It's not everything has been said; it's everyone has not said it.
--Will Rogers, famous American humorist


I am indebted to current and former students for many of the examples on this web site.

Gunning's Principles Drive All Kinds of Writing

When you are looking for the secrets of good writing, explore the thinking of Robert Gunning, a pioneer in business communication. In the late 1950s he wrote a landmark book, The Technique of Clear Writing, later revised in 1968. Most of his principles are found in major business communication textbooks. They may not be enunciated the same way Gunning spoke the concept, but the principles are just as valid today. In Gunning's original book he devoted a chapter to each principle. The principles include:

  1. Keep sentences short.

    Think about: That principle means keeping your sentences, on average, to 15-20 words. Use a rule of thumb to only have two keyboarded lines of writing for your sentence. Use only one idea in a sentence. Consider these points when you write a sentence. In Elizabethan Times (Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I)an average sentence ran 40-60 words long. Those English believed in being flowery. In the 1900s when more letters were written than today, the average sentence ran about 20 words long. Now, we expect to see a sentence 12-17 words. One can speculate what the average sentence in an e-mail now ranges. Anyhow, keep those sentences short.

    In a recent book,The Manager's Guide to Business Writing(McGraw-Hill, 1999), by Suzanne D. Sparks, she details the percent of readers touched by the number of words in a sentence. Ms. Sparks teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in public relations as well as advertising. Her ideas came from a publication called Communication Briefings.

    Based on Ms. Sparks' column setups, I will divide the average length and percent of readers reached into two columns:
    Average Length
    Up to eight words 11 words 17 words 21 words 25 words 29 words and up
    Readers Reached
    90% 86% 75% 40% 24% 4.5%

  2. Prefer the simple to the complex.

    Go for simplicity in writing with simple words and simple ideas. The KISS PRINCIPLE, Keep It Simple and Straightforward, works for this idea.

  3. Prefer the familiar word.

    Look for concrete words, not abstract ideas. Remember our discussion in class where we talked about the term, megahertz? That is an abstract idea that needs to be culled into speed and relationship of memory. Now, the person has some comprehension of the familiar word. Try a little experiment. Write on the left column of a blank sheet 10 abstract words, such as cat, dog, and teacher. Then, on the right column write the concrete equivalents of these words, such as the names of the cat, dog, and professor. Concrete provides meaning to you and the reader. We need to know which cat, dog, or teacher you are talking about. You have now experienced the meaning of this principle.

  4. Avoid unnecessary words.

    Think of unnecessary words as redundancies. We often say: "in the field of accounting" when we mean to say "in accounting." When you leave the word, the, out of a sentence, you are following the dictates of this fourth principle.

  5. Put action in your verbs.

    So much of our discussion in class revolves around avoiding any form of the verb, "to be." You want to avoid sentences with the only verb being is, was, am, been, and are. Look for strong, active verbs that drive the sentence. The secret to good business writing uses strong verbs. Strong verbs work in resume, and they work well in memos and e-mail. Some examples of action verbs follow:

    The new grant will fund a full-time student scholarship.
    He described the pleasure he would receive on a cold night from the fireplace.

  6. Write like you talk (or . . . a little better than you talk).

    Create a friendly, warm tone when you write. Sound conversational. Punch the words as if you are talking to the person.

  7. Use terms your reader can picture.

    One of my students called this principle "the vision" principle. The student is right; you want your reader to picture clearly what you are saying. Can the reader picture a job, an office, or a workload? Put the reader in the picture. To achieve a conversational and visionary tone, look at the following example:

    I reassured the visitor he would be able to pay the rent.

    Did you notice it is easy to picture "visitor" and "rent"?

  8. Tie in with your reader's experience.

    To a degree, this principle means the "you attitude." You don't always have to use the word, you, to tie in with the reader's experience. What does your reader want to hear? Have you shared thoughts the reader wants to consider? As Gunning phrased in his revised edition, you want the reader to believe, remember, and act upon what you said.

    Sometimes a person just needs an ear to make a decision. Effective listening requires the greatest patience.

    Did you notice the writer tried to bring the reader into the picture without using the impersonal you? The reader's experience includes listening and its qualities. The reader can interpret the importance of effective listening. The reader is drawn into the subject matter.

  9. Make full use of variety.

    Variety means how you construct your sentences. Are all your sentences the limpid, boring subject-verb-object? Do you vary your sentences with adjective clauses, adverbial clauses, participles, and prepositional phrases as your openings? Does the reader have a chance to enjoy your writing because it is varied? A good business writer varies the sentence structures.

  10. Write to express, not impress.

    People often write to sound like machines or robots. They grind out hackneyed phrases they have heard for years. The hackneyed writer starts out: "I wish to inform you that, according to our records, your shipment has been delayed." All the reader wants to know is: "Your shipment has been delayed." Why not cull all the worthless "babblegab" from your writing? Express the ideas, not impress the readers.

Sin and Syntax Create Controversy

Constance Hale became a household word when I first spotted her name on the book, Wired Style. Her latest book, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, should make every business student stop and think. She neatly talks about grammar rules in the first of each chapter and then adds "Bones," "Flesh," and "Cardinal Sins" to the end of each chapter. In one chapter on "Nouns" she cleverly defines the seven sins of noun usage:

All these previous terms need further explanation. The "izing and wising" of words explained in a later paragraph represents a good example of sloth. Cliches are definite offenders as Ms. Hale says they "become drained of surprise and power."

Gluttony usually refers to food and the excess use of that food. Why should we say one word when five would work much better? Do you describe, as Hale points out, a drunk or someone in an intoxicated condition? You hear police officers mentioned someone expired or passed on. That could also be a euphemism. Hale lists for us some of the most gluttonous words: case, character, degree, element, instance, kind, nature, and persuasion.

We have already learned about taking the "fog" out our writing from Robert Gunning. You are interested in concrete words, not vague or wooly ones. Hale believes some advertisers and companies manufacture words as fast as they can. Government writing, according to Constance Hale, especially suffers from fog. A good example occurred with an earlier version explaining exit from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration:

Ways of exit access and the doors to exits to which they lead shall be so designed and arranged as to be clearly recognizable as such.
Can't we say the putting up of signs more simply?

Often, people want to appear more important in writing than they are. Academics are especially accused of that fault.

Know When to Use Jargon

A student recently asked me why lack of was jargon, because I bracketed the item on his paper. I explained there is a difference between jargon and cliches or overworked words. He was thinking of hackneyed expressions, not the technical jargon. As the video, Strictly Speaking, so aptly emphasized, a place exists for jargon. You can use jargon if others in your profession or occupation understand you. The problem occurs when others not in your line of work don't understand what you say. It goes back to knowing your audience. If your audience in rap music, for example, understands street jargon, use it. If your teenage friend understands certain phrases and you do, then, by all means, try the jargon.

Two kinds of jargon exist: technical and gobbledygook. Most people use the gobbledygook variety. They say, for example, in e-mail they want your input on a particular subject. Whatever happened to saying they want your idea? No one wants to speak in everyday sentences; it is easier to obfuscate the language. It is also easier to sound like a computer.

Students ask this question: When can you use jargon? You may use jargon in presentations where others understand what you are saying. Otherwise, when in doubt, write it out, or tell what the word means as you speak. You may use jargon in conversation when others appreciate your words. For example, I went to a seminar recently where ROI(return on investment), assets, retained earnings, and income statements were easily bantered about. Because the audience understood the terms, the jargon did not affect anyone adversely.

Let's Gobble through Gobbledygook

You have to remember a federal government employee came up with the term, "gobbledygook." The new author of Word Fail Me and author of Woe Is I (listed on your references), Patricia T. O'Conner, wrote a delightful guest column in The New York Times("Plainspeak: Taking the Gobble Out of Gobbledygook," The New York Times Magazine, August 22, 1999, pp. 22, 24). She is concerned business and the federal government are not paying enough attention to the simple English movement. They still believe in jargon, bureaucratese, technobabble, pomposity and gobbledygook. Even the editor of the popular Merck Manual(medical help reference) spent a year learning to write in plain English before revising the book.

Are you aware the Clinton administration even hired a clarity guru, Annetta L. Cheek, as its plain-language coordinator? Because the customers are demanding their government to be responsive, Ms. Cheek may have a chance to change people's bureaucratic thinking.

You should know about William Lutz, a Rutgers University professor who believes in plain English. He has written numerous books about Double Speak. He thinks the worst situation to change language occurs when you talk one-on-one with your accountant. I would add accountants are concerned about their language and communication skills, as evidenced by the latest documents from AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants). Are you also aware the Clinton administration gives a No Gobbledygook Award to the agency or department that produces the most readable document? The Securities and Exchange Commission through its insistence on plain English financial disclosure statements has recently won that award.

An agricultural department employee won the No Gobbledygook for this gem of clear writing for directions on stuffing a turkey:

Measure the temperature of both the turkey and stuffing. Don't just trust a pop-up indicator!
Are you ready to stuff your turkey or stuff your gobbledygook for Thanksgiving?

Circumlocutions Need Work

You are starting to sharpen your writing, Those tired, limp phrases you may have used for years need to disappear. To assist your effort, I have located an informative book called The Writer's Digest Dictionary of Concise Writing with thousands of alternatives.

Let's try some exercises to get the writing brain moving:

What is a simple word for the following:

  1. a limited number
  2. a sizable percentage of
  3. is of the opinion
  4. to a certain extent
  5. to a large degree

Idioms Make a Difference

Idioms, according to Concise Dictionary are expressions that make little sense. An idiom's meaning is frequently different from its actual meaning. Idioms, although used, often are wordy expressions that can be economically expressed. Let's try some exercises.

What is a simple word for the following expressions:

  1. as a matter of fact
  2. in a nutshell
  3. high and mighty
  4. the long and the short

Polysyllables Need Cutting

The Concise Dictionary talks about words that are too large called polysyllables. We can do without these polysyllabic words. Let's try some exercises. What is a simple word for these long words?

  1. materialize
  2. necessitate
  3. remunerate
  4. stick-to-itiveness
  5. terminate
  6. indebtedness

Weasel Words and Superfluous Adverbs Hurt in Writing

Students have asked to place on this web site ideas about words to avoid using in memos, letters, and reports. These weasel words (where all the meaning is sucked out of them) include:

Sometimes superfluous adjectives creep into our writing. For example, the phrase, loud shouting, needs some attention. If we shout, it is probably loud. Therefore, when in doubt, leave it out.

Find the Cliches Exercise

Helen Gurley Brown, the author of Sex and the Single Girl and former editor of Cosmopolitan, has recently written an excellent book for writers and editors. Her book entitled The Writer's Rules: The Power of Positive Prose--How to Create It and Get It Published provides a useful exercise on spotting cliches. As Ms. Brown suggests (p. 30), how many can you spot?

Mary is known for giving as good as she gets. When Steve, trying to get her goat, told her she was ugly as sin, she was all over him like a tent. Who did he think he was, God's gift to women? Not on your life, thought Mary. She could spot a sitting duck when she saw one, and, in this case, Steve stuck out like a sore thumb. She went after him tooth and nail, calling him every name in the book, until he finally cried uncle and slunk away with his tail between his legs, a sadder but wiser man who learned his lesson the hard way.
How did you do? Is it easier now to spot a cliche? Did you check your answers? Will you vow to avoid at all costs using cliches in your business writing?

Doublets Cause Difficulties

Edwin Newman, former NBC anchor and public broadcasting commentator, in narrating Strictly Speaking talked about how wasteful the United States was with words. Two words tend to be better than one. Ten words tend to be better than two. When you see the word, doublet, on a paper, it suggests you may be using too many words. Some writer says: "informative and interesting." Wouldn't one of these words have sufficed? The writer probably meant to say "informative" that would have sufficiently covered "interesting." Perhaps, some exercises would help the situation:

  1. The presentation experience was very enjoyable and enlightening. (Also, you have some redundancy in this sentence.)
  2. My interview with you Thursday, March 20, about business evaluation was informational and inspirational.
  3. The interview was very enlightening and informational about this job position.

    Presidential Politics May Cause Distortion

    We have been bombarded by the media with the fund-raising that went on in the White House during the last Clinton Presidential Campaign. When a recent press conference was held, the President was quoted as saying:

    No policy was changed solely (weasel word) because of a contribution.

    Look carefully at the word, solely. What did the President mean? Contributions were not the only reason the policy was changed. Contribution was only one of the criteria for changing the policy. Ah, how jargon distorts the message that may be intended. In that same political context Vice President Gore constantly referred to "no controlling legal authority" in explaining why he may have made political fund-raising calls from his office. What is a controlling legal authority? Does that mean Attorney General Janet Reno okayed the telephone calls? Does that mean that Mr. Gore checked with his legal counsel about whether the telephone calls were ethical? Again, the use of jargon may have distorted the intended message.

    Lately, we heard President Clinton testify to the Grand Jury about the Monica Lewinsky case. The word, "is," caught our attention. The President in a lawyerly style explained: "Do you mean never or has become? It all depends on what you mean by the word, is."

    Paragraphs of Buzzwords Buzz Loudly

    Dr. Michael Wunsch from Northern Arizona University offered some delightful parodies about how buzzwords are taking over our language. With his permission I quote some of the paragraphs he gave at a recent business communication conference.

    "Now that we have talked the talk and viably interfaced in a politically correct, huge attempt to jump start, kick start, downsize, rightsize, bash, or showcase something, may I have, my fellow Americans, some of your cutting-edge, walk-the-walk, super input that will hopefully debut and impact somebody's bottom line as we speak while we are on a mission to dig deeper and then move up to the next level, and beyond that, to take care of business on the information superhighway and earn bragging rights?"

    "I knew that you would turn this perceived worst-case scenario around and echo somebody by responding with "Exactly!" Let's be honest, a person doesn't have to be a rocket scientist or heart surgeon to know the big news that you are a happy camper who is cool and great, you know, despite your cautious optimism. No question, you are a warm-and-fuzzy, world-class, wave-of-the-future, state-of-the-art, high-tech, totally awesome, less-than-slow-lane, more-than-happy, user-friendly, outrageously key dude who can and will give much, much more. (In an ad, the point at which the copywriter ran out of hype!) The huge upside is that you are arguably neither a wimp nor a sucker. In my mind, I'm proactively fed up with hanging around; therefore, my agenda is that I am reactively out of here, under condition of anonymity, in an effort to put it all together to bring everybody up to speed. Let's rumble on a big-time roll at a huge 110 percent effort to make things happen at crunch time by advocating zero tolerance! There you go! Have a nice day!"

    As Bill Maher is fond of saying on Politically Incorrect, the previous information has been "satirized" for your protection. Are you convinced to be careful how you use the English language?

    Students Create Whole New Language in Applications

    To impress prospective employers, students often add some of the following phrases for maximum emphasis:

    Unfortunately, when a student commits the error of "impressing the reader" rather than expressing ideas, the message fails. The prospective employer is not impressed with what big words the student can use that proves a college education was worthwhile. When in doubt, leave it out.

    Worn-Out Phrases Irk Us

    Lately, politicians are accused of using worn-out phrases that carry little meaning. We have been hearing too much about "smoking guns." Every time something sinister is uncovered, it is called a "smoking gun." That phrase has whiskers on it from the Watergate Hearings.

    Why do spokespeople and politicians have to say "new way to office"? Office, as far as I can tell from the dictionary, is not a verb. It is used properly as a noun. Does the person mean creating an office, such as a political office."? Our language continues to deteriorate as we use nouns in place of verbs. Granted, language is a living, breathing organism, but do we have to butcher the Mother Tongue?

    Check Your Hackneyed Phrases Carefully

    Two phrases, bring to your attention and the above, need special emphasis. Why say brought to your attention when you can say "mentioned"? Why say the above statements or the below statements when you can use the word, "previous"? Think always about what you are writing. Readers are turned away by hackneyed statements that can be said simply.

    Certain Phrases Especially Irk the Reader

    Have you ever seen a piece of writing where the same, tired phrases are used again and again? Have you wondered why the writer couldn't come up with a phrase that would freshen the writing? Let's take some glaring examples:

    Awesome Continues to Irritate

    On television, the radio, and mass media, the word, "awesome," is gaining new notoriety. Everything is awesome. My younger son uses the term as if nothing else exists in the dictionary. The California 500 track in Fontana costing $110 million was referred to as awesome. A radio talk show host talked about "awesome" sums of money to stop the Tobacco interests. Michael Jordan is an awesome basketball player. The stock market has reached an awesome level of 7777. After while, the word does not have any meaning. How many awesome points can we describe. Please find another word in the dictionary or thesaurus. Use more precision in your writing and speaking.

    So Many Writers Use Early On

    Whatever happened to using one word instead of two to express an idea? You may have heard the expression, early on. The meaning should be clearer with a better phrase: in the beginning. That is still a little wordy. Could we say early for certain meanings? "Back when" creates a problem with wordiness. I guess my debate is with using early on for just early or a simpler word. Let's see how some writers have butchered the English language by insisting on the phrase, "early on."

    One travel writer in a prestigious daily newspaper insisted on this phrasing of "early on":

    "Early on, though, one of the founders, Bishop John Vincent, realized it is possible 'to insist on too many hours of Bible study each day.' "
    Two reporters writing an excellent book on current China suddenly fell into the trap of "early on":

    "A Chinese -American in China finds out very early on that she had better know exactly where her family is from."
    Why could we use the word, quickly? "A Chinese-American finds out quickly she had better know . . ." The changing of "early on" does depend on the context of the sentence.

    A fine commentator on a CBS news show recently stated: ". . . settled early on." Can we say right away or even shorten that? Why do we always need two words when one will suffice?

    A writer of military history and biographer of military leaders described a future Civil War general in the following manner:

    "What he would have done had he been exposed to able teachers early on and sent to a college without drums, drill and demerits, nobody will ever know."

    Do we need the phrase, early on? The author already talked about "had he been exposed." That suggests past experience and does not require the tacking on of "early on." Students see "early on" and start using in their writing with the following example:

    Even though it took him eight years to graduate, the signs of his ambitious attitude started early on.

    Let's Not Step Up to the Plate

    A major cabinet officer in talking about the issue of bacteria contamination in meat suggested organizations needed to step lively:

    Companies must be willing to step up to the plate . . . After a few more paragraphs, the officer continued: "Consumers have a key responsibility to step to the plate . . ."
    This must come from baseball parlance. Surely, we have hacked the phrase to death. Everyone steps up to the plate. It is fashionable now to talk about how organizations and individuals need to plant their cleats firmly on that plate. Why can't we say "step forward" or some simple phrase? Why do we have to depend on the sports world to help us express the English language clearly?

    Let's Make Everything Huge

    As we listen to wornout expressions and hackneyed thoughts, a new one has cropped up. Have you ever listened to your teenagers talking about everything being huge? A special place is reserved in conversation for "huge." You hear the expression this way: "That's huge." Does everything in life have to be enormous? Couldn't some small piece of life be considered valuable, effortless, or inconsequential? Let's not make everything "huge."

    Maybe a Problem Does Exist

    A geography colleague of mine alerted me to a cliche that is making the rounds. Instead of saying "You're Welcome" or other appropriate remarks, the phrase becomes, "no problem." I remember "no problem" as referring to the fixing of copier or computer equipment. It was hilariously used on TV for certain sitcom retorts. Now, it is overworked, according to my colleague, as a way of expressing any situation that normally has other words. Look out for your problems with "no problem."

    Let's Not Transition to Everything

    When I was going to college, people spoke of transitions to different freeways or interstates. That was fine, but the word, "transition," used appropriately as a noun has now become a verb. We need to transition to this new idea. We don't make a transition to a new idea; we "transition" to it. We don't exit or enter a new ramp from a freeway or interstate; we "transition" to it.

    Blake and Bly Exercises Need Attention

    Instructions: If you missed the in-class work from Blake and Bly's thinking, please take a sheet of notebook paper and divide in half. I will list the phrases, words, and sentences you need to place on the left hand side of the paper. You may be interested to know that Blake and Bly, The Elements of Business Writing, provided the original exercises. Do this exercise only in class, unless you are making up the work. At least two of the exercises are found in Chapter 6 of Guffey, Business Communication: Process and Product, 5th ed.. Item 2 is not shown in Blake and Bly or Guffey. Try it anyhow. Then, turn the paper in as quickly as you finish in class. You may bring the paper to class or place under my office door (if late--BB4214). Don't forget the colored folder (red for late) that is appropriate. In Elements of Business Writing several major rules are stressed by Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly: