By Dr. Henry Price
Writing Expert, Sam E. McCuen and Associates
People in manufacturing know that there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. Industry spends a lot of money making sure things are done right because they know that doing them wrong will cost a lot more.
But even if you do things right and even if you manufacture the finest product in the world, people have to know about it before they buy it. In order to tell them about your product, you have to use words — and you have to use them well.
It’s too bad that business doesn’t always apply the same quality-control standards to its writing as it does to what it manufactures. All too often these days, promotional materials that come through the mail or are presented in ads contain grammar or spelling errors. Those errors are costly.
We live in the Information Age, a time when information often determines success or failure. Some go so far as to say that without precise and concise information, businesses can’t succeed and people can’t advance.
The irony is that while precise and concise information has become an essential commodity, the ability of many people to produce it has declined dramatically. Writing is a skill that is no longer taught well. It’s one thing to have what you want to say locked firmly in your brain. It’s quite another to transmit that information, precisely and concisely, into someone else’s brain.
For those who might wish to do something about the problem, the choices of where to start are so numerous that they are daunting. Do you begin with grammar? After all, it provides the necessary foundation, the building blocks. Do you start with usage? Mark Twain said that if you want to say clearly what you mean, the importance of selecting the right word is like deciding between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Do you first talk and teach about sentence construction and the proper use of punctuation? All of these elements are needed if you want precise and concise information. And don’t forget about the dreaded cliché and its equally debilitating sibling, overwriting, both of which drain any writing of its power.
Which of these two ways would your business use to make a point: “A concept of the facility was presented April 16 to the directors and received enthusiastic response. Needless to say, we are delighted. It goes without saying that these are tough financial times,” or “We are delighted that the directors have enthusiastically approved a concept of the facility, but these are tough financial times.” A little thought reduces 32 words to a punchier 20. And, of course, you remember your fifth grade language arts teacher telling you that if something is “needless to say” or “goes without saying,” then don’t say it.
Many people have a bit of trouble deciding whether to use “that” or “which” in a sentence. They aren’t interchangeable. And what about “because of” and “due to”? They aren’t interchangeable, either. The same is true about “over” and “more than.” Notice that the question mark after “due to” goes outside the quotation mark, but the period after “more than” is inside. There are simple rules for punctuation that are often ignored. Granted, a lot of people don’t know the difference, but many people who receive business communications do. Why risk turning off the ones who do?
Remember that, while your product might be the very best of its kind, most people aren’t going to buy it just to find out. You’re going to have to use words to persuade them. Make sure those words are working for you and not against you.
Dr. Price is a writing expert with Sam E. McCuen and Associates and retired as interim dean of the then College of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at
803-776-5565 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org