Business Writing Tip #99—Checklist for Organising Paragraphs

Right, I promised you a checklist to help you make sure you’ve planned and organised your writing well. First we’ll look at individual paragraphs, and then at the overall structure. You might not need to consider all of these points for every piece of writing you do, but it’s worth checking them all so that you don’t miss anything.

So here goes… ( a downloadable pdf version of the checklist is available here)

When you’re thinking about paragraphs:

YES

NO

  • Does the paragraph have a topic sentence? (Note: not all paragraphs have a topic sentence. Sometimes the topic sentence is implied, but be careful if you do this and make sure you are making life easy for your reader.)
  • What is the main idea of the paragraph? (Even if the topic sentence is not explicitly stated, you should be able to work out the main idea based on the information in the paragraph.)
  • Do all the sentences in the paragraph support the main idea?
  • How are the sentences in the paragraph organised? Are they chronological, examples, etc? Make sure you are only using one scheme in each paragraph. That is, don’t mix up timelines and examples, contrasts and emphasis.)
  • Is this the most effective way to organise them?
  • Are there any sentences that don’t follow the organisation or that just don’t flow logically?
And when you’re thinking about the structure of the piece overall…    
Does the piece of writing have an organised structure (an introduction; body and conclusion)?
Introduction    
  • Does the introduction seem helpful for the reader as a signpost to the whole piece of writing?
  • Does it explain the focus of the piece of work and your position on this?
  • Does it explain why the reader should be interested and the relevance of the research you have done?
Body/Body paragraphs    
  • Is there an overall general to specific organisation?
  • Have you arranged the material logically?
  • Do points within and over paragraphs follow logically?
  • Is it clear how paragraphs are related to each other?
  • Does each paragraph start a new theme or sub-theme?
  • Does each sentence make sense and does it relate to the sentence before it?
  • Have you used signposting language so that the essay flows? (Signposting language signals key parts of your writing such as the purpose, structure, your position, the main points, conclusions, etc.)
  • Is there a satisfying ending?
Conclusion    
  • Does it remind the reader of the piece of writing’s most important features?
  • Does the conclusion cover only what you proposed in the introduction and expanded on in the body? (It’s not the place to introduce additional material.)

 

Business Writing Tip #98—Organising Your Paragraphs

Way back in Tip #45 I talked about paragraphs and how they help make your text more readable. They organise the text for the reader.

I wrote that paragraphs are a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic, and in that post I talked about topic sentences.

Today I want to talk about how you can organise your ideas within a paragraph. It is important to organise the details that support your topic sentence. Four common ways of organising details are:

  1. Comparison/contrast—the writer provides details which show similarities and/or highlight differences
  2. Examples—the writer uses an example or illustration in support of the main point
  3. Emphasis—the writer organises the details in order of their importance, or from the most general to the most specific
  4. Chronological—the writer orders the events in the order in which they occurred

Some useful words and phrases for each category

Compare/ContrastComparison: in the same way, similarly, likewise, also, by comparison, in a like manner, as, with, as though, both, like, just as
Contrast: but, in contrast, despite, however, instead, nevertheless, on the contrary, in spite of, still, yet, unlike, even so, rather than, otherwise
ExamplesTo illustrate this point, let’s take the example of, for instance, for example, such as, in particular, particularly, especially
EmphasisMoreover, furthermore, in addition, not only...but, above all, indeed, naturally, clearly, obviously, needless to say
ChronologicalWhen, as soon as, the moment, on hearing ..., from the beginning of the year, throughout the life of the project, to start with, up to that time, first of all, first, in the first place, after this/that, afterwards, then, next, secondly, thirdly, finally, next, last but not least

Next time I’ll post a checklist to help you make sure you have planned and organised your writing appropriately.

 

 

Business Writing Tip #97— Moods and Tenses

smilingIn English we have three tenses—the past, the present and the future. There are, just to make life interesting, variations on these to indicate whether actions are continuous or not, or when they happened in relation to something else, and the like. These are about the division of time. Of course it’s not just about being more interesting; it’s about being more precise. But more on tenses another time.

Many people confuse tenses with moods. You see, we also have moods in English.

Now I’m not talking bad moods, or snappy moods here. I’m talking about the three simple moods—the Indicative, the Imperative and the Subjunctive.

The mood that we use depends on how we are using the verb—the mode, or manner.

Indicative

This is the mood we use to indicate, or declare, something, or to ask a simple question.

‘The people employed by this company enjoy working here.’

‘Do they like it here?’

Imperative

This is when we tell someone to do something.

Finish this report first before you start working on the meeting minutes.’

Go away.’

Subjunctive

The final mood is the subjunctive. This is used when we want to express doubt, supposition or uncertainty, or when some future action depends upon a contingency.

‘He would not have failed his licensing examination if he had not been ill.’ (progressive subjunctive).

‘If I were to cancel the meeting tomorrow, would it be too difficult for you to reschedule it to a day next week?’

We don’t use the subjunctive much in English these days—and it is more common in written English than in spoken English. There’s quite a useful summary of the subjunctive and its use on the BBC Learning English website.

Note

Some books also include the infinitive as a mood. The infinitive, or ‘to’ form, is the verb in its broadest sense with no reference to who, where or when.

Business Writing Tip #96—Business Letters

business envelopesYou’ve probably heard of the information explosion. I saw some figures the other day that said a Google search on the words ‘coffee cup’ resulted in 16 million hits in 2011. The same search yielded 130 million hits in 2013.

For your readers, this means that they don’t have much time to read what you’ve written and highlights that you need to be clear and concise. Your readers are willing to put in time to read what you’ve written so long as it is relevant and to the point.

How formal should a business letter be?

Business writing used to be very formal. Now formal language is usually restricted to legal documents, and even in these the guidelines are changing and people are moving towards plain English. At the other end of the spectrum email messages are often very informal.

A business letter will usually be somewhere between formal and informal—sorry, that statement probably doesn’t really help you!

If it’s too formal, you might alienate your readers. It won’t feel as though you have written to them.

If it’s too casual, you may be seen as unprofessional or, even worse, insincere.

I suggest you strive for neutral.

What about ‘We’ and ‘I’?

One question I’m often asked is whether we should use ‘we’ or ‘I’ in business letters.

When you’re talking about yourself, use ‘I’.

  • I am writing to let you know that a team of five will be attending the session.

When you’re writing about the company, use ‘we’.

  • We are unable to go ahead with the project this year, but hope to be able to schedule it for 2015.

Be careful here. When you use ‘we’ and you’re writing on company letterhead, you are making a commitment on behalf of the company.

Other things to consider

  • Make sure you know who you are writing to.
  • Know why you are writing—if you are answering a query, make sure you answer it.
  • Use active voice whenever possible.
  • Be specific.
  • Write clearly and make sure your message is understandable—get someone else to check it before you send it if you can.
  • Make sure any attachments you’ve said are included are sent with the letter.
  • Proof read it before sending.

Effective Writing for the Web (5): Meaningful Headlines

headlinesWhen it comes to web copy, I’ve mentioned that you want to put the text in short sections and that you want to make it easy for someone to scan, right?

Headlines, that is meaningful headlines, help people decide if they’re going to read the content or not. In some contexts these are also referred to as headings. Take your pick.

The important thing is that because they are a tool to help your reader, in my view they are pretty much essential.

What do I mean when I say meaningful?

When I talk about meaningful headlines, I’m referring to two things:

  1. The headline states what is coming—it introduces the main topic (like the headline above. When you read this you know the next section of the text will be about what I mean when I write ‘meaningful’.)
  2. The meaning of the headline needs to be clear. Ambiguity is rife in headlines—you may have seen Facebook posts, blog posts, etc. packed with funny headlines. A couple of years ago my sister gave me a book which includes a couple of great examples of what I mean:
    1. Tiny babies do worse in exams
    2. New housing for elderly not yet dead

And then there’s my personal favourite seen in Dubai a few years ago:

Lack of facilities in schools to hit children

When you’re writing your copy, keep thinking about your reader and how they will be reading your words on the screen. Use headlines to break up blocks of text and as signposts to the content that is to come. Do this and your reader will thank you for it and you’ll have taken another step towards effective web writing.

Effective Writing for the Web (4): Keep it Simple

Who is reading?

It’s interesting to think about who might be reading the content we write for the web. It might be friends and family, or complete strangers, personal or business contacts.

In User Interface Design (UX Design), UX designers use personas to help them picture their users to make it easier for them to keep their users in mind while designing. You can use personas for writing as well. You may have a few different personas, each representing a group of your typical users, or readers. I’ll talk about personas and how to develop them in a future post.personas

At this stage I want to highlight that many of your readers may not use English as their first language; they may have different levels of education and varied levels of knowledge about your topics. You want to reach as many of them as you can and one of the best ways to do this is by keeping it simple.

A few guidelines

  • Write your content as though you’re having a conversation with your reader, maybe in a coffee shop or a bar. Picture them standing next to you.
  • Avoid using jargon. A lot of people don’t understand it, and you don’t want them leaving your page every sentence to look up a dictionary.
  • Use short sentences, and short paragraphs. Use short words.
  • Follow Plain English guidelines.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll also make it easy for people to skim read your content.

Of course, you may want to provide more comprehensive content on occasion. This is often best provided as a downloadable document so people can choose to look at the full information if they are interested.

Remember; make it easy for your reader to understand the important information and to know what they need to do next and you’ll be well on your way to effective web writing.

 

Effective Writing for the Web (3): How we read

Different ways of reading

We read in different ways depending on what we are reading.

If you are reading a novel, you might be caught up in the action and reading quickly, or drawn to beautiful language and reading slowly. When you read technical material about a subject you’re not very familiar with your reading speed will probably slow markedly. When you’re reading a report to find specific recommendations you may just quickly skim through the document looking at headings and reading summaries, unless it’s important for you to know all the detail.books 1 (480x640)ipad

Most times when people are reading on the web they are trying to get the information that they need as quickly as possible (although there will be exceptions to this).

What does this mean for you as a writer who is writing for the web?

When you are writing for the web, you really need to know:

  • Who you are writing for, and
  • Why you are writing.

If you want someone to take action as a result of something you have written you must be clear about what you want them to do. You want them to be able to work out what they have to do quickly.

For example, if you need someone to click a button to order a product, you probably won’t include something like this:

“If, after reading this text, you feel that you are ready to order product XYZ, and if you are absolutely certain, you should click on the green button on the right side of the screen—the one under the pretty picture. This will take you to our order form where you will complete all of your personal details and tell us how you would like to make the purchase. You will then have an opportunity to review your order and blah blah blah…”

When did you stop reading?

How about “Click here to order now” printed in a legible font on the button they need to click? Much easier, isn’t it?

So when you’re writing for the web you need to think about:

  • What you’re writing,
  • What it’s for,
  • Who it’s for,
  • What you need your readers to do, and
  • What information they need to do what you want them to do.

Make it easy for your reader to know what action you want them to take and you’ll be well on your way to effective web writing.

Effective Writing for the Web (2): Web versus Print

Reading on the Web versus Reading in Print

You may feel that this point is obvious, and to many of you it will be, but I’m sure there are others who may not have considered the differences between reading online and reading paper-based materials.cover image

The basic difference is that you will be reading from a different physical object.

When you read print content on paper it might be books, magazines, newspapers or reports. You will normally read straight through from the front to the back (although there are exceptions to this).

When you read online you might be using a desktop computer, a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet. You will be moving from page to page, or screen to screen, often quite rapidly.

Another major difference is the amount of fatigue your eyes will suffer. Reading on paper is much less tiring for your eyes than reading on a screen, which is usually backlit.

Think about this when you’re writing and make sure that your words will translate into easy-to-read text on the screen. Your readers will thank you for it.

Effective Writing for the Web (1): Introduction

Why is Web Writing Different?

When you write for the web, you are writing for people to read your words on a screen. Not on paper. This has an impact on how you write.

Think about how you read something on a screen. Chances are you scan the material. You look for headings that indicate that there is content you are interested in. You may read more quickly than you do when you read words on paper.Web

These fundamental differences in how people read on the web mean that you have to write differently.

Staying on Track

One overriding thought can help keep you on track. Always remember that your reader is reading the material on a screen.

Of course, as with any writing, you have to write to your audience. You have to use the language that your users use and are familiar with. You have to provide content that is interesting and useful for the users.

In this series of posts, we will look at different aspects of web writing and I will give you tips based on my experience and research.

Basic Principles

To kick off the series, I want to start with five basic principles:

  • Get to the point quickly
  • Use a concise, simple writing style
  • Write in plain English
  • Use short, relatively simple sentences and short paragraphs
  • Use active voice, rather than passive voice.

Keep these in mind when you’re writing for the web and you’re on your way to effective web writing.