Editorial: Corporate writing sins
By Patrick Flannery
I have to get a few things off my chest.
Maybe it’s the age of texting and Tweeting. Maybe it’s an engineer’s mindset that doesn’t care how something looks as long as it works. Maybe it’s a desire for brevity. Maybe English wasn’t your favourite class. Whatever the reason, I can say from my chair where I read dozens of press releases and other corporate communications every day that business writing has never been worse. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll get a few pet peeves off my chest and hopefully offer some helpful tips to make your copy to be clearer and more polished.
Lay off the caps
It is Not Necessary to Capitalize Every Word that you want People to Pay Attention To. We know you are proud of your products and job titles. We know that the nouns in your sentence refer to Very Important Things. If the last book you read was Winnie the Pooh, remember that A.A. Milne capitalized certain descriptions and concepts as a comedic device – he never intended you to refer to your company as a Place of Very High Quality. Believe it or not, the rule is, if in doubt, don’t capitalize. Capitals go on the names of unique things, like people and places. If the word you are using could refer to a lot of things, like windows or insulating glass, it doesn’t need a capital and using them could render your copy unreadable.
Bulletproof your copy
- All human thought is a series of ideas arranged in a sequence.
- Normal prose accounts for this with punctuation marks like periods and commas.
- Therefore it is not necessary to break up what should be an interconnected chain of thought into bullet points.
People use bullets because they think long blocks of prose are too boring and need to be broken up. Here’s a better solution: write something interesting. Use bullets only when you really do have to put down a list of totally unconnected things in a limited space.
Don’t utilize it
There is never a time when the word “utilize” can’t be replaced with the word “use.” Let’s face it, you are only writing it to try to sound smart. I hate to break it to you, but you are either smart or you’re not and using “utilize” can’t help.
The best, the most, the only
I, personally, believe that your company and products stand alone in the world as the most fantasic achievement in the history of human enterprise. So when you tell me that you were the first to do this, or the only one to do that, or better than everyone else at the other thing, I believe you. I really do. But my problem is that other skeptical naysayers may not. And I have no way to adjudicate the matter without looking at literally everything else everyone else is doing. I wish I had the time, but I don’t. So I’m going to change “best” into “excellent” and “most” into “more” and “only” into “one of.” You can save us both some time by not maxing out in the first place.
Phew, I feel better already.