Category Archives: Writing

What’s Wrong with Contractions in Business Writing?

The short answer is, absolutely nothing. But in my workshops, someone almost always asks, “Aren’t contractions forbidden in business writing?”

Recently, a client converted a print newsletter to online-only and banned contractions in all feature articles from the executive team and those by HQ on benefits and personnel matters.

Such pieces are typically dry even on a good day, so making their tone even stiffer and more formal — to be read on the easy, breezy Internet, no less — leaves me shaking my head.

Do you remember Data, the android on Star Trek: Next Generation? One of his biggest regrets was that he hadn’t been programmed for contractions, because he thought they’d make him sound more human.

When you eliminate all contractions from your writing, you sound like Data.

“We are happy to announce a new benefit that is most requested; you will be allowed to work from home on Fridays.”

“We are sorry for issues you have had with our website. It is our pleasure to make sure you receive service that is reliable.”

Simple contractions such as it’s and that’s definitely have a place in business writing. Just “listen” as you write and sprinkle contractions in where you would use them in conversation.

My only caution is to be careful if your readers speak English as a second language. In that case, you would want to keep the wording clean and simple to aid comprehension.

Coming up: Can you take contractions too far?

Wild and Wacky AP Style

I’m developing a new course for the University of Richmond (Va.) School of Continuing Studies I’m calling AP Style for Business Writers because I’ve met many clients who claim to use it as their in-house writing style — except when they don’t.

I’ve never understood why corporate America glommed on to AP. It’s for news journalists. How many office workers need to know proper capitalization of Osama bin Laden (who, by the way, dropped out of the Stylebook somewhere between 2011 and 2013)?

The Stylebook devotes only 10 pages to all punctuation matters, whereas my old 6th edition of The Gregg Reference Manual (my preferred writing guide, back in the day) devoted 26 pages to commas alone.

The Stylebook is in alphabetical order, which means you must look up every stinking prefix (non-, dis-, un-) to find out which ones need hyphens.

So, preparing this class, I’ve had to read 300+ pages of the current Stylebook and compare them to the 2011 edition (I skipped 2012 — life’s too short) to ferret out any updates because AP willfully REFUSES to flag them.

Here’s one change for you: They dropped the hyphen from moped.

In the process, I have compiled and usefully organized the material that’s pertinent to business writers, and it fits in to 22 pages of handouts. Yup, that fat Stylebook is 99.8% irrelevant.

Here are a few points I uncovered that you might find interesting:

  • Never, under any circumstances, abbreviate department as dept.
  • Never use abbreviations for state names with five or fewer letters EXCEPT Alaska Hawaii (because they’re unattached to the U.S.) or the District of Columbia.
  • Never use italics. For anything. Ever.
  • Ditto for asterisks * and brackets [ ].
  • Lists of items should begin with dashes, never with any of Word’s bullet characters.
  • Every item in a list should end with a period, even if it’s a single word.
  • Parentheses used within a sentence are a sign the sentence has a problem. (Do mine?)
  • It’s not “Merry Christmas,” but “merry Christmas.”

I’m eager to have my first class because it’s bound to attract AP pros who want a refresher — and are possibly hoping for spirited debate.

I think everyone’s soon going to realize that the denizens of corporate America don’t embrace AP style with the fervor they think they do.

OK, I can’t resist. One more:

You’re not supposed to write, The meeting is on Tuesday, but, The meeting is Tuesday.

Well, two more:

And don’t write, We met last Wednesday. Make it, We met Wednesday.

The past-tense verb is supposed to clue the reader in to which Wednesday you mean.

The same goes for next Wednesday. If you write, We will meet Wednesday, you clearly mean next week (if it’s already Thursday).

I uncovered those relatively obscure nuggets for expressing dates under the entry for “on.”

Oh, this is going to be a fun class.

How to Kill Your Corporate Newsletter

One sure way to make a corporate newsletter thrive is to place its focus on employees. They will read it, they will contribute to it, and they will believe that management cares about communicating with them.

I once had a client with such a newsletter. It was a delight to edit because employees across the country submitted stories about their accomplishments and events, complete with photos. It was a great recruiting tool, truthfully portraying the company as a fun, participative workplace.

But then control of the newsletter shifted from marketing to human resources, where the HR head was a political animal who saw everything as an opportunity for personal career advancement. Under this person’s direction, the newsletter withered.

If you’ve got a pesky publication you’d like to kill, you can follow this company’s recipe for disaster:

  • When the submission deadline nears, send a vaguely threatening reminder to potential contributors, with wording like, “This is strictly a friendly reminder that we’re expecting your articles.” (The “or else” may be implied.)
  • Keep stories of employees winning awards and hosting successful events off the front page. Instead, lead every issue with a formal essay on some aspect of the company’s finances—a real wall of words with long paragraphs and no subheads to break things up. Attach a highly placed exec’s byline and headshot to give it credibility, whether he/she actually wrote the piece or not.
  • Forbid the professional editor you’ve hired to improve the front-page story’s readability or make it consistent with the publication’s more conversational style. The executive authors may come off looking long-winded, grammatically inept, and prone to redundancy, but their every word is golden.
  • Decree that any article mentioning the company president must appear no later than page 2, even if the article falls neatly into an established section for such news. The president should never be forced to mingle with the peons, even on paper.
  • As employees disengage and submissions dwindle, fill the void with boilerplate about safety, customer service, ethics, whatever top-down lectures you can cobble from the Internet. Nothing livens up a publication more than recycled generic content. And the longer it is, the deadlier.
  • If the publication is print, move it online, but maintain the print format so readers may have to scroll and jump around a lot to follow stories. Bonus points if the original format was an oversized page — they’ll have to zoom, too.

Before long, your newsletter will shrink like a contestant on Biggest Loser. But the biggest loser will be YOU. You will have stifled employee engagement and killed one of your most effective channels for communicating with employees in a painlessly entertaining way, while earning their goodwill.