5 Rules Every Writer Should Know

by David Brooks

1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

Concise writing--that is, writing that contains no clutter and is clear on the first reading--is a prized commodity in today’s business communication. The volume of information that crosses our desks daily requires us to skim. So if the message you send is not simple, direct, and easily understood by a reader in a hurry, you are failing as an effective business communicator.

Writing simply, however, is not always easy, but it can be learned. Following are five tips that will help you to get your message across effectively.

1 Don’t make the reader work to find your point.
There is a huge difference between reading a novel and a business document. The business reader does not want suspense and will rarely be impressed with intricate or clever wordplay. Instead, write for speed. The principal obstacle you face as a writer is the one-minute barrier. That is, the typical business reader will decide within one minute whether the message is important enough to justify reading on. Consequently, if your principal message is not evident in your opening paragraph, there is a good chance the reader will not find it. Most business readers prefer this simple format: open with your reason for writing, substantiate it with examples and illustrations, and close with a short summary or a call to action.

2 Don’t encourage misunderstanding and confusion.
Mention the word bimonthly and get set for a spirited discussion. Some of your readers will be certain it means “twice a month”; others are positive it means “every other month.” Which is right? Both are-look it up. Who’s right, however, is not the issue. No one wins this argument, because the confusion you caused by using an ambiguous word means your message was lost. Other words, though not ambiguous, are simply misunderstood. Ask ten colleagues to define peruse, for example. Most will say it means “skim” or “scan.” In fact, it means exactly the opposite: “to read carefully or attentively; to scrutinize.” Thus, you failed to make your point because the reader failed to understand. Consequently, both parties lose when your words are precise, but open to misinterpretation.

3 Write in a style that reflects your manner of speech.
This is not an authorization for you to write using careless speech patterns, slang, or a substandard conversational style. These are barely tolerable in speech and almost always unacceptable in writing. But writing in your natural speaking style-the style you use in a business conversation-will help you eliminate stuffy, stilted words and phrases that make you sound pretentious. Consider the word per, for example. You have seen it; perhaps you have used it: “Per your request, enclosed is form XY312.” It looks fine on paper because you have seen it so often. But, realistically, would you ever say a stuffy phrase like this: “Per your request, Bob, let’s have lunch”? If that’s how you normally talk, then write that way. Otherwise, apply this rule: If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it. Read your writing aloud. If what you hear does not reflect your natural manner, tone, or personality, rewrite it.

4 Don’t be intimidated by “the rules.”
Natural, expressive writing can be a difficult process if you concentrate on the dont’s. Do you remember these: Don’t split an infinitive, don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, don’t end a sentence with a preposition, don’t use one-sentence paragraphs, don’t use first-person singular pronouns, and so on? Guess what? They aren’t really rules at all. Every one of the don’ts listed above are do’s in certain circumstances. Take the “preposition at the end of a sentence” rule, for example. Of course, it is not desirable to say or write: “Where is he at?” The preposition “at” is unnecessary, so eliminate it. On the other hand, consider: “This is the report I have been telling you about.” Can you eliminate the preposition “about”? No, but you can rewrite the sentence: “This is the report about which I have been telling you.” But that sounds pretentious. Given such a choice, don’t sweat the dont’s. Instead, let clarity and natural simplicity be your guide.

5 If you can’t be brief, at least be clear.
Somewhere in your schooling you probably encountered a teacher who rewarded you for wordiness. The person who wrote a 20-page research paper obviously put in more work than the person who wrote a five-pager, right? Of course not. Keeping in mind the “one-minute barrier” mentioned in rule number one, remember the value of brevity. Yet, if you have to make a choice between clarity and brevity, clarity should win every time. Thus, if you need two pages to make your point, take two. But before you write more than you absolutely have to, remember Thomas Jefferson’s classic advice: “Never use two words when one will do.”

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Author’s credit:
David Brooks, DTM, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at