The First Step to Becoming a Better Writer

I recently held a workshop with a great group of professionals there to learn about better business writing strategies. They were kind, energetic, and good-humored about spending a day in a professional development seminar. As the day went on, though, it became clear to me that some people were going to benefit from this seminar and some were not at all. It made me realize something. 

There are a lot of tips we can share about how to write better. But before all of those tips can do anything, there is one thing you need to consider first -- your attitude toward changing

To become a better writer, first you have to see yourself as someone who is always learning about writing. To get a little philosophical, you might say you could see yourself as someone always becoming a better writer, but never arriving. I think this view requires equal parts humility and eagerness, which somehow combines to foster curiosity and growth.

In my experience, this is a rare quality. There are many people who are open to reading some quick tips, but don’t have the right attitude in place to actually apply those tips. This is like the difference between “hearing” and “listening” in relationships, right? If you “hear” then it stayed pretty external, but if you really “listened” then you engaged, empathized, and understood. 

It’s about attitude. If I don’t view myself as someone who could get better at writing, then I won’t really “listen,” I will just “hear” the strategies. I won’t look at my own writing and see areas that could be better, I’ll think of other people’s writing that could benefit from those strategies. I might be friendly and think the class was “nice” or “helpful,” but I will probably do what I need to do to “complete” whatever is asked of me and will not actually be transformed beyond that day. 

In a teaching podcast I listened to recently, they talked about the difference between “transactional” education (completing tasks/earning grades/passing) versus “transformational” education (actually being transformed by what you learn such that you apply it beyond the course). That idea applies here, but I think we need to look at the attitude as the soil to be prepped first for the seed of transformational education. 

I work with a lot of undergraduates in courses that are required as part of their degree program, and rather than viewing the courses as “required = really important” they view them as  “required = I won’t learn anything.” (I don’t see the logic here, but I think their view has less to do with logic and more to do with the innate human resistance to being told to do something.) I also work with people who have been writing, teaching, or working for a long time, and they can struggle with a slightly different attitude – one that values their own habits and experiences so much that they’ve come to the conclusion they “know” already and therefore have more to say about writing than to learn about it. 

This is what happened in the seminar I described before. There were a few people who had decided before they knew the content or started the seminar that they were already good writers (they had “arrived”) and their minds were closed to everything I presented. Rather than to take on the attitude of learner, they sought opportunities to chime in to sort of co-teach with me. They left that class thinking it was nice for the other people, but they hadn’t needed it. I don’t condemn these people, because the truth is, we’ve all had that attitude about something, at some point or another.  

We miss so many opportunities to learn and grow, in all areas – our relationships, our jobs, specific skills – because of the attitudes we shape before we even face the learning opportunity. Humility. Eagerness. We can all get better at this, myself included.

 So as you read our tips and blogs, try it. Ask yourself – are you open to learning to be a better writer? How could your writing be transformed?

Try it other places, too. Choose to look at a meeting, a professional development opportunity, or feedback from a colleague as something that could help you become better. “Listen” rather than “hear.”  

Creating a more positive tone

Yesterday, a student came into my office to ask for help with an assignment. While reviewing his work, I spotted this sentence:

Bluetooth was removed from consideration since all the cars evaluated had this feature.

The context for this assignment is that students are writing a report to an imaginary boss explaining how they chose a particular vehicle to purchase for the company. In this sentence, the student was pointing out that bluetooth capability wasn’t a factor in his decision since all the cars had it. But what stood out to me was that he had framed that as a negative: “Bluetooth was removed from consideration…” There is no reason not to frame this idea as a positive: “All the cars evaluated had bluetooth capabilities, so the decision focused on comparing other vehicle features.”

The content of these two sentences isn’t very different, but the way we feel about the content is a little different. In the first version of the sentence, that fact that all the cars had this feature is presented as a negative or at least as irrelevant. But the reality is that the bluetooth feature made all the cars better choices for the company.

One of my favorite examples of unnecessary negative perspective in writing is this sentence:

Our charity works to reduce illiteracy in children around the world.

This sentence appeared on the website for a non-profit. They try to help children around the world learn to read. What an awesome goal! But the sentence focuses on the negative, lessening illiteracy, which is a good thing, but it’s not the best way to present this idea. Making something smaller is generally perceived as negative, while making something bigger is generally perceived as positive—we gravitate toward growth.

Again, there is no reason the non-profit needed to focus on the negative version of this idea. The positive version would be “Our charity works to increase literacy in children around the world.” The content of the sentences is the same in terms of what the organization is doing, but how we feel about it is different. At best, the original sentence feels neutral, but increasing literacy feels positive, optimistic.

Lots of elements affect our perception of tone in writing; tone is hard to hear in writing, and because it happens in our heads, every word matters. To create positive tone—positive feelings in your audience as they read your messages—work to focus on the positive aspects of your message wherever possible, especially if the central idea is the same but the feelings of the reader will change depending on how you phrase the idea.

Try not to be afraid to write; instead, focus on showing the audience you are competent and you care

Last week, my main sewer line collapsed and backed up into my basement. It was disgusting, and infuriating, and resulted in lots of men tromping through my house doing expensive things to help.

When a few of the contractors nicely asked what I did, and I said that I teach business writing, the responses were a lot of throat-clearing and awkward requests not to judge their communication with me. I tried to assuage their insecurities by saying that I was really appreciative of what they did know that I didn’t: plumbing, cleaning up basements, etc. and I wouldn’t be evaluating their work based on their written communication with me. This did not seem to make them feel a whole lot better.

When I received the first email from one of these contractors, I was actually pretty impressed by his writing. Sure, there were a few grammar errors, but it was also clear (and had been in his face-to-face and verbal communication) that he was incredibly attuned to his audience. His messages showed a lot of care for me as the customer with phrases like “as you requested” and “thank you for allowing us” and “I will look for your response”. They also showed an awareness that the messages would be read by a larger audience, not just his team and bosses, but my insurance company, so he made sure to detail every single step that had been taken and what was left to do. The level of awareness of audience in that first email superseded most of my undergraduates and many of the employees that I work with.

People are afraid of writing to writing instructors because they are afraid that all the little things they don’t know or remember about grammar and spelling will be judged. But in my role as a writing instructor, it’s my job to notice those things and point them out to people so that they can learn, grow, and improve. If those mistakes aren’t brought to their attention, they continue to make them or start to believe that errors aren’t important. And while one or two grammar mistakes in a message are usually ok, more than a couple will probably lead to negative judgment on the part of most readers.

But grammar errors are a superficial way of judging people’s credibility. The reality is that grammar errors don’t tell us whether a person is actually credible or not, they are only a sign that we use to guess whether they are credible or not. The fewer grammar errors there are, the more people focus on aspects of writing that actually matter: whether you know what you are doing and whether you care about the people you are working with.

My contractor’s email showed that he knew exactly what he was doing: the work itself, managing his team, and handling the details for the future insurance claim. It also showed that he cared about me, his customer, and was concerned that I had what I needed, that I understood what had been done and what would be happening over the next few days, and that he expected to be in conversation with me on a regular basis. The content of his message proved that he was credible. And the way it was written—short paragraphs, appropriate formatting, clear sentences—supported that assessment of his credibility.

Yes, I did notice a few word choice errors like “please no that you do not need to be home.” Most of us probably see the incorrectly spelled word immediately and understand the mistake. But it was far more important to me that the contractor focused on my needs, explaining processes clearly, and detailing how we would communicate over the next few days.

When you are writing, try not to be afraid that you’re writing isn’t good enough. That’s a concern only we professional writers and editors need to have. Your main writing concern, as a person trying to conduct business, should be on showing the audience that you care about them by 1) actually engaging in a conversation with them, 2) providing complete and thorough information that reassures them you know what you are doing and can help them in a meaningful way, and 3) writing clearly with short sentences and short paragraphs that are organized in a logical way. Write a draft, step away from it for a few minutes, read it over again and fix whatever grammar errors you can see (you can’t see all of them; none of us can in our own writing). Show your audience that you care enough to try.

What Words Do I Capitalize in a Title?

Whether you are putting together blog posts, newsletters, website content, social media updates, or presentations, you are going to run into the tricky task of writing titles and headers. We all know that it can be difficult to come up with a catchy title, but then you inevitably face trying to figure out which words of the title should be capitalized and which ones should not. Although it would be ideal if I could just list some clear-cut rules, it turns out there are actually just a lot of "recommendations" and "guidelines" but not one agreed-upon set of rules that everyone follows.
However, there are some recommendations that are more consistently followed and others that are more about personal preference. Let's look at a few possible capitalization choices on a title so you can see which ones you react to as "more correct" and which ones are "less correct.”

  1. how these “tiny houses” could shake up the housing industry

  2. how these “Tiny Houses” could shake Up the Housing industry

  3. How These "Tiny Houses" Could Shake Up The Housing Industry

  4. How These "Tiny Houses" Could Shake up the Housing Industry

  5. How these "tiny houses" could shake up the housing industry


Looking across these variations, you might be immediately struck by some seeming "wrong" and others seeming "right." That may be because you've run across some of the "recommendations" before. 

For instance, the first example avoids capitalization all together, and the second example uses it at random. Most people would view these as incorrect, and it might be because of the common recommendation to capitalize the first word and last word of a title. Others may view the third as problematic because they've heard another recommendation, which is to not capitalize articles, prepositions, or some conjunctions (in this case, "the" might strike some as odd to capitalize).
Others recommend that you only capitalize "principle words" like nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. A similar recommendation is to capitalize words that are more than four letters long but not words that are less than four. These may cause you to view example three and five as incorrect but example four as more correct. However, contradicting that advice, another recommendation is to simply capitalize each word of the title, which we see in the third example.

Some would view example six as incorrect because it is entirely capitalized and may come across as yelling, while others may view this as a style choice to ensure the title text stands out from the body text on a document. 

As you can see, it can get a little tricky to figure out how to capitalize titles. While there is not a "one size fits all" approach -- just scrolling through's homepage, which collects headlines from dozens of sites, will show you how the approaches vary --  there are some things you can take away to help you decide what to capitalize.
First, make sure you think consciously about capitalization as you craft your titles or headers. It isn’t something that should be done at random.

Next, you could look at the list of common recommendations and pick those that stand out to you as most important and basically make them “rules” for your particular company’s written communication.

That leads to the next step, which is to be consistent. Any website, blog, or writing guide you find will tell you that being consistent will be the key thing when it comes to capitalization of titles. You don’t want to have a seemingly random, unorganized approach to titles and headers across your company’s website, report, social media, etc.
To help you review some of the key “recommendations” and identify which ones you want to implement as “rules” for your own titles and headers, you can check out this helpful guide from GrammarGirl’s Quick and Dirty Tips page:

Ethos, Part Three: Good Moral Character


This is the third post in the series about the appeal to ethos, which is the appeal which is often reduced to an over-simplification of “an appeal to credibility.” We all want to convey strong ethos in our business communication, but this simplistic definition of ethos may limit our thinking and reduce our ability to convey it in dynamic ways.
The first two pillars of ethos that we already captured were “good will toward your audience” and “good sense.” Now, we’ll consider the last piece Aristotle mentions, which is “good moral character.” This ties most closely to the word that sounds a lot like "ethos" – it means showing you are ethical. Other words associated with this component of ethos may be words like integrityvirtuous, and someone who lives by a strong set of values and morals.  

It is important to consider how you could convey a good moral character to your audience because then the audience views you, and the message you are conveying, in a certain light. They may feel they can trust you, that you have a conscience, and thus that your message (whatever you are asking your audience to do or think about) is coming from the mind and heart of someone they view as just and moral. Reflect on a time that a person you view as immoral or untrustworthy has asked you to do something, and recall the tone and intention you read behind their request, and you can see the negative impact of overlooking this important appeal to ethos.
To consider how you could appeal to ethos in this way, when you write any kind of persuasive message to your work communication, whether it is to convince your readers to attend a training or change a procedure or buy a product or meet a deadline, you can consider how you appeal to ethos in this way.

Ask yourselves these questions as you prepare to write to your coworkers, employees, or clients:

  • Do I communicate integrity (about myself and my reasons for whatever I am arguing for) by justly and honestly  acknowledging strengths, weaknesses, and flaws?

  • Do I communicate a set of values that are vital to our workplace ethics by showing in my writing that I am truthful, fair, authentic, and have good morals?

  • How do I show my audience that I can be trusted?

  • How do I show my audience that I have authority on this subject?

  • Do I show a dislike/abhorrence for unprincipled tactics?

  • Do I avoid making any statements or word choices that could suggest to my readers that I may do something unethical or support something that they would view as immoral? 

The cure for perfectionism

It's a new semester, so I've been sharing the wisdom of business writing with an entirely new set of undergrads. Once again, they want me to show them examples of what I am looking for in their writing. "Why don't you just show us what a good email looks like?" "Yeah, just post an example that we can all imitate." And you see the problem. 

Writing doesn't have easy answers, and I'm certainly not hoping/expecting/wanting all of my students to write the exact same message. That would be a) very strange and b) not useful to them at all. They have to learn the tools for writing well and deploy those strategies in their own unique ways. But that is a lot of work.

On the other hand, I understand their frustration when I show them examples and talk about what is working in it and what can be improved. The undergrads just want to know how to get 100% on their assignments, and I can't show them 100% because they would just copy it.

What they will learn in time, and what most of us already know, is that there is no 100% successful writing. Writing can always be better. And that fact is both a frustration and a relief. It's frustrating because you might agonize over whether to write "Please let me know if you have any questions." or "If you have any questions, please let me know." What is the difference? Which will be more effective for your audience? Here's the thing:

Writing and editing only stop when you reach your deadline.

Some days that may be a week out; some days you tell yourself you have to send this email before you are allowed to use the bathroom. Either way, the restriction is on time, not when you create the perfect message. Because

There is no perfect message.

And that should be a relief. At this point, there is no way to 100% translate a message from inside my brain to inside yours. Every act of communication is an act of translation. So we have to settle on what's good enough for right now.

Sure there are techniques we can learn that will make "good enough for right now" more successful, but writing is, I think, the cure for perfectionism because as a writer, you will never be perfect. You will never craft "THE BEST MESSAGE EVER" that wins over 100% of your audience. So you can let that go. Right now.

Ethos, Part Two: Good Sense


So we have a previous blog post that talks about ethos, particularly that simply calling it an appeal to “credibility” is an over-simplification, and that one of the aspects of ethos is demonstrating “good will” toward the audience (and how we could benefit from appealing to ethos in that way through our business writing). There’s another element of ethos to look at – actually, two. According to Aristotle, there are three elements of ethos; goodwill toward the audience, good sense, and good moral character.

For this post, let’s examine the idea of conveying “good sense” through your writing, and thus building your ethos in your audience’s eyes, and improving the likelihood you’ll achieve your purpose.

To convey “good sense” you can think about two things.
1) You want to show yourself to have common sense and logical thinking. This may mean that you consider explaining the “why” to some of the points you bring up in a message, and those explanations should be sensible to the average person.
2) You want to show that your decisions and ideas are well-informed. You want to show you understand the context around the topic you are discussing, that you are well-read or knowledgeable about the things you are discussing.

Here are a few simple ways you could take the more specific idea of “good sense” of the appeal to ethos and put it to work in your business communication:

  • When communicating to your team about something that needs to be done at work, take a moment to add the word “because” and include your reasoning. This shows your team members that you are the type of person who thinks through things logically and can communicate them, thus improving your ethos.

  • Make sure your reasoning demonstrates good logic in the eyes of your readers. For instance, if you are in a management position and you are writing to new employees, you might consider whether you are only communicating good reasons from a management perspective, or if they are good reasons from a new employee perspective, too. Considering this and making sure your reasons are sensible to your readers will impact whether they see you as having good sense. Remember that Aristotle’s appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos are also called “audience appeals,” so they are centered on attending to your readers.

  • When you do bring up reasons, consider whether you can indicate where you got your information. This doesn’t mean that you need to do extensive library research before sending an email at work, but if you did pick up some information from a recent meeting you had with an important client or from a business-focused podcast you listen to, it can make a difference in your credibility if you mention that when you bring up the information you learned. This can show that your knowledge is formed from many good sources, not just personal experience.

  • Show you understand the context. If you are addressing an issue at work, a task that needs to be completed, or looking ahead to something coming down the pike, frame your message as one that directly ties to and addresses that particular thing. If there have been problems or setbacks or new discoveries that have impacted the thing you are writing about, showing you understand those within your message can not only help you show your readers you are knowledgeable about the situation, but can also provide valuable framing so they know why you are writing and what you are trying to address.

Good luck writers, and go make good sense!

There is more to "ethos" than you may think

Often in business communication, we think about ethos, one of the three artistic proofs Aristotle talked about in his famous work On Rhetoric (quick refresher: the other two being logos and pathos).  We hear people talk about a company’s ethos in the eyes of the public, or a manager’s ethos as part of being a strong leader.

We often simplify ethos to be translated to one word: “credible.” Most would say ethos is simply about appealing to an audience by demonstrating that you, the communicator, are credible, and that means your message is more persuasive to the audience. I guarantee if you ask several people at your workplace what “ethos” means, most of them will answer “credible” or “credibility” and stop there. Go ahead, you can try it. 
This interpretation of ethos as "credible" means, unfortunately, that we miss some more nuanced and important aspects of what it means to appeal to ethos.
While credibility is a piece of ethos, it does not capture Aristotle’s full definition of ethos.  According to Aristotle, there are three aspects of ethos: the communicator demonstrating good sense, good moral character, and goodwill toward the audience. As a reader, you might argue, “Yeah, and put those together and a communicator comes across as more credible.” You would be right, which is why credibility is a fine (basic) understanding of ethos. But today, let’s look more closely at just one of the ways Aristotle says one could appeal to ethos--demonstrating goodwill toward the audience.
This particular piece of ethos is one that is important to examine because of the relationship between communicator and audience is a little more complicated than we might first understand. Often, when we think of ethos, we think of the audience as assessing the communicator as either a credible person or not...but this aspect of appealing to ethos shows us how important it is for the communicator to first assess the audience and how the goal of this message can be beneficial for them…and then to express that (note the emphasis on actually expressing it, not just thinking it), therefore showing the communicator cares about the well-being of the audience and wants what is best for them. Some would say there are simpler ways to put this, perhaps simply asking yourself “what’s in it for them?” or “what’s the takeaway?” or, classically, “help me help you.”  
But I think demonstrating goodwill toward your audience is deeper than that. It isn't about a quick tagline or takeaway. It is shifting as a communicator from constant “me” thinking as the communicator to “you” thinking about the audience…and I don’t just mean in the big presentations or publications, but in the little ways we communicate daily in the workplace.
What would it look like if you tried to shift appealing to ethos to not simply being a blanket term of “credibility,” but an exercise in considering how what you want to get across as the communicator will actually impact and potentially benefit the audience? How could you demonstrate to your colleagues, boss, or clients that you are the type of person who considers them frequently, and how your efforts at work in some way benefits them?
Imagine sending a reminder out for a company meeting and instead of listing the “business we need to cover” you emphasize the ways the content of this meeting will help your colleagues with specific tasks coming up. Or imagine emailing a client to request that they send those documents but instead of making the message all about what you need from them, you point out the things you’ll be able to accomplish with those documents that will help that client.
Do you think that would have a positive impact not just on the effectiveness of your message, but maybe their view of you, period?

Try it for a week, and let us know your results.

Should I put this in writing?

Recently, I've had a number of conversations that have been the result of serious miscommunications that occurred via email. I wrote an email and someone misinterpreted it, which led to that person writing something I didn't agree with and sending it to a lot of people, which led to me writing to an even bigger group of people, which led to the other person retaliating, which led to me retaliating. The spiral was out of control. And the problem? We were two people who had never met.

Writing is a tricky, slithery kind of communication in that we can't "hear" it. Imagine a simple sentence. For example,

"I'm going to the store."

A mom might tell her kids after school to find out what they want for dinner. Or a girlfriend might passive-aggressively tell her boyfriend who never pays for food or takes her out to dinner. Or a roommate might say to another roommate, rolling his eyes and ending another lengthy diatribe on current U.S. politics. 

Thinking about the audience and the context, hopefully, changes how you hear that sentence in your head. It sounds different in each situation. But without a full understanding of that situation, if you don't know the person writing it or the circumstances they are responding to, it can be hard to "hear" the tone of the sentence.

Because we can't "hear" the tone of the sentence in writing as clearly, we rely on other signals to understand how information is intended. That accessory information includes formatting like greetings and closings and grammar like commas and periods and apostrophes. But those accessories can only do so much.

Our bodies are able to provide a lot of information that words simply can't: tone of voice indicates whether you are inviting or controlling or being annoyed, facial expressions and posture reveal your emotional and attentive state, gestures create emphasis and visually represent concepts, even eye contact (whether or not you make it) and breath can suggest emotion.

If you don't know the person to whom you are writing or whose messages you are reading, it can be hard to fill in all that supplemental information from just the words on the page. We try to imbue the word choice with meaning, called connotation, and use the punctuation to indicate breath and changes in tone, but these tools are limited. 

In the following circumstances, consider carefully whether a written message is the most effective means of communication:

  • you do not know the person you need to communicate with

  • the content of your message may trigger some emotional response

  • the content of your message is complicated

If any one of these is true, writing may not be the best means of communication. And if all three of them are true, then you shouldn't even have to ask.

Is this about me...or you? Author, audience, and purpose in writing

Recently my students had an assignment to locate a job posting and craft the fitting letter to apply for it, then turn it in for feedback. Once I collected them, I saw one student do something kind of surprising from a rhetorical viewpoint in the opening of the letter, and I thought, “Huh, that is a strange choice,” then I wrote some feedback on it, and moved on.

Then I saw another student make the same choice.
And another.
And another.
I ended up writing feedback on this particular choice numerous times as I graded 48 application letters.
The choice the students were making was to open their letters with a statement that was some variation of “this position would really be perfect for me because…”
Basically, this reads as “this job will work for ME. It’s not about you, and what you need for this position, and how I can fulfill that, but I am applying because it meets MY needs.” That didn't translate to me as a logical reason for why the employer would want to give the person the job.
You may be able to guess that the comment I was repeatedly writing was some variation of, “Remember your audience – you are trying to convince them that you are right for them, not the other way around.”

In short, “it’s not all about you here.”
But this got me to thinking about how well we pay attention to the purpose and the audience when we write. Do they impact our writing in some areas, but not in others? Why is that?
I think we automatically know that something like a cover letter is supposed to be a sort of advertisement of the self, a persuasive piece of writing to try to show the audience you are “right for the job.” Yet, even though the bulk of their letters showed awareness of that, at the sentence level, my students repeatedly lost sight of that. I felt that opening a letter in that way could be enough for the recruiter to get a particular impression of the applicant. (That is, an impression that wouldn’t help them land the job. Muttering "Millennials" and doing an eye roll was my immediate guess of the recruiter's response. Nobody wants that.)
As the writer of any text—and we’re all writers, every day—it’s important to consider what evaluations and expectations you have in your head as the author. In this case, my students were thinking that they wanted a job or scholarship that was particularly fitting for them and their needs. They thought about why it  would be suitable for them – their skills, their goals, their experience, etc. Those are appropriate things for the author to think about before selecting a job or scholarship and applying for it.
However, once it is time to write, a shift must occur to consider the evaluations and expectations that the audience members will have in their heads. Also, what purpose is the writing supposed to achieve? Are you trying to inform or persuade them or entertain them or something else? In this case, the students lost sight—in brief moments in their letters, but in enough moments for it to matter—of the purpose to persuade the audience that they are going to be the perfect person for the job and that their skills or goals will fulfill the audience’s needs, rather than the other way around.
Tweaking the sentence from something like “This job would be perfect for me because…” to something like “I can help achieve the company’s goals for this position because...” would shift the writing from being “me centered” to being more audience and purpose centered.
These choices matter on the sentence-level, whether they are in something as scrutinized as a cover letter or even in emails to clients or colleagues.