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LEARNING THE ART OF WRITING Experts say to focus on message, eliminate words that get in the way


Given the number of books in print that describe how to write well, everyone should be able to communicate clearly and concisely, or at least without pain. Unfortunately, writing simple business memos and letters can cause even the most confident executives to sweat.

Their aggravation is justified. Business writing consultants say an executive with poor writing skills can lose clients, frustrate customers and cause associates to doubt his credibility as a can-do professional.

Decision-makers simply do not have the time or patience to plow through lengthy and badly phrased proposals, letters, reports and memorandums, says Lynne Agress, president of Business Writing At Its Best Inc. of Towson. No one is going to pick up the phone to ask what you meant by a phrase he didn't understand. Instead, he'll just find someone else who can communicate.

Writing skills can be learned, she and other business writing consultants say. But Ms. Agress insists writing, like playing piano or golf, must be practiced before it can be perfected.

Students often limp by in their attempts to communicate in writing until their careers are well-advanced.

"People in my seminars have advanced degrees and are very bright, but they never learned to write well," Ms. Agress says. Their biggest problem, she says, is writing wordy and redundant correspondence that is full of jargon and pretentious prose.

Writing coaches suggest professionals and executives focus on the message they are trying to convey in their writing and eliminate words that get in the way. Some techniques help eliminate the bombast:

* Watch out for redundant and wordy phrases. Business writers frequently lengthen their sentences with adjectives, either to sound more important or take up space when they really have nothing to write. ("We would like to create a meaningful way for you to be involved," for example.)

OC "If it weren't meaningful, the writer wouldn't suggest it," Ms.

Agress claims. "Don't load your writing down with adjectives. People may begin to wonder if you're telling the truth."

* Strive to make the meaning clear, as simply as possible. "The Elements of Style," written by William Strunk Jr. and edited by E. B. White, counsels that brevity should be every writer's goal.

"Vigorous writing is concise," Mr. Strunk writes. "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Ernest Hemingway practiced making every word tell. And while business writers don't have to ape Hemingway in memos describing how the company's mail will be distributed, they can aim to be brief.

* Throw jargon and pretentious prose in the trash.

"You see jargon in a letter and you question the writer's credibility," Ms. Agress says. "Jargon blocks the reader from the message. I'm not talking about specific, technical terms, but using nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns -- maximizing, implementing, etc. People use them to try to sound more important." Instead, she thinks they sound silly.

"Just because people work for an institution they don't have to write like one," writes William Zinsser in his book "On Writing Well."

"Institutions can be warmed up. Readers identify with people, not with abstractions like 'profitability' or 'utilization.' "

"Any institution that won't take the trouble in its writing to be both clear and personal will lose friends, customers and money," he writes.

* Use appropriate transition words -- such as "and," "but" and "however" -- to help smooth out choppy sentences and paragraphs.

Ms. Agress likens a paragraph of "Dick and Jane sentences" without transitions to a loud commercial in a good movie.

You're watching this wonderful movie and suddenly there's this interruption. It's jarring, it breaks your train of thought," she says.

* Edit. "The most important thing you can do is edit," Ms. Agress says. "Go back and ask yourself, does this really make sense? What can I cut?"

L * Don't decorate the page with commas and other punctuation.

"When in doubt, leave them out," she advises. "And read it out loud. If there's a break, there's a comma."

Neither rule for commas always works, however. The same goes for almost every other grammar and usage rule in English -- which also explains why executives and professionals flock to writing courses.

Business writing classes are offered at most colleges and universities.

Pat Wafer, program director of the non-credit business program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Studies, says such classes are popular with people who are successful in their careers but want to improve their ability to communicate.

Those who are comfortable with their writing skills can brush up on technique with popular handbooks, including "The Elements of Style."

Mr. White, who wrote several children's books and edited The New Yorker magazine for many years, referred to "Elements of Style" as Mr. Strunk's "attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin." Even with an introduction and index, "Elements of Style" has fewer than 100 pages and is small enough to fit into a pocket.

Most of the books and courses in writing stress simplicity.

"The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components," writes Mr. Zinsser. "Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what -- these are the 1,001 adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.

"If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level," Mr. Zinsser suggests, "Be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots."

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