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Imperfect Writing for Perfect Results

I write a couple of sentences and then delete them. Write a few more and delete them. It’s a constant, incredibly annoying process.

I always have to rewrite. Is there something wrong with me?

I was afraid to apply for a new position because it involved a lot of writing.   

The comments above, from participants in my writing seminars, illustrate the frustration business people often feel when tackling writing assignments. But it’s not just participants in such classes who suffer from fear of writing. Putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – can be daunting for many people.

I believe that, to a large degree, the frustration comes from people trying to create a perfect piece of writing the first time they sit down to do an assignment, whether it’s a business email or a complicated report. They think that what they type should not need any correcting or rewriting.

They are wrong.

Creating an imperfect piece of writing – a draft – is part of the normal process of writing. Yes, I said normal.

Once you have a draft, you can set about revising it. Most people find it easier to correct their writing than to create the exact wording they want the first time they try. Many well-known people, including professional writers, have expressed their understanding of the importance of writing… and rewriting.

• There is no great writing, only great rewriting. – the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

• I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. – author James Michener

I describe the making of a draft as “open writing.” This term is easy to remember, as you basically open yourself up and let the words flow. Here are six guidelines to help you with open writing:

1. Relax. People have a tendency to get nervous and then agonize over their writing assignments. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect… yet. One seminar participant told me that once the pressure was off to create a perfect document on her first attempt, she was able to write.

2. Put the email address in last. If you are using open writing in an email, you don’t want to send the email before you have revised it, so leave the “To” line blank until you are satisfied with your message. If you are responding to an email, erase the address and add it when you are finished. (Additional suggestions on email can be found in my book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes, McGraw Hill, 2017.)

3. Write the way you speak. Most of us have no difficulty speaking coherently and clearly. When you write the way you speak, you are writing in a conversational tone, which helps you connect with your reader. Another advantage is that this approach often helps you to write quickly.

4. Don’t stop writing. No crossing out or back-spacing. You don’t want to disrupt the flow of your thoughts. If you find yourself going off in the wrong direction, write yourself out of it. You will rearrange your wording later. Computers make it very easy to cut-and-paste. (This term survives from a time when writers or editors revising drafts written on typewriters would literally cut up their written paragraphs and paste them in the order they preferred. See how much easier we have it!)

5. Set a time limit. When you sit down to write, allocate a certain amount of time. It doesn’t need to be a lot of time. In my classes, my writing assignments are only five minutes in duration, but all the participants write between half a page and one and a half pages. That’s a lot of writing in just a few minutes. After my students have finished their open-writing assignments, I tell them that in the past, most of them probably stared at a blank computer screen for longer than five minutes. Now consider how much they’ve been able to write in the same time in class. That is when the light bulb usually goes on for them, and they realize the value of open writing.

6. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar… for now. You will correct your grammar and spelling before you hit the send button or mail that document. For now, you just want to write.

Once you have followed these six steps, you are not done. Let me say that again: You are not done. Now it is time to revise your writings – but now you have something to work on, instead of a blank screen.

Pachter & Associates provides seminars and coaching on business writing,
communication, career development,  presentation skills, professional presence, and etiquette. For additional information, please contact Joyce Hoff at joyce@pachter.com or 856.751.6141. (www.pachter.com) 

In the beginning… Salutations set the tone for emails and letters

My name is spelled correctly in my signature block; why do so many people misspell it in the salutation? 

Only my good friends call me Bobby – my coworker should have used “Robert” or “Bob” in the salutation.

I hate reading an email that starts with “Good morning” when it is 9 o’clock at night. The writer has just highlighted that I am 12 hours behind in answering my emails. 

Unfortunately, the salutation – whether in an email or a letter – provides endless ways to upset your reader, as indicated by the comments above, from participants in my seminars. And if you offend someone in the first line, that person may not read any further.  

Effective salutations can help you connect with your reader, which is especially important during a pandemic. Here are suggestions for starting your correspondence without offense:

1. Spell the recipient’s name correctly. Let me repeat this: Spell the recipient’s name correctly. It may not bother you, but I want to impress upon you that many people are insulted if their name is misspelled. Check for the correct spelling in the person’s signature block. You can also check the “To:” line. Often, people’s first and/or last names are in their addresses.

2. Don’t shorten a person’s name or use a nickname unless you know it is okay. Use the person’s full name (“Hi, Jacob”) unless you know it is okay to call him Jake. My name is Barbara, but please don’t start your emails to me using “Hi Barb.” (And the only people who may refer to me as Babz are my son and his friends!)

3. Avoid “Dear Sir/Ms.” This salutation tells your reader that you have no idea who that person is. Why then should the reader be interested in what you have to say?  

4. Use a non-gender-specific, non-sexist term if you don’t know the person’s name. You can use Dear Client, Customer, or Team Member. You can also use Representative, and add it to any company name or department name, such as “Dear Microsoft Representative,” or “Dear Human Resource Representative.” 

5. Salutations are highly recommended in emails. Email doesn’t technically require a salutation, as it’s considered to be memo format. When email first appeared, many people did not use salutations. Eventually, people starting adding salutations to appear friendlier and to soften the tone of their writings.  

There is a hierarchy of greetings, from informal to formal, and you should match the salutation to the relationship you have with the recipient. The hierarchy follows this format: 

       Hi,   /   Hi Anna,   /   Hello,   /   Hello Julianna,   /   Dear Justin,   /   Dear Mr. Jones,

If the person you are writing to is a colleague, “Hi Anna,” should be fine.  If you don’t know the person, or the person has significantly higher rank than you have, you may want to use the more formal greeting: “Dear Justin,” or “Dear Mr. Jones.” 

In addition to the greeting, pay attention to these points:

–After two or three emails have gone back and forth on the same email string, the salutations can be dropped.

–The punctuation completing the greeting is a comma. 

–If more than one person will receive an email, use “Hello Sara and Bill,” or “Hello Everyone.” 

– “Hey” is a very informal salutation (“Hey Josh,” ) and generally should not be used in the workplace. Opening with “Yo” is definitely not okay, no matter how informal your relationship with the recipient. Use “Hi” or “Hello” instead.

–As illustrated in one of the opening quotes, there are people who don’t like receiving an email that starts with “Good morning” or “Good afternoon.” Although I believe this is a minor offense, using “Hello” instead eliminates the possibility of offending anyone.  

6. Salutations are required in letters. (Okay, there is one type of letter, the simplified format, that doesn’t require a salutation, but that’s not typical usage. The format is generally used for marketing.) In today’s workplace, a letter is a more formal type of correspondence, and should start with “Dear” followed by either the person’s first name and a colon – “Dear Marie:” – or an honorific and the person’s last name, followed by a colon – “Dear Mr. Jones:”. 

Additional information on writing emails can be found in my book, The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success.

Pachter & Associates provides seminars and coaching on business writing, professional presence, business etiquette, and communication. Contact Joyce Hoff at joyce@pachter.com for more information. (www.pachter.com)

 

Saying Goodbye: Suggestions for Closing Your Emails

If customers include a closing in their emails, it indicates to me that they are friendly, and so I will do their work first. 

A woman in one of my writing classes made the above comment when we were discussing how to end an email. Others joined in and added that they liked seeing closings in emails they received.

I agree.  

Emails that simply end without some kind of closing can seem too abrupt. And in today’s coronavirus world, it is especially important to seem approachable.


During my recent Zoom classes, numerous questions surface about which closing is appropriate in our casual workplace. Deciding what to use can be confusing. When email first appeared in the workplace, salutations or closings were rarely used. Over time, we have added both to our emails. Though there has been some discussion in the media about whether we need to use closings, in my experience, the majority of people want to keep them.

I encourage businesspeople to use closings. Here are my six suggestions:

1. If you start with a salutation, end with a closing. It provides balance to the email. The correct punctuation after the closing is a comma.

2. Match the closing to the salutation. If you use an informal salutation, such as “Hi Amanda” or “Hello Gavin,” use “Regards,” “Best,” “Best regards,” or “Thanks” to close. If you use a more formal salutation, such as “Dear Ms. Jones,” use “Sincerely” or “Sincerely yours.” Only the first word of the closing is capitalized.

3. End with a “closing statement.” Since closings are more relaxed in emails than in letters, you can use a brief statement as your closing, such as “See you at the meeting,” “Thanks for your help” or “Have a great weekend.”

4. With no disrespect intended, avoid using ‘Respectfully.’ 
 This very formal closing is usually reserved for government officials and clergy.  Another closing to avoid is “Faithfully yours.” This wording comes from British English, and a woman from India who was in my class said that she was advised very quickly by her boss not to use that closing in the U.S.  

5. Tell people what you want to be called. After the closing, on the next line, type your name the way you want to be addressed. If you want to be called “Mike” instead of “Michael,” you should sign “Mike.” 

6. Once emails become a back-and-forth conversation, you can drop the closing. It begins to sound repetitious and somewhat silly if you have a long string of emails all proclaiming, “Best regards, Mike.” Additional information on emails can be found in my book The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat and Tweet Your Way to Success.

Pachter & Associates provides seminars and coaching on business writing, professional presence, etiquette and communication. For additional information, please contact Joyce Hoff at joyce@pachter.com (www.pachter.com)

Do Not Use Contractions. (Don’t Worry, I Didn’t Mean It!)

During a conversation with a colleague, I mentioned that my next blog was going to be on contractions. Most of her response I can’t repeat, but basically she said that when she was growing up, her teachers drilled into her brain that she should never use contractions in her writings. They were too informal and sloppy, her teachers maintained.

Many people in my writing seminars tell me similar stories.

A contraction, according to the Gregg Reference Manual, a respected writing resource, is “a shortened form of a word or phrase in which an apostrophe indicates the omitted letters or words: for example, don’t for do not.”

My response to my colleague and to the participants in my seminars is always the same: “Why can’t we use contractions? We use them when we speak, so why isn’t it okay to write with them?”

A primary goal of writing is to connect with your reader, and your choice of words helps to make that connection. There aren’t any non-verbal clues to help make your point when you email someone – the reader doesn’t see the smile on your face or hear the friendly tone of your voice. (Yes, I know there are emoticons, but I do not encourage their use in business writing.)

Using contractions helps you to convey a conversational tone. It makes the communication sound more personal and friendly, and less like a directive. Listen to the difference: “Let’s go to the conference on Monday,” or, “Let us go to the conference on Monday.” Don’t you think the second version sounds rather stilted?

Here are my suggestions for using contractions successfully in business writing:

1. Think about your use of contractions. It may not be first on your list of business concerns, but the quality of your writing is important. Do you use contractions? One of my interns had the courage to point out to me that I used contractions a lot. I hadn’t realized just how much until she said something. I really valued that feedback.

2. Do not overuse them.  Just because you can use contractions in your writing in today’s business world, doesn’t mean you should always use them. Read your documents out loud to hear how your use of contractions sounds. If your writings sound choppy, chances are you are using too many contractions.

3. Avoid excessively casual contractions. Some contractions sound sloppy. For example: “You’d” for “you would,” or “she’s” for “she has.” I recommend not using them in business writing. And please, don’t ever be tempted by double contractions, such as “shouldn’t’ve” for “should not have.”

4. Know what your boss prefers. If your boss does not want you to use contractions, don’t! This is not (isn’t) rocket science, and is not worth fighting over.

5. Understand the difference between it’s and its. A common mistake involves the difference between “it’s” – which is the contraction for “it is” – and the possessive “its.” The way to remember the difference between them is that the apostrophe in “it’s” means something is missing. If you aren’t sure, read your sentence aloud and then substitute the non-contraction form (in this case, “it is”) to see whether it still makes sense. (It’s time to put the pencil in its case, for example. If you had an erroneous apostrophe in the second its, the sentence wouldn’t make sense.) People often use the wrong form in their writings, and others love to point out their mistakes. Don’t give them the opportunity!

Your use of contractions may not seem like a big deal, but it is one of the many little things that can impact your writings, and therefore worthy of your attention. Additional information on business writing can be found in my  book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes (McGraw Hill).

Pachter & Associates provides training and coaching on business writing and communication. For more information, contact Joyce Hoff at 856.751.6141 or joyce@pachter.com.

Salutations are NOT required in emails!

Is the title of this blog a true or false statement? 

If you said “true,” you are correct. Email doesn’t technically require a salutation as it is considered to be memo format. (This is different from a business letter, which does require a salutation.)

When email first appeared, many people did not use salutations. Eventually, people started adding salutations to seem friendlier, and to soften the tone of their writings.

Although salutations are not required, they are highly recommended. This is especially true when you are writing an email to someone for the first time, writing the first email in what is likely to become a string, or dealing with a difficult or awkward situation. 

But how should you address the person to whom you are writing? Since you don’t want to offend someone with your choice of salutation, here are five suggestions:

1. Spell the recipient’s name correctly. Let me repeat this: Spell the recipient’s name correctly. It may not bother you, but I want to impress upon you that many people are insulted if their name is misspelled. Check for the correct spelling in the person’s signature block. Copy and paste the name to make sure you are spelling it correctly. Checking the “To:” line is also a good idea, as people’s first and/or last names are often in their email addresses.

2. Don’t shorten a person’s name or use a nickname unless you know it is okay. Use the person’s full name (“Hi, Jacob”) unless you know it is okay to use the shortened version (Jake). My name is Barbara, but please don’t start your emails to me using “Hi Barb.” (And the only people who may refer to me as Babz are my son and his friends!)

3. Know when to stop using a salutation. After two or three emails have gone back and forth on the same email string, the salutations can be dropped.

4. Use a greeting. There is a hierarchy of greetings, from informal to formal, and you should match the salutation to the relationship you have with the recipient. The hierarchy follows this format:

                         Hi Anna, / Hello Julianna, / Dear Justin, / Dear Mr. Jones,

If the person you are writing to is a colleague, “Hi Anna,” should be fine. If you don’t know the person, or the person has significantly higher rank than you have, you may want to use the more formal greeting: “Dear Justin,” or “Dear Mr. Jones.”

Hey is a very informal salutation (“Hey Josh,”), and generally should not be used in the workplace. Opening with Yo is definitely not okay, no matter how informal your relationship with the recipient. Use Hi or Hello instead.

5. Avoid “Dear Sir/Ms.” This salutation tells your reader that you have no idea who that person is. Why then should the reader be interested in what you have to say?

Additional information on business writing and emails can be found in my book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes. 

Pachter & Associates provides seminars and coaching on business writing, communication, presentation skills and etiquette. For additional information, please contact Joyce Hoff at joyce@pachter.com or 856.751.6141. (www.pachter.com)

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