask someone else to read it and check it. Fresh eyes will often catch errors.
  2. If you know that you regularly mistype certain letter combinations or words, use your word processing software’s auto-correct feature. It will fix the error for you.
  3. Check your copy on a printed version rather than on the screen. It is often easier to see an error on a page than on a screen.
  4. Make sure you have time to put your writing aside for a couple of hours before you have to submit it. This helps you to look at it with a clear mind and focus on what you have actually written, rather than what you think you have written.
  5. Read it aloud. When you read aloud you have to read every word. And when you read every word you are more likely to be able to see any mistakes you might have made. Look at each word, maybe even using a pen or pencil to point to them as you read.
  6. Focus on one proofreading task at a time. Read the work through once for spelling. Read it again thinking about the punctuation. Read it again focusing on the grammar.
  7. Remember to check that your spelling is consistent. If you are using UK spelling, use it throughout. If you’ve chosen to go with US spelling, remember to go with it all the way. There’s no excuse for ‘centre’ on one page and ‘center’ on another.
  8. Watch out for homonyms. There are so many words that sound the same in English, but look different. Did you mean to type ‘there’, or should it be ‘their’? What about ‘four’ and ‘for’?
  9. Watch out for added, substituted and missed letters. Have you typed ‘your’ instead of ‘you’, ‘tin’ instead of ‘tint’? Your spellchecker won’t recognise that these are wrong. A friend of mine once referred to a ‘country pumpkin’ in a university history essay…

Business Writing Tip #48—Avoid Shifting the Point of View

The point of view is the perspective you are writing from. You might be writing about what you did (first person), you might be addressing someone else (second person) or you might be writing from someone else’s, or a neutral, point of view (third person).Lennon Wall (9)

First person is when you write from your own perspective:

  • I finished the report this morning.

Second person is about you

  • You finished the report this morning, didn’t you?

Third person is about someone else

  • She/they finished the report this morning.

If you start a sentence in the first person, finish it in the first person. Same goes for second and third person points of view.

Wrong: If a person wants to run faster, you should train more. (This sentence shifted from third person to second person.)
Better: If you want to run faster, you should train more. (second person)
  If people want to run faster, they should train more. (third person)
  If we want to run faster, we should train more. (first person)
Wrong: I enrolled in a course for the next semester and you have to complete three assignments. (shift from first person to second person)
Better: I enrolled in a course for the next semester and I have to complete three different assignments. (first person)

 

 

Business Writing Tip #47—Writing a Summary

Sometimes at work you will need to write a summary. You may need to create an executive summary for a report, or to summarise a meeting. You may need to summarise some of your reading material to present to colleagues.summary

But how do you go about it? Here are some steps that you can use to create a summary.

  1. Create an outline. To produce an effective outline read the content that you are summarizing and divide it into sections using headings and subheadings. As you are reading your notes or source material highlight key points and statements. Take note of any sentences that themselves summarise the piece. Also mark any passages that have too much detail or are off-topic. This creates visual cues—it will remind you of what to include and what to leave out when you get down to the writing task.
  2. For each section you have identified write just once sentence that outlines the main point of that section (key sentence). Remember to look at any summary sentences that you identified. They can be very helpful. And remember to ignore the parts you marked as too detailed or off-topic.
  3. Use these sentences to write an introductory sentence which says what the summary is about.
  4. Using your introductory sentence, headings and key sentences as the bare bones of your skeleton, add some flesh. Start writing your summary using transitional words and sentences. Paraphrase the main ideas from the original material. If you include direct quotes, make sure it is clear that they are quotes and where they come from.
  5. Check your summary.
    1. Make sure your summary is shorter than the original material. If it’s not, it’s not a summary!
    2. Check that you have included the main ideas.
    3. Check your spelling and grammar.
    4. Ask someone else to read it as well to make sure the summary makes sense

Business Writing Tip #46—Bullets

When you’re using bulleted lists it is important to keep the grammar consistent.bullet

Usually a bulleted list is introduced by a phrase. The text after the bullet should combine with the phrase to form a coherent whole.

On our holiday we

  • Visited the National Museum.
  • Spent time on the beach.
  • Walked in the mountains.
  • Eating lots of good food.
  • Visiting friends.

The last two bullets should read:

  • Ate lots of good food.
  • Visited friends.

You might be talking about an upcoming meeting. At the meeting we are going to discuss

  • The work schedule for the next two weeks.
  • Resource allocation for the new project.
  • Plans for the team building activity next week.

You will often see a colon (:) after the initial phrase. When the text after the bullet combines with that phrase to form a sentence that doesn’t require a colon, don’t use one. Also, put a full stop at the end of each bullet.

Here are two examples of how the bullets work as sentences from the text above.

On our holiday we visited the National Museum.

At the meeting we are going to discuss the work schedule for the next two weeks.

When the phrase introduces a list and the bullets don’t combine with the introductory text to form a sentence, use a colon, and avoid putting a full stop at the end of each bullet.

The successful candidate will have the following qualities:

  • Strong written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to manage own workload
  • Demonstrated decision-making skills

I hope that’s clear. It’s one of writing’s finer points…you will see many variations. In the end It really all comes down to consistency. For me, the rules help…

Business Writing Tip #45—Paragraphs

Paragraphs help make your text readable by organizing your text.

But what exactly is a paragraph?

It’s a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.

The rule of thumb is one idea per paragraph. You might start with a statement and then provide some supporting evidence. To make sure your sentences belong, when you’re looking at the sentences in your paragraphs ask the question: Do these sentences relate to the overall topic of the paragraph?

Watch out for the flow of the paragraph. Use transition words to join the sentences together and to make it clear to your reader just how each sentence relates to the next. This is particularly important in long paragraphs.

Perhaps the most important sentence in each paragraph is your topic sentence. This is the sentence that tells your reader what you are dealing with in the paragraph. Not all paragraphs have topic sentences, and sometimes they may be in the middle, or at the end, of a paragraph. But if you want to make things easy for your reader, then I suggest you put the topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.

To illustrate how useful this can be let me tell you a little story. Some years ago I attended a speed reading course. If you don’t know about these courses, they teach a variety of techniques to help you quickly find your way through articles, books, magazines, reports and the like. On this course the trainer told me, “When you are reading a well-written book, if you just read the first sentence of every paragraph, you will read the most important information.”

Now, of course this doesn’t mean that the rest of the information isn’t important. But it’s a good shortcut when you’re in a hurry.

So when you’re writing, think about how much material your readers are reading, and make life easy for them. Organise your ideas and write good paragraphs.

Your readers will thank you.

This is the same text as this blog posting. Which is easier to read?

This is the same text as this blog posting. Which is easier to read?