Apr 05 2019
Are you making these 5 mistakes in your business writing?

We all make mistakes. But some errors appear time after time in business reports, emails, letters and job applications.

Does it matter?

The simple answer is that yes, it does. Writing is all about communication, and how we say things in the business environment is at least as important as the message itself. Much more so than at school and university.

Grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes jar with many readers. They can give the impression the writer (and the company they represent) is sloppy, ignorant, or simply doesn’t care. They undermine your message and damage your credibility.

In this article, we’ve drawn on the experience of our specialist writing trainers who work with clients from all industries and sectors. Here are five of the most common mistakes and inconsistencies that irritate readers so you can avoid them in your own writing.

1. Too many capital letters

Overuse of capitals makes a document hard to read. Instead of highlighting certain words, the effect is just overwhelming.

The following words normally start with a capital letter:

  • the first word at the start of a sentence
  • proper nouns (names, places and organisations, like Janet Smith, Cardiff, British Airways)
  • days of the week, months of the year, holidays (Monday, July, Easter) but not seasons
  • registered trademarks (Kleenex, Persil)
  • abbreviations of words with capitals (CEO, MP)
  • the personal pronoun ‘I’

Beyond these, it’s often a matter of preference – even job titles, bullet points and publications may or may not use capitals these days. The trend in business writing is to use fewer capitals, so if in doubt, don’t.

In any case, try to be consistent within your document. Use a published style guide such as The Guardian’s https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a for reference. If you don’t have one already, create a house style guide to make sure everyone in your own team uses capitals in the same way.

2. Misused words

Some words sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings like there/their/they’re and two/too/to.

They are common mistakes because spellchecker doesn’t always pick them up. Other examples include advice/advise, lose/loose, affect/effect and practise/practice. See for https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/usage/commonly-confused-words for a comprehensive list.

If you tend to misuse certain words at work, keep your own list to hand. Use the ‘find’ function on your toolbar to check you’ve used them correctly in your document once it’s finished.

3. Jargon and abbreviations

When we ask clients what annoys them most about what they read at work, jargon and abbreviations are always near the top of the list.

Remember – the words you use at work every day are not always common knowledge outside your office. Be particularly careful with management speak and buzzwords. Terms like ‘blue-sky thinking’, ‘ball-park figure’ and ‘conversate’ go out of fashion quickly and irritate readers. You may have your own pet hates.

We also recommend you avoid using Latin terms and abbreviations like e.g., i.e. and ‘ex-gratia’. Even if you know what they mean, in our experience, many readers don’t.

4. Number and date formats

The general guideline is to spell out the numbers one to nine, then switch to numeric figures when you get to 10 or more. For example, there are nine tables in the room and 12 delegates.

There are many exceptions to this guideline. Avoid starting sentences with a numeric figure, but use figures with units of measurement and currency (5 miles, £5). Check your style guide for others.

Most UK organisations now use a standard date format: 1 January 2019. Not 1st of January, or 1 Jan, or 1/1/2019, unless you’re unavoidably limited on space (in a table for example). Again, these are guidelines rather than rules, so check your style guide. At the very least, be consistent in your document or it will look scrappy.

5. Comma splice

You can’t join independent clauses in a single sentence with a comma. Commas aren’t sticky. Use a conjunction (a joining word like ‘and’ or ‘but’), a semicolon, dash or a full stop.

Comma splice: This special offer is for a limited time only, you must order by 5 June.

Corrected: This special offer is for a limited time only. You must order by 5 June.

If you check your writing against the five errors above, we can’t guarantee your document will be perfect. But you’ll have avoided some of the most common pitfalls that aren’t always picked up by grammar checking software.

Are you looking to upgrade your writing skills? See our Business Writing Skills course for a full range of techniques, tools and tips to improve all your business documents.

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