Business Writing Tip #148—Improve Your Proofreading

There was a time, not so many years ago, when our word processing programs were not as sophisticated and helpful as they are now. There was a time when we had to ask the program to run a spell check.

Then the software boffins decided to enhance the programs so that a squiggly red line would appear under words we had misspelt.

Great. That will save us time and effort proofreading, won’t it?

Maybe not.

Our subconscious brains are clever. They know what we meant to write. They string our words together for us without us having to think too hard. The problem occurs when we want to make sure that we have typed what we wanted to type.

Have you ever read, and re-read, something only to find that days later you spot an error which you had completely missed? Your brain will often read what it thinks you wrote.

Add in the effect of the helpful red squiggles and we are even more likely to miss some errors. Our subconscious knows we need to look at these words. They’ve been flagged for us. But when we proofread in MSWord, or another program that provides helpful squiggles, our brains automatically seem to focus on the highlighted errors, and may miss others.

We all know that spell checks don’t pick up all of the errors that people make when typing. If I type ‘peace’ when I mean ‘piece’, or ‘form’ when I mean ‘from’, the spell check doesn’t know to include a red squiggle.

I start proofreading, carefully looking at each word, but the more I do, the more my brain tunes in to the squiggles, and the more likely it is that I won’t notice some errors.

So, what’s the solution?

One solution is to print the document and proofread the paper version. Our eyes seem to see mistakes more easily on paper than they do on a screen.

But Kirsty Stuart of Freelancer Writers Online has another tip. She suggests you create a adobe-27964_1280 pdf icon imagepdf version of the document. It will look more like a printed document and, somehow, mistakes will be easier to find. Ms Stuart isn’t quite sure why this works, and I’m not sure either, but it does. My best guess is that our brains aren’t led astray because there aren’t any red squiggly lines.

Go on, give it a try. I’d love to hear if it works for you.

Happy writing.


Business Writing Tip #147—Writing Numbers

Business documents often include numbers. When these are included in tables or diagrams it’s usually clear that we should use numerals. But when it comes to passages of text it can sometimes be difficult to know whether to spell out the number of use a numeral.

If you work for an organisation that has a documented house style follow this, but if you don’t have house style, here are some suggestions to help you.numbers wordle

I’ve included some correct and some incorrect versions. The incorrect versions are in red; the correct versions are in green.


If a sentence starts with a number, spell it out. Don’t use a numeral at the beginning of a sentence.

  • Twenty new positions will be created in the new business unit, with another 5 being added in the sales & marketing department.

If you are referring to a unit of measurement, and you are using an abbreviation, use a numeral.

  • 20 km or 300 kg

Use numerals to write percentages and follow them with the word ‘percent’.

  • 20 percent
  • The exception is if it occurs at the beginning of a sentence when it would be Twenty percent.

If you have two numerals one after the other and they are unrelated, reword the sentence to separate them.

  • In 2014, 45 new positions were created in the company.
  • Forty-five new positions were created in the company in 2014.
  • In 2014, the company created 45 new positions.

In most cases spell out integers (whole numbers) from one to nine. For other integers that can be written with one or two words, you can use either numerals or words, but make sure you are consistent. Use numerals for all other numbers (unless they are the beginning of a sentence).

  • forty or 40
  • fifty-six or 56
  • five hundred or 500

For comparable quantities, either spell them all out, or use all numbers.

  • 3 engineers and 5 project managers (not three engineers and 5 project managers)
  • 7 women and 3 men (not 7 women and three men)
  • There were 2 deaths and 104 injuries in the recent building collapse. (not two deaths and 104 injuries)

For adjacent non-comparable quantities, use different formats.

  • The course will consist of five 90-minute sessions.
  • The course will consist of 5 ninety-minute sessions.
  • NOT ‘5 90-minute sessions’ or ‘five ninety-minute sessions’

Use numerals for page and chapter numbers.

Use numerals for years and dates.

For currency, use numerals, except for large numbers where you can use a combination or numerals and words. For example, $5 million or €50 billion. Again, make sure you are consistent.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #146—The Long and the Short of It

absalom - longest sentence

This book contains a sentence which, at 1,288 words, is believed to be the longest sentence in English literature.

Variety is the spice of life. This proverb may seem clichéd, but as with all clichés there is an element of truth in it, particularly when we talk about sentence length. If you want your writing to be boring and to send people to sleep, use the same sentence length and structure for each sentence.

What is a sentence?

A sentence is a group of words and marks that includes a subject, which may be implied, a verb, and a final punctuation mark. Sentences can be short, or longer, or somewhere in between.

Here are some short sentences:

  • You went.

The word ‘You’ is the subject, ‘went’ is the verb, and then there’s a full stop (period).

  • Go!

Again ‘you’ are the subject, but this time it’s implied. ‘Go’ is the verb, and then, because it’s an imperative, there’s an exclamation mark.

In previous posts I’ve claimed that it is good to write shorter sentences rather than longer ones in business writing. We do this to make sure that our meaning is clear, and so that we don’t confuse our readers. But, that said, we don’t want all of our sentences to be the same length. If they are all short our writing can seem very choppy.

The key is variety. Humans like variety in most things, and sentence length is no exception.

Look at this paragraph.

  • The photocopier needs replacing. It is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. Three new models were assessed. We recommend buying the XYZ model.

See what I mean? Definitely choppy.

How to fix writing with too many short sentences

  • The photocopier needs replacing because it is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. We assessed three new models and recommend that we buy the XYZ model.

This is the same content, but it’s far more interesting to read. In this version I’ve joined short sentences with the conjunctions ‘because’ and ‘and’.

Another way to join short sentences is to change one of them, if appropriate, to a subordinate clause.

  • The photocopier, which is not producing clear copies any more, needs replacing.

Why write short sentences?

Short sentences are not always wrong. Use a short sentences if you want to

  • Capture your readers’ attention.
  • Emphasise an important point.
  • Help your readers read the text quickly.

But what about long sentences?

We come up against some common problems when they’re not written carefully. One of the main ones is that writers use pronouns to replace other words and to avoid repetition, but in long sentences, it is not always clear which noun the pronoun is replacing.

  • The chairperson and the meeting attendees agreed on the proposal that the students, faculty and general public should have access to the resources, but they were not sure how to do this.

In this sentence, it is not completely clear who was not sure—is it the chairperson and the meeting attendees? Probably. But it might have been the students, faculty and general public. With sentences like this our readers have to work hard to try and find out what we meant to write.

Another challenge when we have a number of long sentences, one after the other, is that our writing can seem dull. Sometimes business writers are tempted to turn verbs into nouns, and to use the passive voice. Both of these practices tend to result in longer sentences which are more difficult to read.

But, how much variety is enough?

I hate to admit it, but there’s no definitive answer to this question. I suggest that, when you’ve finished drafting, you take a good, hard look at your sentences lengths. Is there variety? Read your writing aloud and listen to how it sounds. The more you do this, the more you will be able to ‘hear’ when you have a problem.


Business Writing Tip #145—There’s a Time and Place for That

IMG_1461Did you know there are over 100 prepositions in English? This means there’s plenty of scope to get them wrong.

My English students often struggle with these tricky little words, particularly when it comes to prepositions of place and prepositions of time. Sometimes native speakers get them wrong too. I’ve searched through textbooks, unsuccessfully, looking for a simple, easy-to-remember rule.

Just this week I found this clear explanation for how to use the most common prepositions in an online course I’m enrolled in (Writing 101X with EdX).

Prepositions of time: on, at, in and for

  • We use ‘on’ for specific days or dates
    • The meeting is on Tuesday next week.
    • My birthday is on Wednesday.
    • Is your company working on Christmas Eve this year?
  • ‘At’ is used for specific times
    • The guest speaker will arrive at 9:30 and leave at 10:15.
    • The meeting starts at 14:30 on Friday.
  • We use ‘in’ to relate non-specific times
    • Product sales doubled in 2013, but dropped in the first half of 2014.
    • She was appointed CEO in 2009.
  • ‘For’ describes a continuous duration
    • She will speak for 30 minutes and then take questions.
    • The company has operated in this market for 7 years.

Prepositions of place: on, at and in

  • The preposition ‘at’ is used for specific addresses
    • The meeting will be at our offices at Namesti Miru 15, Prague.
  • ‘On’ is used for names of streets, roads, etc.
    • The office is on Northbourne Avenue, Canberra.
  • We use ‘in’ to designate general areas, such as suburbs, towns, and countries.
    • The company operates in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
    • Our head office is in London.

The photo in this post shows people waiting at Dlouha Trida tram stop, on Dlouha Street, in Prague.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #144—Four Fixes to Increase Clarity

In past tips I’ve mentioned clarity. You want your business writing to be clear and easily understandable. You don’t want to make your reader work hard to interpret what it is that you are trying to say. Past posts in this series suggest that you can improve clarity by:

  • Selecting the right words4 Fixes for CLARITY
  • Writing short to medium length sentences
  • Making sure that your subjects and verbs are close together
  • Checking that it is clear who or what pronouns are referring to

But there are other ways to communicate your meaning.



Here are my top Four Fixes to Increase Clarity

  1. Use images
Use graphs and charts to describe trends, pictures to highlight or illustrate aspects of your text. For example, if you’re referring to a particular component in a technical document, include an image of the component rather than just naming it.
  1. Use tables
Tables help organise the information and highlight important points. They help the reader choose what they want to read. For example, in the table, the title in the left column gives basic information. The reader can then choose if they want further information and read or ignore the right column.
  1. Use lists
I’ve covered this in a previous tip. To write a list you need to focus on the main points, and then your list helps people quickly skim through information.
  1. Use examples
Illustrate your point with a concrete example. Often people find it easier to understand an example, rather than an abstract concept.